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BEAVER, Pa.—Pennsylvania is more a nation than a state, less a state than a confederation. Political science is wasted on the place because, just when the numbers are in and the formulas calculated, truculent locals do what they want in spite of themselves.
The old recipe worked this way: Philadelphia and western Pennsylvania would vote for whatever Democrat was on the ballot. This vote would be countered by Republican suburbs in four counties bordering Philly and by a rural, Republican "T" that comprised the counties in the state's center and stretched across its northern tier. This gave undecided voters powers bordering on the occult, and candidates appealed to them with the caution of a sinner creeping up on John the Baptist.
Pennsylvania's Democrats and Republicans were, at times, indistinguishable from one another. Democrats took care to wave the flag, preferably from the barrel of a hunting rifle pointed at an abortion clinic. Republicans courted labor unions and rarely engaged in the kind of Jesus jingoism practiced by their counterparts in other states.
All in all, this is a state whose politics are far middle and trending inward.
That middle-road extremism causes a few weird hostage trades as the parties overlap. Consider Jason Colangelo, who was in the crowd at a Sarah Palin rally last week, howling loudly for the heads of the Democrats—and all but begging me not to tell his father that he's voting Republican.
"The word Republican was a swear word in my house," he said, first giving his name as Jason Christopher before his sister Tami ratted him out.
Jason is fed up. He sees Barack Obama as an elitist with dubious flag cred. He was so infuriated at Rep. John Murtha's fierce criticism of Marines implicated in a massacre at Haditha, Iraq, that he vowed not to vote for him. I had to point out that Jason lives in the 4th Congressional District. Murtha represents the 12th.
Obama has a double-digit lead in almost every statewide poll, and cross-tabs from the polls pretty much show the state's east, especially the Philadelphia region, heavily favoring Obama. The center and north-central parts of the state are predictably McCain. In the west, where striking steelworkers once turned an old Civil War cannon on Pinkerton guards and angry farmers staged a rebellion against a tax on whiskey that had to be put down by the new federal government, a Survey USA poll shows Obama at 49 percent and John McCain at 46 percent.
That's nowhere near the reality of the registration figures. Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat who is skilled at spotting the landmines before running onto the battlefield, predicts that the western counties outside Allegheny—home to Pittsburgh—could easily tip to the GOP altogether.
This shift in the state's west was mirrored four years ago by a surprise in the four Republican counties adjacent to Philadelphia. Once depended upon to offset 6-to-1 vote margins for the Democrats in Philly, three of the suburban counties went for John Kerry. Republican women in those counties, economic conservatives but social liberals, ditched the GOP over abortion.
In many ways, those Republican women are the mirror image of western Pennsylvania Democrats, who four years ago leaned Republican so hard that counties such as Cambria and Greene tipped into the GOP column for the first time since George McGovern scared the blue out of their collars in 1972. Beaver County, which by registration is 2-to-1 Democrat, gave Kerry a scant 51 percent.
"These are inherently conservative areas that are a little bit, I suspect, skeptical about Obama," says Dick Thornburgh, the former governor and attorney general who hails from Pittsburgh. That skepticism, he cautions, is "not that they're against him so much, but they really don't know quite where he's going to lead the country."
This sense of edging gently into—or away from—the unknown is fundamental in how Pennsylvania moves: like a glacier heading into a cliff. You will, if you live long enough to witness it, see a cataclysmic shift. Your grandchildren might see the next.
In 1991, Thornburgh saw Republican counties switch to Democrat Harris Wofford, the wonky academic who defeated Thornburgh in a special Senate election to replace middle-road Republican John Heinz. That loss presaged President George H.W. Bush's defeat a year later, both in Pennsylvania and nationally.
Something's up this year, too—and it could mean a final revision of how Pennsylvania is read.
Philadelphia and its once-Republican suburbs have become Barack Obama's new address. McCain and Sarah Palin, who know they need to strip away one of Obama's leaner states to carry off an electoral majority, have been prowling the fields and mountains of western Pennsylvania like Elmer Fudd on the first day of rabbit season.
It is hard to tell if this is going to make any difference. In theory, peeling the state out of Obama's grasp by luring its western voters might work. But those voters trended Republican last time for a singular reason.