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Ben Surtees previews Pennsylvania

March 29th, 2008

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    What can we expect from the Keystone State?

For Barack Obama the last fortnight, since his failure to decisively see-off Hillary Clinton in Ohio and Texas, has been particularly bruising. The incendiary comments of his pastor Jeremiah Wright and the remarks of Geraldine Ferraro have thrust the issue of race back to the fore of the presidential campaign. Addressing the issue with his trademark eloquence and candour on Wednesday it is still unclear what (if anything) the Illinois Senator has been able to do to redefine an increasinglyand acrimonious campaign.

On April 22nd the Democratic race, after a six week hiatus, will head to Pennsylvania and the state’s presidential primary, where over 150 delegates are at stake, the largest allocation of any state yet to vote.

Pennsylvania is a diverse state, once colourfully described by James Carville as “Pittsburgh on the West, Philadelphia on the East and Alabama down the middle” and there is some truth to this. The state is dominated by the two large urban centres of Philadelphia, dominating the Delaware valley the south east and in the south west Pittsburgh, the historic centre of the American steel industry, while in-between is a wide rural region centred around the Susquehanna valley and shaped like a ‘T’.

Reflecting Carville’s characterization of the state the two urban centres have provided the Democrats’ traditional base in the state while the rural ‘T’ has been reliably Republicans.

The Democratic primary on April 22nd will differ from many of those earlier in the cycle by being restricted to registered Democrats only. This represents a particular disadvantage for Senator Obama who has done well with independents and republicans but has typically lagged behind Senator Clinton amongst register Democrats. Hillary Clinton also enjoys further advantages in the state, older, blue collar democrats, who have typically backed the New York Senator by wide margins over Obama, dominate the electorate while the state’s Democratic establishment is firmly supporting her campaign. Consequently, going into the Pennsylvania primary, Hillary Clinton enjoys massive structural, organisation and demographic advantages over Barack Obama.

That said, Obama still stands to pull off a strong showing in Pennsylvania, despite Senator Clinton’s obvious advantages. Despite the strong institutional support for Clinton, Philadelphia’s large black community is likely back Obama very strongly. Furthermore the prosperous Philadelphia suburbs could also provide a good base for Obama considering his appeal to affluent, liberal voters. The Obama campaign’s greatest challenge remains that the ‘closed’ nature of the primary disqualifies the moderate republicans and independents, upon whom much of Obama’s success has been built, from taking part. In an effort to address this, the Obama campaign has had an aggressive effort to register republicans and independents as Democrats before the deadline for such re-registration on March 25th.

Ultimately the nature of the Pennsylvania primary and the strength of the Clinton campaign in the state makes an Obama victory highly unlikely. Current the polls give Senator Clinton a commanding lead, however Obama’s past ‘form’ suggests that it would be unwise to write off his chances at narrowing the gap in the state. Perhaps most intriguingly, it will be over the next few days and weeks that we are able to properly assess the impact of the Wright controversy and Obama’s response to it. The extent to which it has seriously damaged the Illinois Senator’s candidacy or proven his resilience under pressure could, in large part, be measured by his performance in Pennsylvania in five weeks time.

Update: Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senator Bob Casey jr endorsed Obama on Friday (click on picture above to get the video), representing what is a potentially very significant boost for Obama in the state.

Casey is the son of popular, former Governor Bob Casey snr and commands an important base amongst the kind of blue-collar, culturally conservative Democrats with whom Obama has struggled in the past. On its own this endorsement doesn’t fundamentally alter the race in the state, but it gives Obama an important opening and a powerful surrogate (plus, yet another super delegate).

Ben Surtees was one of the first people to post here when the site was established in 2004.






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