Of all the places Democrats could hunker down for a long fight in their epic 50-state scramble for the presidential nomination, Pennsylvania is perhaps the most illuminating. Politically speaking, when Pennsylvania gets the sniffles, America braces for a fever.
Just ask the first President Bush, whose approval ratings were the very picture of political health in the spring of 1991. Then a freak accident killed Pennsylvania's GOP Senator John Heinz, and in the special election to replace him, a liberal Democrat named Harris Wofford diagnosed an unease in the electorate about endangered jobs and affordable health care. Hammering at these issues, Wofford came from more than 40 points behind to defeat Bush's formidable friend Richard Thornburgh. A year later, Bill Clinton used the same platform to unseat Bush.
Of course, in the next election, Wofford lost his new seat in the conservative countertide that claimed so many Democratic victims. The state's political thermometer displays hot and cold for both political parties.
Pennsylvania is a swing state not because of a moderate disposition (it's no Iowa or New Mexico) but because it encompasses the incongruities of American society, from the bluest of blue-blooded aristocrats on Philadelphia's Main Line to the bluest of blue-collar guys in the bars of Aliquippa. It's urban; it's rural. It's the Mellon Bank; it's the United Mine Workers. It's Swarthmore; it's South Philly. It's Andy Warhol; it's Joe Paterno. In the Republic's early days, someone dubbed Pennsylvania the Keystone State because it was the place where North joined South. Today it is a psychic keystone. Pennsylvanians have supplied our money, oil, coal, steel--and now our zeitgeist.
So, what are we learning as the April 22 primary draws near and Pennsylvanians decide which candidate to support? For one thing, those economic anxieties are back in full force. Every grumble of discontent heard over the winter months at other campaign stops has echoes in Pennsylvania, and Democrats appear invigorated. Since November, some 300,000 voters filed new registrations as Democrats to vote in this contest.
But something deeper is also going on. Pennsylvania is making it clear that the fight for the Democratic nomination is not just about personalities--the inevitable Obama vs. the indomitable Clinton, cocky vs. Rocky. The race is straining the fault lines of the Democratic Party.
While the chorus of pundits and party elders calling for her to run up a white flag continues, Hillary Clinton maintains her strong bond with the clock-punching white working people who have long been central to the Democratic identity. According to a new TIME poll of likely Democratic voters in the state, Clinton leads Obama 49% to 41%. Three and a half months after Obama's breakthrough win in Iowa, Joe and Jo Lunchbucket still aren't buying the audacity of hope. Indeed, only 56% of Clinton's supporters said they were likely to vote for Obama in November if he is the nominee. (One in four would choose Republican John McCain; the rest couldn't or wouldn't say.) Clinton continues to be especially strong among white women--the largest constituency in the party.
Political scientist G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College in southeastern Pennsylvania perceives a "pattern we've seen in other industrial states: Clinton starts with a big lead, Obama rushes in with a lot of TV and events, and the race tightens." Obama has barnstormed the state with newly detailed proposals for the economy and health care. He is outspending Clinton nearly 3 to 1 on the airwaves, Madonna says. Two of his most heavily played ads stress his humble roots and sound the populist trumpet. Yet Clinton's poll numbers in the state have averaged in the high 40s since early February. Her people don't appear to be budging.
"Once again, Pennsylvania is a harbinger," says Paul Begala, whose ties to the state go back to that seismic Wofford campaign in 1991, which Begala ran with his partner James Carville. But a harbinger of what, exactly? The Obama-Clinton fight has taken a standard party script and turned it upside down.
Working-class champion vs. faculty-club favorite is a Democratic chestnut. Obama descends from a long line of forefathers: Jerry Brown, Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, Howard Dean. Principled, bookish, often aloof--nearly every campaign produces one, and they'd all be President if Presidents were chosen by the salons at Charlie Rose's round table. But Presidents are, in fact, chosen over the dinner tables of ordinary folks, who have an enduring immunity to the charms of such candidates. Obama, however, is a debugged and turbocharged version of the old model; he is expanding the affluent constituency by drawing in thousands of new voters and wedding it to the black vote. As a result, he's not losing, as the script would normally call for him to do.
That's what makes the race so unpredictable. We have a pretty good idea how Obama's coalition--the young, the blacks and the affluent--would have handled failure. It has had years of experience at losing gracefully and closing ranks with a smile. Democrats rarely have to worry about the urban centers or the college towns falling into line. Clinton's core constituency, by contrast, is a group that Democrats must win but frequently don't. Working-class whites, despite their historical ties to the Democratic Party, have shown time and again that they will defect if they don't like the nominee. They jumped in large numbers to Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, to Richard Nixon in 1972, to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the 1980s.
Ever since he launched his campaign in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Obama has been happy to have himself compared with the original skinny outsider from Illinois. But as this race goes on, the image of another Illinois icon looms. The shape of the Pennsylvania electorate, and the prospect of a contentious convention, evokes 1952, when Adlai Stevenson--the darling of "every thinking person," as one woman later famously phrased it--captured a fiercely contested nomination by putting the urban and the urbane blocs together. But he never won over the white working class, and that's why there never was a President Stevenson.
TIME Poll. What Pennsylvania Democrats think
BASE OF SUPPORT Looking for votes beyond race and gender
If the Pennsylvania Democratic primary were held today, for whom would you vote?
Includes those who lean toward a particular candidate
[This article contains a complex diagram. Please see hardcopy of magazine.]
HILLARY CLINTON 49% BARACK OBAMA 41% Undecided 10%
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine.]