Barack, Hillary, Meet Pennsylvania

A campaign blog.
March 5 2008 3:44 PM

Barack, Hillary, Meet Pennsylvania

March 4 is barely gone, and already Pennsylvania is the new Iowa . Translation: For the next six weeks, stat-happy media will lay the state out on a dissection table and poke its innards. So, to pre-empt this information glut, here’s a rundown of what the state looks like—its demographics, its geography, and how these factors might affect the outcome on April 22.

Like Ohio, but different. Pennsylvania is really three states. Off to the West, you have the large, heavily Democratic Pittsburgh, which looks more like a Midwestern city than an East Coast enclave. Like Ohio, Pittsburgh and much of western Pennsylvania is largely blue-collar and has therefore been hit hard by NAFTA. So look for that issue to dog Obama through April. Also like Ohio, western Pennsylvania has a strong union presence. Despite Obama's strength in cities, Pittsburgh's working-class whites are likely to swing the region toward Clinton.

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On the other side of the state, you’ve got a bona fide liberal city in Philadelphia. With its mix of college students and African-Americans, Philly is more like New York and Atlanta than Midwestern cities like Columbus. It seems like a natural fit for Obama—blacks make up 43 percent of the city's population, as opposed to only 27 percent of Pittsburgh's—but keep in mind that cities in New York state and New Jersey gave Clinton their blessing.

Then, in the middle of the state, there’s the wide-open, rural areas that trend Republican. (The state’s two coasts and its middle are always struggling for dominance; hence its "swing state" status.) The boonies aren't particularly delegate-rich for Dems, but Obama could pick up a few extra votes with his red-state mojo. The candidates will also focus on the burgeoning suburbs surrounding Philly and Pittsburgh, which, thanks to an influx of immigrants and an exodus from the cities, are trending more Democratic than in the past.

Who lives there? The state’s demographics are nearly identical to Ohio’s . Pennsylvania is 86 percent white, compared to Ohio’s 85 percent. Same with its African-American population: 10 percent compared to Ohio’s 12 percent. It’s hard to say exactly how this population is distributed among Democrats, since there were no exit polls conducted in Pennsylvania in 2004. But Ohio exit polls show that 18 percent of Democratic voters were African-American, and that could be an indicator for Pennsylvania’s black turnout.

The state’s Hispanic population, meanwhile, was twice that of Ohio in 2006, percentage-wise. It has also increased over the past several years, which could give Clinton yet another boost. But that demographic doesn’t break down neatly, given that many of the state’s Latinos are relatively well-off . Obama did better than expected among Latinos in Arizona and New Mexico—Pennsylvania's might drift toward him as well.

What do the neighbors think? It’s instructive to look at how counties that border Pennsylvania voted in this year’s primaries. Pennsylvania borders six states —three of them went for Clinton (Ohio, New York, New Jersey), two of them swung toward Obama (Maryland, Delaware) and one of them (West Virginia) doesn’t vote till May.

In New York, the southwest counties that border Pennsylvania went overwhelmingly for Clinton, mostly by a margin of 30 points. You see similar results in the counties along Ohio’s eastern border.

The results are more mixed in New Jersey. Sussex County in the north and Gloucester County in the south swung for Hillary. But when you look at the swath of counties surrounding Philadelphia (Hunterdon, Mercer, Somerset), those areas voted for Obama. Like Jersey, Maryland’s border is ambivalent. The western panhandle favored Clinton, but, further east, Frederick and Baltimore counties favored Obama. That said, Baltimore’s influence isn’t likely to carry over into Pennsylvania.

Overall, if bordering counties are any indicator, Clinton is the clear fave.

The system. Pennsylvania holds a closed primary, meaning that Obama won’t benefit from the votes of independents and Republicans who might otherwise vote in the GOP race. This helps Clinton, given her strength among party faithful . Also, Pennsylvania doesn’t have any of that caucus nonsense .

Endorsement watch. Clinton has 13 of the state’s superdelegates, compared to Obama’s four, with nine still undecided. Among them, Clinton won the endorsement of Pennsylvania’s governor, Ed Rendell, who, while perhaps not the state’s most important endorser, is certainly the loudest. Six weeks is a long time, during which he could also stick his foot in his mouth, as he did when he told the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that white people wouldn’t vote for a black person . And while Obama is strong in cities, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter endorsed Clinton back in December.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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