Is Kerry going to lose Pennsylvania, too?

A guide to the swing states.
Sept. 20 2004 2:29 PM

Pennsylvania

Is Kerry going to blow it here, too?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

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.

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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.

Pennsylvanians are proudly military and fiercely blue-collar, although most of the mining and manufacturing jobs are long gone. Not even Bush's protectionist tariffs could save Bethlehem Steel, whose three-milelong millworks still stands, like the mother cathedral of some conquered religion. The Iraq war and the flagging economy aren't just pollsters' abstractions here: They're facts of daily life. Our friends drive an hour to work at bad jobs; our neighbors' kids got sent to Baghdad.

If you're President Bush, this is not a good thing. The discontent with his administration was running so high here in central Pennsyltucky that, in the weeks before the GOP Convention, something strange happened: Politics broke out. All of a sudden, you started seeing Kerry-Edwards bumper stickers in the Foodland parking lot. In little towns like Manheim and East Petersburg, lawn-sign skirmishes erupted on quiet, modest streets. "Our office is absolutely besieged," said Lancaster County Democratic Chairman Bruce Beardsley.

A show of support for Kerry
A show of support for Kerry

In late July, Kerry himself actually held a rally in Harrisburg—an insurgent strike in the heart of red Pennsylvania—and an overflow crowd of almost 20,000 showed up and waited two hours on the Capitol lawn for the newly anointed challenger. "Democratic candidates for president don't come to Central Pennsylvania," crowed Gov. Rendell, "because this is where Republicans rack up their huge majorities." This time, in fact, it was Kerry's first stop after the Democratic Convention. (Pennsylvania was also Bush's first post-convention stop.)

Right up until Labor Day, Kerry sat on a six-point lead in most polls; the original headline for this piece, in fact, was going to be "Swung." The numbers looked grim for the president. According to the August Keystone poll, 11 percent of his 2000 voters now said they were voting Kerry; one-third of Howard Stern's substantial Pennsylvania audience (in the Pittsburgh, Philly, and Harrisburg markets) said he'd persuaded them to switch from Bush to Kerry. (Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have more listeners statewide, but as Keystone pollster Terry Madonna notes, "Their audience is already on their side.") Even in the middle of the state, Bush was barely polling above 50 percent. But Kerry's numbers stayed weak. People weren't swinging; they were waiting—for a reason to vote for one side or the other. Unfortunately for Kerry, he hasn't been able to give them one.

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Lately it seems like the candidates just won't leave us alone. Every other day, one or the other comes "barnstorming" through our innocent state. "It's almost like a race for city council," says Josh Wilson, political director for the state Republican committee. In one week in early September, Bush hit Bucks County and Johnstown, Kerry held a rally in Allentown, in the Lehigh Valley, and Teresa swooped through Harrisburg and Lancaster.

A rare sight: "Now Hiring"
A rare sight: "Now Hiring"

This is the one state where Tuh-Ray-Zuh might be a plus for Kerry: Her foundations have funded much of Pittsburgh's civic renaissance, and her affection for her adopted state is obvious. But Pennsylvania is also a state where Dick Cheney actually seems to help the president, as I see for myself one day in late August. I drive north into the mountains, leaving the prosperous farmlands of south-central PA for the hard anthracite ridges of Appalachia. This is Deer Hunter country, where the POW/MIA flag flutters over war memorials in town squares. Newspaper reporters always call this area "depressed," but it's really just sad. Along the Schuylkill River, I pass through dead and dying mill towns unredeemed (as native son John Updike has noted) by any sort of charm. On the other hand, one local coal mine displays an actual "Now Hiring" sign.

I end up in Pottsville, home to Yuengling, America's oldest surviving brewery, and the Crimson Tide of Pottsville Area High School, whose gymnasium is packed with more than 2,000 prosperous-looking Republicans. No president or vice president has visited Pottsville since 1960, but Cheney is about to fix that. The concrete, semi-underground, undisclosed-location-like basketball gym is humid with excitement.

The reporters sit politely at the back, behind a velvet cordon watched over by an icy blond operative; when her attention is diverted for a moment, I slip away and melt into the buttoned-down scrum in front of the stage. The old folks are sitting in the bleachers while the women have drifted to the back of the room; up here, in the mosh pit, the overwhelming demographic is white and male and ages 30 to 50. Dick Cheney isn't just the veep; here, he's a fashion icon. So we stand, waiting, our arms folded and our pink faces shaved, pretending not to ogle the Crimson Tide's excitable cheerleaders, who are on a riser stage left.

Now it's Dick's turn. He takes his place at the lecturn, opens a black binder, and proceeds to deliver the exact same corrosive stump speech he's been giving for two months: how he, like John Edwards, got his job for being "sexy" and having "great hair." How John Kerry "voted for [the $87 billion for Iraq] before he voted against it." The whole "sensitive" war on terror riff. At one point he says, "Sen. Kennedy—excuse me, I get them confused sometimes ... "

Locking up the middle-aged white guy vote
Locking up the middle-aged white guy vote

His speech is not just tired; it's practically been embalmed. And yet the guy next to me is going nuts. His name is Pete, and he drove an hour to be here. He's wearing a tie, too, so he's clearly got someplace else to go on a Wednesday afternoon, like a job. (In fact, he's the executive director of a local theater group, which must make for some interesting office conversations.) To each Cheney line, no matter how tired, Pete lets out a "Whooooo!"

Bill Gifford has written for Outside, Wired, Men's Health, and other magazines. He is working on a book about the future of medicine.