FiveThirtyEight– for my money, the most indispensible political blog out there– visited the area I grew up in today and posted a fascinating account of the challenges both Barack Obama and John McCain face in Western Pennsylvania:
So a canvasser goes to a woman’s door in Washington, Pennsylvania. Knocks. Woman answers. Knocker asks who she’s planning to vote for. She isn’t sure, has to ask her husband who she’s voting for. Husband is off in another room watching some game. Canvasser hears him yell back, “We’re votin’ for the n***er!”
Woman turns back to canvasser, and says brightly and matter of factly: “We’re voting for the n***er.”
In this economy, racism is officially a luxury. How is John McCain going to win if he can’t win those voters? John Murtha’s “racist” western Pennsylvania district, where this story takes place, is some of the roughest turf in the nation. But Barack Obama is on the ground and making inroads due to unusually strong organizing leadership.
This is pretty much the tug-of-war going on right now in Pennsylvania. It’s one of the most racially polarized states in America, but it’s also one of the hardest hit by the bad economy. I suspect there are a lot of people there who are just like the couple in the anecodote above– practical racists, so to speak. These are people who, all things being equal, would vote for the white guy. In the Democratic primary, where policy-wise all things were relatively equal between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, these voters overwhelmingly went for Clinton. Seven weeks before that primary, I wrote about the demographics of Pennsylvania, the history of racism, and the impossibility of Obama winning there:
Pittsburgh, like certain areas of Ohio and most other areas of Pennsylvania, is very racially polarized. And beyond the numbers and statistics, I can attest firsthand that there is a palpable tension between races throughout the state. Look no further than the fact that, according to a list by the Anti-Defamation League, Klanwatch, and other intolerance watch groups, Pennsylvania has an astounding 24 indentified hate groups in the state– more than Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Mississippi combined.
Granted, Barack Obama has seven weeks to campaign in Pennsylvania and anything can happen. At the least, he’ll need to keep things close enough to prevent a large windfall of delegates for Hillary Clinton. But having lived in Pennsylvania for 25 years, I can predict with all confidence that Barack Obama has no chance to win there.
That was then, this is now. Between John McCain and Barack Obama, all things are as far from equal as it gets, and no one knows that better than Pennsylvanians. Which is why not only does Obama have a chance to win Pennsylvania, but it’s pretty much a lock. Right now, he has a 15-point lead in the state and a Democratic registration advantage of well over a million, which means Pennsylvania voters do in fact see racism as a luxury. It’s one they could afford in a race between two Democrats. But when the choice comes down to fundamental economic change versus four more years of Republican policies, Pennsylvanians are putting their pocketbook before their prejudices.
UPDATE: Right on cue, Ben Smith posts a story today titled “Racists for Obama?“ Not much new ground, but this analogy struck me as pretty astute:
“If you go to a white neighborhood in the suburbs and ask them, ‘How would you feel about a large black man kicking your door in,’ they would say, ‘That doesn’t sound good to me,’” said Democratic political consultant Paul Begala. “But if you say, ‘Your house is on fire, and the firefighter happens to be black,’ it’s a different situation.”
“The house is on fire, and one guy seems like he’s calm and confident and in charge, and that’s the only option,” he said.