A Quick Guide to the Pennsylvania Primary

Welcome to Pennsylvania, where polls are coming out so fast there will undoubtedly be a new batch by the time you finish reading this article. Pennsylvania hasn't played a pivotal part in a presidential primary since Jimmy Carter's nomination in 1976. For 32 years Pennsylvanians have waited for the eyes of the nation and the ensuing media frenzy to return; in this primary, they're making the most of their opportunity. And with Senators Obama and Clinton crisscrossing the state in what has become a surprisingly tight battle, Pennsylvania and its 158 delegates could regain keystone status.

"The Democratic Party here is more energized today than it's ever been," said Abe Amoros, executive director of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. According to Pennsylvania's Bureau of Elections, there are now 4.1 million Democrats in the state, an increase of 11 percent since 2004. That gives Democrats a whopping 50 percent of the state's 8.2 million voters -- a new record. (Republican numbers, by contrast, have plummeted to below 39 percent.) In the week prior to the March 24 voter registration deadline alone, over 33,000 new voters registered as Democrats and another 46,000 changed their registration to the party (bringing the number of reregistered Democrats to over 156,000).

To Amoros, the reasons for this dramatic rise in voters are threefold: the war in Iraq, skyrocketing fuel prices, and Bush's failed economic policies. These factors explain why Democrats outnumber Republicans statewide by more than 825,000 voters. Above all, claimed Amoros, "Democrats, Republicans, and Independents are NOT looking for a third Bush term in Sen. McCain." But while dissatisfaction with the Bush administration (and its heir apparent, John McCain) is obvious from looking at voter registration, what is less clear is which candidate these newly empowered Democrats will back come April 22. Since Pennsylvania is a closed primary and Obama generally performs better among Independent voters, new voters are likely to be Obama supporters. But can the senator from Illinois really win in a state that is predominantly white, Catholic and working class?

A primary concern

Less than a month ago, Clinton held a commanding 17-point average lead over Obama in Pennsylvania, according to Real Clear Politics polling data. When I sat down with Open Left blogger and Philadelphia ward member Chris Bowers a few weeks ago, that lead had dwindled to 7.2 (it's at 5.9 percent currently). "There's a clear Obama trend going on in the state," Bowers told me. "It's very reminiscent of a lot states before Super Tuesday like South Carolina, as well as Texas and Ohio, where Obama made up a lot of ground."

In just this month, Quinnipiac Polls have shown Clinton's lead over Obama narrowing from 50-41 to 51-44 percent in Pennsylvania. "Obama's knocking on the door," said Clay Richards, Quinnipiac's assistant director. According to Quinnipiac, Clinton is losing ground on the economy, which is the No. 1 issue for Pennsylvanians, followed distantly by the Iraq war and health care. Her recent Bosnia sniper fire flap has also caused her to lose trustworthiness points.

Though Obama is polling better among women voters in general throughout the state, Scott Rasmussen of Rasmussen Polls said he would be stunned if Clinton didn't win hands-down when it comes to both women and white working-class voters this Tuesday. But Rasmussen also pointed out that the reason we're seeing polls inching along instead of spiking dramatically is because of the six-week lull between the Mississippi and Pennsylvania primaries.

Both Richards and Rasmussen attributed Obama's recent uptick in the polls to the record-setting $2.2 million he's spent per week in statewide advertising, outspending Hillary by a factor of 3 or 4. Ads like the one in which Obama talks intimately with a small roomful of middle-aged voters about tackling the pharmaceutical industry ("I don't want to learn how to play the game better, I want to put an end to the game playing.") have given him more familiarity among Pennsylvania voters, who until recently, were better acquainted with Clinton.

But Bowers also pointed to Obama's organizational advantage, which is roughly 3-2 in terms of volunteers and activists. "One thing I think you're seeing in the Obama campaign that you haven't seen before -- even in the Dean campaign," said Bowers, "is that all of the online tools to get people more involved all work."

While Bowers didn't presume to know why Clinton has been unable to capitalize off Internet fundraising the way Obama has (the Clinton campaign denied repeated interview requests), he suggested the disparity is due to the institutional culture surrounding the Clintons and their staff. "That's a little ridiculous to say," Bowers laughed, "since Bill Clinton was president only eight years ago. But the Clinton campaign is not as amenable to grassroots activism or small donors." Indeed, the advent of online advocacy groups beginning with MoveOn.org in 1998 (which endorsed Obama this year and which was the subject of Hillary's recently discovered disparaging remarks) irrevocably altered the election playing field. According to ABC News, Obama raised $40 million in March alone -- twice as much as Clinton -- with the majority of his million-plus donors contributing online. In total, donors who have given less than $200 account for about half of Obama's $240 million raised.

"Obama's been able to capture the hearts and minds of progressives," said Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy, who is also Obama's state chair. "What's more, he's been able to mobilize them like never before." Murphy represents Pennsylvania's 8th Congressional District, which is in the Philly suburb of Bucks County. When Murphy first ran for Congress in 2006, there were approximately 25,000 more Republicans than Democrats. Today, Democrats outnumber Republicans there by about 3,000. The Philadelphia area is considered to be solidly behind Obama, despite the fact that Philly's newly elected mayor, Michael Nutter, along with Gov. (and former Philly mayor) Ed Rendell have been stomping for Clinton.

Keystone, not kingmaker

Even if Obama soundly wins a wide swathe of southeastern Pennsylvania, he will still face a stiff challenge from white working-class Democrats throughout the remainder of the state. Gaining the endorsement from the socially conservative Sen. Bob Casey was a boon for Obama, no question, and his six-day bus tour through the central and western part of the state illustrated his hopes of prying these so-called Reagan Democrats away from Clinton. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that the race for the nomination will end this Tuesday. Chances are Obama will win neither the popular vote nor enough delegates to prevent Clinton from pushing on to the Indiana and North Carolina primaries on May 6.

And while Rasmussen polls have shown that the number of Obama supporters who want Clinton to drop out of the race has jumped 16 percent in the past few weeks because they think this primary has become particularly divisive, Bowers cautions that that could be disastrous for Obama's momentum. "In terms of improving Obama's general election chances," Bowers theorized, "the key is to have Clinton drop out after an Obama win." If Clinton dropped out after winning in Pennsylvania -- let's say, due to the fact that Democratic leaders like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi pressure her to drop out -- then Obama would effectively win the nomination by backing into it, in much the same way that Walter Mondale became the nominee in 1984. And we all remember how that turned out.

Although Obama will probably not be able to seize Pennsylvania, he can still take enough delegates off the table to make it that much more difficult for Clinton to be able to reach the 2,025 magic delegate count. Obama currently leads Clinton in delegates 1,631 to 1,488 and in the popular vote by approximately 717,000. A recent analysis by Congressional Quarterly suggests that of the 103 pledged delegates that will be allocated at Pennsylvania's district level, Clinton was predicted to have a rough lead of 53 delegates to Obama's 50. The other 55 will be distributed according to the statewide popular vote. If Obama wins over 70 of Pennsylvania's 158 delegates and keeps the margin close in the popular vote, that would still be a victory of sorts for his campaign.

While Pennsylvanians may not get to play kingmaker this Tuesday, simply being part of a meaningful primary could be consolation prize enough. That might make Pennsylvania sound a bit like the little leaguer who's a winner just for playing the game, but think about it a second. It's been over 30 years since the national spotlight has shone down upon the political leanings, interests, and values of average Pennsylvanians. This primary has keyed up Keystone voters like never before. Here's hoping they stay energized through November.

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