by Walter Brasch
The Clintons are patrolling Pennsylvania as if they’re border collies herding all the stray sheep into the flock.
The same day that Hillary Clinton was campaigning door to door in Scranton, Bill Clinton was in Lewisburg, Bloomsburg, and Jim Thorpe, three small rural Pennsylvania communities in three different rural northeastern counties. The day before, Chelsea Clinton was in Oregon; the day after, she was at colleges in western Pennsylvania.
Sen. Clinton once dominated the race for the presidential nomination. After her win in New Hampshire, her strategists convinced her to concentrate on the “big vote” states, essentially ceding several of the Super Tuesday states to Sen. Barack Obama, who had emerged as her primary rival. In that Feb. 5 election, Obama edged Clinton in delegate votes, 847–834; more important, he took 14 states to Clinton’s eight.
The perception was that Clinton and her campaign not only were struggling but no longer had a chance to win the nomination. Although Clinton later won Texas and Ohio, two states she needed, she trails Obama in total delegate votes, 1,641–1,504, according to the Associated Press, with eight million voters and 158 delegate votes at stake in Pennsylvania. (Pennsylvania also has an additional 29 super delegates, officially known as “unpledged delegates.”)
Less than two months after Super Tuesday, Obama has significantly narrowed the wide gap in voter perceptions that once gave Clinton significant advantage over the first-term Illinois senator in experience, health care, the economy, and the handling of the war in Iraq. Both Gallup and Washington Post/ABC News polls reveal that nationally Obama is holding about a 10 point lead among Democrats. In Pennsylvania, Clinton’s double-digit lead over Obama has now dwindled to single figures. An Post/ABC poll reveals that 54 percent of Americans now have an unfavorable view of Clinton, up from 40 percent shortly after she won the New Hampshire primary only three months earlier.
Sen. Clinton needs to win the Pennsylvania primary. Not just by a little, but by a wide margin to re-establish her credibility and to re-energize her supporters. Her biggest asset, although some would say it’s also her biggest liability, is her husband.
When in Pennsylvania, President Clinton often gives as many as five or six speeches a day in university auditoriums, middle school gyms, YMCAs, and just about any place that will accommodate an enthusiastic crowd of a few hundred. Two weeks ago, he even put a green scarf around his neck and walked in the St., Patrick’s Day parade of the small mining community of Girardville in Schuylkill County. From the crowds, he gets his sustenance, and when he shakes your hand and looks you in the eye, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by a man whose enthusiasm and joy resonates to every voter.
During his own presidential campaigns, Bill Clinton never came to most of the rural communities whose voters he was now courting for his wife. If Hillary Clinton wasn’t fighting for her political life he probably wouldn’t be in those communities either since no local sponsor can afford his $100,000–$200,000 speaking fee. But, here he is, one of the nation’s brightest and most charismatic presidents, giving brilliant and perceptive campaign speeches, smiling, and shaking hands in some of the most rural parts of rural America, not unlike his home town of Hope, Ark., among people with some of the same values. It is these communities that have become Sen. Clinton’s now dwindling base—White, middle-class, middle-aged and elderly women in rural areas. Obama has taken huge leads in urban areas and the suburbs, among youth, the college-educated, and Blacks, groups that gave Bill Clinton a strong advantage in his campaigns of 2000 and 2004, that once gave his wife that same advantage. To cut into Obama’s huge lead, Chelsea Clinton, with no pressure by either of her parents, has visited more than 100 colleges to court first time voters. Even conservative students, some of whom mistakenly believe John McCain is too liberal, are stunned by Chelsea’s intelligence, eloquence, and enthusiasm.
But, here and now, in communities where most of the residents are conservative, many of whom once spit out the word “liberal,” the people have become a part of Bill Clinton’s aura, participants in a campaign event they never imagined. And they are identifying with Sen. Clinton, who is drawing support from evangelical and Catholic older white women living in rural America, who see her as a role model—an intelligent, successful, White woman, now in her early 60s, who has a long history of concern and activism for children, health care, and the disenfranchised.
Large numbers of Clinton supporters at least once voted for George W. Bush. But, during the past two years they have become disenchanted with the commander-in-chief’s policies that have led mothers to mourn their children trapped by a half-trillion dollar quagmire euphemistically known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, and by a president who has run up the largest deficit in history and has driven the nation into a recession, one that has affected the people of rural America far more than it has the CEOs in New York City.
The people of rural America may support Sen. Clinton, but they won’t support Barack Obama if he becomes the party’s nominee. Some won’t say it, but they’re concerned about a Black president, one who has been tainted in rural America by the lies that he’s a militant Muslim who doesn’t respect the country. A Gallup poll, published March 26, reveals “only 59% of Democratic voters who support Clinton say they would vote for Obama against [John] McCain, while 28% say they would vote for the Republican McCain.” In contrast, 72 percent of Obama’s supporters would vote for Clinton if she were the nominee, while 19 percent said if Obama wasn’t the Democratic nominee, they would vote Republican. However, the defectors will probably be fewer by the August convention and the November election.
The polls occurred before Obama told a closed-door audience in San Francisco that he thought rural and small town Pennsylvania voters are bitter about the economy, about losing houses and jobs, and so they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” Clinton launched a vigorous rebuttal, saying that Obama’s comment was “elitist and divisive.” Although Obama quickly acknowledged that he misspoke, and apologized, the effect of his words were not only to give Clinton a campaign issue but to help solidify what has now become her base.
After Pennsylvania are nine primaries, with 566 delegate votes and 126 super delegate votes. Clinton is holding strong leads in Kentucky, West Virginia, Montana, and Puerto Rico, which have a combined 152 delegate votes. Obama is currently holding strong leads in North Carolina and South Dakota, which have 130 votes. Depending upon the poll, Clinton or Obama have slim leads in Indiana (72 votes), Oregon (52 votes), and Guam (4 votes). About 300 of the 800 super delegates (officially “unpledged delegates”) have not yet committed to either candidate. Needed for the nomination are 2,024 votes. A strong Pennsylvania win, with Clinton taking at least 60 percent of the delegates, combined with a strong win in Indiana on May 6, could re-establish her as the leading candidate.
She might still win the nomination. If she does, it will have been because it took not only a family but, most assuredly, because it also took a village.
[Walter Brasch, professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University and president of the Pennsylvania Press Club, has covered 10 presidential elections. His latest book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush, available through amazon.com]