Bitter Residue Remains in Pennsylvania

Salena Zito

12/4/2011 12:01:00 AM - Salena Zito
The Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe on Third Avenue is one of those places where men who want to be president stop to look decidedly un-presidential.

Al Gore visited the shop; so did John Kerry. President Barack Obama opted for ice cream instead and went to the Windmill, eight miles up the road.

“It is where you take them to make candidates look authentic,” explained a Democrat strategist who routinely works on presidential campaigns in the Keystone State.

After orchestrating three statewide presidential wins, the strategist said he is sitting out this cycle. He doesn’t see Obama winning Pennsylvania in 2012.

Life is different here in Beaver County: The bill for three chilidogs with “the works,” large fries and a large vanilla milkshake was just over $8. Outside, a steady stream of hunters, families and other locals lingered after the Thanksgiving holiday, enjoying the unseasonable warmth.

Beaver County has long been a stronghold for Democrats. Traditionally, everything along the rivers where industry used to boom is more Democrat; the farther you get from the rivers, the more conservative the voters – yet even the conservatives are registered to vote as Democrats.

Their preferences changed dramatically in 2008 when Republican John McCain beat Obama here. Until then, the last Republican presidential candidate to win the county was Richard Nixon.

That trend solidified when the much more conservative Pat Toomey, a Republican, beat former congressman Joe Sestak, a Democrat, for a U.S. Senate seat.

Hard to imagine that a Democrat could lose Pennsylvania in a presidential election, especially one who won it just three years ago by nearly 10 percentage points.

Never mind that Republicans swept the state in last year’s midterm election, taking a majority of U.S. House seats, a U.S. Senate seat, both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion – Pennsylvania is still 4 percent more “Democrat” than her Midwestern counterparts.

The latest survey from liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling showed 59 percent of white voters in Pennsylvania disapprove of Obama’s job performance, a rate usually found among Southern voters.

Sean Trende, a numbers analyst for RealClearPolitics, said that while the president could write off Pennsylvania and win, it would be difficult. “The key would be holding the Bush states he won in the Mountain West – Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico, plus Virginia and North Carolina,” he said.

That electoral-college path gives him 280 electoral votes and assumes he will lose Indiana and Ohio, which he almost certainly would if he loses Pennsylvania.

The president’s main problem in Pennsylvania is downscale whites, said Trende: “The white working class has never been crazy about this president, and really only came on board with the collapse of the stock market in September of 2008.”

It has nothing to do with race. “He called them ‘bitter,’ ” Trende said – and they have never forgotten that.

If Obama writes off Pennsylvania, he’s basically conceding he can’t win the Pittsburgh area outside Allegheny County and is running poorly in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area.

“In the long run, the Philly suburbs can conceivably provide enough votes to overcome this,” Trende said, although he hasn’t seen evidence of that yet.

Without a collapsing economy to remind these voters why they’re still Democrats, they will vote Republican. Indeed, a just-stagnant economy on a Democrat’s watch doesn’t help.

Six weeks ago, Obama visited Pittsburgh. The union crowd was thin. Enthusiasm was nonexistent; so were local elected Democrats, who opted to shake his hand at the airport rather than stand on stage with him while he talked about jobs.

Last week he went to Scranton, home to Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. A no-show in Pittsburgh, Casey again declined to appear with the president.

Like Pittsburgh’s congressional Democrats, the freshman senator faces a tough re-election campaign next year.

In off-year elections last month, Republicans increased their control of Pennsylvania counties by 12, giving 52 of 67 counties to the GOP. Most of those gains were in Northeastern or Western Pennsylvania, home to Scranton and Pittsburgh, respectively.

Heading north along State Route 51 into Allegheny County, a faded Hillary-for-president sign straddles a closed business and a yard. Duct-tape appears to be still holding it in place.