The Pennsylvania Party

As the candidates are discovering, the state’s Democrats and Republicans can be hard to tell apart.

Read the rest of the Swingers series.

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.

Consider Greene County, a bituminous stretch in the southwestern corner, bordering West Virginia and sounding a lot like it. Democrats have held sway there for generations because of the coal unions. And as coal jobs vanished and sons and daughters migrated to other states for work, what remained were retirees and older workers for whom pensions and Social Security obviated any economic issues. What remained were God, guns, and gays—issues patented in the last 20 years by the Republican Party.

These issues continue to hold sway throughout post-industrial Pennsylvania. But with the economy now tanking, it would not take a great deal to get these Pennsylvanians to revert to Democratic form. Similarly, those pro-business, pro-choice women in Bucks, Montgomery, and Delaware counties near Philadelphia might worry more about Obama’s tax plans than about McCain’s promise to appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.

Add to all this economy vs. values nonsense the fact that Pennsylvania is barely a state in any sense of cohesion. Candidates running statewide must buy into multiple media markets. There is the Scranton-Wilkes Barre region, where New York TV stations and Yankees caps abound. Monroe County, a never-win for the Democrats, could be turned on its ear by the arrival of—brace yourselves—New York Democrats fleeing stratospheric housing prices.

Then there are Philadelphians, who often view themselves as their own city-state. (Writer David Bradley, when I called him for comment on an election 20 years ago, told me, “Do you know what Philadelphia thinks the state is for? The lottery.”) Erie and the northwest are as likely to tune into Cleveland or Buffalo as Pittsburgh. Central Pennsylvania breaks, both ethnically and culturally, into a couple of places, ranging from the Pennsylvania Dutch country, where Lancaster County voters have long been Republican, to isolated valley towns such as Johnstown, which exists as almost its own media market. (It is a small one.)

What Pennsylvanians have in common is their lack of commonality. And it is along those dividing lines that each campaign is hoping to work the plate tectonics of our 21 electoral votes.

Not many people see this dynamic as it is being worked out. One of the few who does is Rendell, the state’s blunt-as-a-knuckle governor and the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He pushed the Obama camp to send its candidate back into the state, at one point dispatching a tart memorandum to the campaign. Rendell knows that some Republicans in the Philly suburbs could return to the fold and that guys like Jason Colangelo could decamp from their party in anger at Obama and the charms of La Palin. Most of all, he is sufficiently unscientific enough in his politics to believe that campaigning actually gets a candidate votes, and McCain has been campaigning here like crazy.

The Republican strategy in Pennsylvania has focused largely on wooing veterans and social conservatives, trying to raise questions about Obama’s religion and Americanism, and attempting to reconnect white voters with their residual fears. They stumbled last week when Ashley Todd, a 20-year-old McCain volunteer from Texas, told police she had been mugged at a cash machine in a Pittsburgh neighborhood and that her black assailant—let’s call him Joe the Robber—flew into a rage when he saw the McCain sticker on her car. Todd said the robber held her down and scratched a “B” into her right cheek. Police noticed the “B” was carved backward, suggesting it might have been done by dyslexic assassins hired by the Democrats or, perhaps, by Miss Todd using a mirror. She ultimately confessed to a hoax.

Things did not improve the following week. State party officials fired Bryan Rudnick, a consultant, who dispatched an e-mail to 75,000 Jewish voters here invoking the risk of another Holocaust if Obama were elected. “Jewish Americans cannot afford to make the wrong decision on Tuesday,” it read. “Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake. Let’s not make a similar one this year!”

Following Obama’s Pennsylvania operation is like watching John F. Kennedy run for president using Walter Mondale’s staff. When Palin gave a speech in Pittsburgh bizarrely suggesting that Obama wanted to tax trust funds set up by families to see to the needs of their special-needs children once their parents are gone, it took all day to get an “official” response from the Obama camp. When it came, it consisted of a boilerplate denial that wandered back into the canned rhetoric about how Obama only wants to raise taxes on families taking in $250,000 a year. It was an answer so lacking in succinctness as to be useless.

The closest I got to something printable was the initial remark from Obama’s statewide spokesman, who said: “This is crazy. She’s just making stuff up.” Indeed, she was. And when I quoted him, he sent off a frantic e-mail demanding that I take down his comments because they were not the authorized, vanilla-pudding response.

Such smugness doesn’t sit well with Rendell, who operated as a human hammer on behalf of Hillary Clinton in the primary and has since dedicated himself to being the same for Obama. Looking at both the polling numbers in the west and the nonstop string of McCain-Palin visits, he sent a message to the Obama staff. “I said, ‘Forget the polls. We need you back here. We need Senator Obama here and we need President Clinton and we need Hillary here,’ ” Rendell said.

On Tuesday, Obama was in Pittsburgh. Bill Clinton was scheduled for a visit to a neighboring county. Rendell is, if nothing else, a man who knows how to read and win his state. Or even his states.