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Handicapping the Race in Western Pennsylvania

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Gov. Rendell first blurted the ugly truth about Western Pennsylvania back in February.

"You've got conservative whites here," he said, no doubt thinking of the rolling hills and hollows of Western Pennsylvania, "and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate."

State Rep. David Levdansky from a district south of Pittsburgh echoed that line of thought to the New York Times at the same time.

"For all our wanting to believe that race is less of an issue than ever before, the reality of racism still exists."

And then, three weeks before the election and months after Barack Obama got caught criticizing small-town Pennsylvanians for clinging so bitterly to their guns and religion, Congressman John Murtha resurrected the shameful issue again.

"There is no question that Western Pennsylvania is a racist area," Murtha told a liberal Pittsburgh newspaper last week. "Obama's got a problem with the race issue in Western Pennsylvania," he told the Tribune-Review the same day, adding that on Nov. 4 the color of Obama's skin could cost him 4 percentage points against John McCain.

Murtha quickly apologized for his gaffe. But as we all know, in politics "a gaffe" is usually when someone blurts out a common truth no one wants to ever hear spoken out loud.

In case you haven't noticed, the above gaffers are Democrats. And though they'd never admit it, they are clearly worried Obama might lose the state's 21 electoral votes not because of racism among Republicans or independents but within the ranks of their own party -- namely, the famous white, socially conservative, working-class, union-loving "Reagan Democrats" of Western Pa.

Western Pennsylvanians know themselves well. We know many of our natives -- disproportionately Caucasian, well-seasoned, patriotic and incredibly bereft of new immigrants -- are a bit challenged when it comes to practicing tolerance, whether it's racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, culinary, lifestyle, hairstyle or whatever.

But are we uniquely or disproportionately racist? Are we part of some uncharted "Bigot Belt" that stretches from Western Pa. across to the old KKK states of West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana and on down into southern Illinois and Missouri?

Is this Bigot Belt the modern manifestation of the white, Protestant working-class and rural Democrats who in 1928 and 1960 would not vote for Al Smith and John Kennedy because they were Roman Catholics?

Not really, says American University historian Allan J. Lichtman, whose credentials include "Prejudice and Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928" and "White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement."

Lichtman has studied voting records to see the effects of both religion and race. In 1960, he said, JFK lost Ohio and took Pennsylvania and West Virginia but won only a third of white Protestant voters.

"That's a pretty telling stat," Lichtman said, "and that certainly dragged down Kennedy's percentage of the popular vote, which was basically a tie. I believe without the religious factor, he would have been several percentage points higher, and quite possibly without the racial factor, Obama would be several points higher."

As for a Bigot Belt that includes Western Pa., Lichtman said, "I'm not sure it exists." It's a "a great idea," he said with a friendly laugh, "and it's very sexy. But it's not unique to the area you're talking about. I think these kinds of (bigoted) sentiments exist everywhere. They're present in the South as well, and probably present in North Dakota and South Dakota -- even Upstate New York."

Lichtman acknowledged that Obama's race will play a role in the voting. But he believes the "Bradley effect" - the theory racism is hidden from pollsters but revealed on Election Day -- has been debunked by research and predicts the polls will turn out to be accurate on Nov. 4.

So, according to Professor Lichtman, Western Pa. isn't so special after all. Like everywhere else, it's got a percentage of bigots who wouldn't vote for a black man if he really were the Messiah. We won't find out for sure how many of them are Democrats until the votes are counted.

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