Is Kerry going to blow it here, too?
If you think it might be cool or fun to live in a swing state, where your vote actually matters and candidates pander shamelessly to you—well, it is, sort of. Or rather, it used to be. But it also has its drawbacks, as I realized the other day when I found myself lying on my own living room floor, hiding from the next-door neighbor.
He's a supremely nice guy and a friend, but he's also a Dittohead/Promise-Keeper Republican, and on this day he was braying (to another hapless Democrat neighbor) about the just-finished GOP Convention and his new hero, Zell Miller. I really wasn't in the mood.
Karmically speaking, I deserved it: Just a few weeks earlier, I'd been quietly gloating about Kerry's solid six-point lead in Pennsylvania while my Republican friends and neighbors writhed. As recently as March, the six-point lead had belonged to Bush in some polls. But he'd blown it, largely by antagonizing his base—and by provoking the wrath of Howard Stern, who has a devoted following around Philadelphia, the state's largest media market.
James Carville famously defined Pennsylvania as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between." Even if that formulation isn't strictly true—much of the state is more like Kentucky than Alabama—it still basically works. The Democrats get the big cities while the Republicans get the middle of the state. The only wild cards are the Philly suburbs, with large numbers of Republican-registered moderates and the industrial southwest, where blue-collar Democrats tend to vote Republican when nobody's looking.
But even here in "Alabama," the conservative, Christian middle of the state where I live (just north of Lancaster), things weren't looking good for Bush a couple of months ago. Down at the post office, little old ladies rolled their eyes at the mention of Bush's name. Neighbor-man's wife was threatening to vote for Ralph Nader until he got flicked off the ballot. Another neighbor, a politically active Republican lawyer, swirled his margarita and despaired: "There's just no excitement on this ticket. And they gotta get rid of Cheney!"
I nodded sympathetically.
Sure, Bush was still trying. By late July, he'd already made more than 30 trips to Pennsylvania; since then, he's visited a half-dozen more times (about twice as many as Kerry, so far). The Bush campaign has even gone so far as to try to register the Amish, who don't often concern themselves with national issues, although they do hate abortion and gay rights. Last time around, Bush surrendered the state's 21 electoral votes by a margin of 4 percent. This time, it looks like neither candidate is going to win the presidency without us. And that feels kind of good, but also kind of scary.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Pennsylvania by about 440,000 (out of 7.5 million), but there's a lot of line-crossing. Blue-collar Democrats voted for Reagan; suburban Republicans favored Al Gore. There are three religions: evangelical Christianity, old-world Catholicism, and hunting, which explains the popularity of the late Gov. Bob Casey, an anti-abortion, pro-gun Democrat.
On the Republican side, eternal Sen. Arlen Specter has more to fear from his own party than from the opposition; in April's primary, he was nearly dethroned by ultraright freako Pat Toomey. The current governor, Democrat Ed Rendell, is a Clintonian backslapper who could get elected mayor of Sadr City.
Bill Gifford has written for Outside, Wired, Men's Health, and other magazines. He is working on a book about the future of medicine.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.