Barack Obama will need sizable support from white voters to win the Pennsylvania Democratic primary next Tuesday. That’s looking unlikely in a state riven by long-standing racial and cultural divides.
So far, Obama has done his best among Caucasian voters in states that have few African-American residents, such as North Dakota, where he beat Hillary Rodham Clinton 61 percent to 37 percent. Conversely, he has struggled with the white demographic in states that have larger black populations, such as Ohio, where he lost to Clinton by 10 points. There, Obama garnered support from just 44 percent of white men and 34 percent of white women, according to exit polls.
Ohio’s black population stands at 12 percent. Similarly, African-Americans represent 10.7 percent of Pennsylvania’s residents, and there lies trouble, experts say. An April 15 Quinnipiac poll showed Clinton with 57 percent of the state’s white vote compared with Obama’s 37 percent.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat and a Clinton supporter, caused a stir last month when he named the elephant in the room: “You’ve got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate.”
Fareeda Mabry, a Philadelphia native who is a former labor organizer and now works for the city, partly agrees. “I know a lot of people out there that are going to be voting for Barack because he is black, and a lot of people that are voting for Hillary because she is Caucasian.”
Pennsylvania is far from racially integrated. The large rural swath in the center of the commonwealth—famously dubbed “Alabama” by Democratic strategist James Carville—is home to culturally conservative white voters. In addition, the state has the highest per capita membership in the National Rifle Association in the country, according to the gun group. This region could prove especially difficult for Obama to win, according to experts. Mary Shaw, a writer and Philadelphia-based activist, grew up in Clinton County in the north central part of the state. She pulls no punches when describing the feelings of white voters there.
“The more-rural sections of the state are not so progressive, are still conservative, and it’s where I still see a lot of racial prejudice,” Shaw said. “When I go home, it’s just white and prejudiced, and it’s still that way.”
The Obama campaign says it is committed to reaching out to white, blue-collar workers throughout the state. “He has had a rural agenda that he has campaigned on in other states. It started in Iowa,” says Sean Smith, campaign spokesman in Pennsylvania. “He has proven to be able to generate votes in many rural states and done quite well. And we have a very uphill climb to overtake Senator Clinton here in Pennsylvania, but we hope that we’re going to make some inroads with voters in central Pennsylvania.”
Over the past few weeks, Obama improved his statewide poll numbers through personal appearances and massive television advertising, but the effort appears to have stalled. Clinton is leading him 49 percent to 42 percent, according to an average compiled by RealClearPolitics.com on Wednesday.
It’s not just the center of the state that could prove resistant to Obama’s skin tone. In Scranton and surrounding northeast locales Hillary Clinton is hugely popular. Although the support comes, in part, from her personal ties to there, Christopher Borick, an associate political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., said that the tradition-minded white ethnic population there could view Obama as foreign.
“There might be people who see [Obama] through a racial lens,” Borick said. “But also some people might just see this Harvard-educated, Chicago, urban, African-American senator, and that doesn’t quickly resonate.… Barack Obama, in some ways, seems alien to the culture.”
According to the Census Bureau, Lackawanna County, where Scranton is located, is home to 3,716 African-Americans and almost 206,000 whites. Many neighborhoods in and around Scranton are still identified by their white ethnic roots. “There’s still the Italian section, there’s still the Irish section,” Borick said.
Political analysts agree that Obama must attract a large volume of African-American votes in Philadelphia in order to win statewide. But the city still has its own share of racial divisions, says Richardson Dilworth, an associate professor at Drexel University and the grandson of the late Philadelphia mayor by the same name. He recalls the 1999 mayoral election in which Sam Katz, a white Republican, and John Street, a black Democrat, squared off.
“There was an obvious racial split in that election,” Dilworth said. “Even though the city is overwhelmingly registered Democrat, Katz got somewhere around 70 percent of the [overall] white vote, [and] Street got around 70 percent of the black vote.” The northeast section of Greater Philadelphia—a mostly white, working-class area—is where much of the white vote came from, Dilworth added. Street squeaked out a victory in the election.
Fast-forward to 2007, however, and African-American Michael Nutter was elected mayor of Philadelphia with strong white support that came mostly from wealthy voters in the Center City neighborhood and the northwest areas of Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy, Dilworth said. Nutter’s campaign could provide a vote-getting road map in Philadelphia for the senator from Illinois, who has relied on more-affluent white voters throughout the primary season.
The city’s recent history of racial problems was partly stoked by the politics of the late mayor and onetime police commissioner, Frank Rizzo. He incited hatred from African-Americans who saw his actions as racially insensitive, including the ordering of a controversial raid on the Philadelphia offices of the Black Panthers in 1970.
Rogers Smith, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, now sees a different city from the days of Rizzo, who was mayor from 1972 to 1980.
“I don’t think there’s a problem of substantial, anti-black votes in Philadelphia,” Smith said. “Frank Rizzo’s son is an important player in Philadelphia politics today, and it’s entirely disconnected from the past of racial tensions that his father represented.” Frank Rizzo Jr. is an at-large Republican city council member and has touted his support from the African-American community.
Pennsylvania has dealt with the issue of race since its beginning. Its founder, William Penn, established the commonwealth based on religious tolerance, and the Quaker influence led to Philadelphia’s role as an early anti-slavery stronghold. In 1780, Pennsylvania became the first state to abolish slavery for newborns.
Why the state, with its sizable African-American population, would have more white voters skeptical of Obama is a matter of disagreement. Jonathan Hurwitz, an expert on electoral behavior and political psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, describes the feelings among many blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania as “racial resentment,” but not overt racism. “Sometimes, familiarity breeds contempt,” he said. “A number of whites see African-Americans receiving some treatment that they don’t get and that their family does not get, and they see themselves very often in competition for jobs with African-Americans or in competition with them for college scholarships.” He compares it to other blue-collar, industrial states such as Michigan and Ohio. “Where the unemployment rate is substantially higher than the national average, I think that’s where you find the strongest sense that ‘I don’t want more competition for my jobs.’ ”
Pennsylvania has the highest per capita NRA membership in the country.
But others disagree with the competition theory, citing the large sections in the middle of Pennsylvania that have hardly any African-Americans at all. “They wouldn’t blame blacks or other ethnic minorities for taking their jobs, because everybody’s white up there,” Shaw said.
The long-standing rural-urban divide in Pennsylvania pits the interests of whites in the small towns against African-Americans in Philadelphia, Borick said. According to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, the state has the third-largest rural population in the country, with 48 of the commonwealth’s 67 counties categorized as rural. But the 2006 census lists Pennsylvania as the sixth-most-populous state and Philadelphia as the fifth-most-populous city in the country.
“When you’re down in Harrisburg [the state capital], you still hear lots of rankling that Philadelphia has this special place and it’s advantaged in our state system,” Borick said. “Whenever you have a state with the third-largest rural population and one of the biggest cities, there’s always going to be that divide.”
Other onlookers, however, downplay the issue of race in the primary. Greg Palmer, publisher of the blog Keystone Politics, says that the greater obstacle for Obama in Pennsylvania is the strong role played by the state Democratic Party—which typically favors established candidates over upstarts.
“You don’t see many of these breakthrough races in Pennsylvania where some candidate comes in and changes the paradigm and shifts the whole political scene,” Palmer said. “I think it might be less about race and more about just this idea that they don’t generally like the new guy.”
This article appears in the April 19, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine.