Democrats are swinging for suburban Philadelphia votes

Obama is seen as a lock to win the city, but not necessarily the region. The surrounding counties could lean more toward Clinton.

To find Sen. Barack Obama’s strategic road map for the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, just pick up a copy of Rand McNally and trace the Blue Route from the southern fringes of Philadelphia and up the Northeast Extension to Allentown.The highways roughly form the western border of an eight-county region filled with the kinds of voters who have made Pennsylvania a swing state in general elections and who have formed the demographic backbone of Obama’s 29 primary and caucus victories.Large numbers of African Americans, college students, and the upscale, educated voters some pollsters call “Starbucks Democrats” live in the city, its suburbs, and the Lehigh Valley.

Even so, the state has heavy concentrations of blocs that have supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in previous contests: senior citizens, white working-class Democrats, and Catholics. As a result, she is considered the prohibitive favorite statewide.

But Pennsylvania pollsters G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young wrote an analysis of the race Friday arguing that Obama could take the state or at least come close enough to diminish a Clinton win by cranking up voter turnout in the Philadelphia region.

“Currently he leads in Philly and will likely win the city decisively, making the suburbs a major battleground,” they wrote. “The Democratic voters there largely mirror the upscale, affluent voters Obama has been attracting nationally: They are the most liberal in the state, strongly oppose the Iraq war, and have a low regard for President Bush.”

But analysts point out that the region is not a lock for Obama, who faces some potentially significant hurdles.

First, Gov. Rendell and Mayor Nutter, along with other members of the Democratic establishment, are backing Clinton. “I don’t concede an inch,” said Nutter, who is bucking Obama’s overwhelming popularity among his fellow African Americans. Though Obama is expected to carry the city, this support could keep down his margin of victory.

There also is a strong residual affection for the Clintons in both the city and the suburbs. President Bill Clinton delivered federal aid for Philadelphia, visited the region often, and was on the ballot twice, becoming the first Democratic nominee to carry the suburban counties since Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 landslide.

Finally, both Philadelphia and the suburbs have pockets of voters that have been in the Clinton camp in other states.

“The white working-class people in the river wards and the Lower Northeast are the people who have been voting for Clinton,” said Democratic media strategist Neil Oxman, who is not working for either candidate. “Delaware County has a lot of blue-collar voters along MacDade Boulevard and the Baltimore Pike,” Oxman said, and in Montgomery, “Lower Merion isn’t Pottstown.”

In some ways, analysts say, Obama needs to duplicate Rendell’s formula from the 2002 gubernatorial primary when he faced Bob Casey Jr., now the state’s junior U.S. senator.

Rendell won only 10 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, but he captured the nomination because his home region gave him a 275,000-vote margin to overcome Casey’s strength elsewhere. Rendell’s campaign registered Republicans (dubbed Rendellicans) and independents in the suburbs, whipping up enthusiasm for the candidate who was a nightly subject on the TV news for years.

The eight counties of the Philadelphia media market, defined as those within reach of the city’s broadcast TV stations, generated a record 45.2 percent of the total Democratic vote. Turnout in the Pittsburgh market, where Casey was strong, was lower than usual. Political strategists often use the Nielsen media markets, designated to guide the sale of advertising, as reference points.

Obama’s field operation in the state is racing against a March 24 registration deadline to persuade independents and Republicans to switch their affiliation to Democratic so they can participate in the closed primary; the campaign also is seeking to register eligible voters not yet enrolled. They aim to increase the pool of potential support.

“One way we can attempt to overcome Sen. Clinton’s institutional advantages is to bring new voters to the table,” said Sean Smith, the Obama campaign spokesman for Pennsylvania. Southeastern Pennsylvania is a major focus, Smith said, because “it’s where the most votes are.”

Clinton’s campaign registers voters as part of its outreach but has no similar program aimed at independents and Republicans. She has performed better in primaries limited to registered Democrats.

Pennsylvania Democrats have added more than 65,000 voters between last November and March 4, while the GOP gained 3,212, according to the Department of State. In February alone, the number of party-change applications was 250 percent higher than it was in February 2007.

It is not clear whom these new Democrats might support, or whether the surge is due to an organized effort or the generally high interest in the campaign.

“The Obama campaign has made it clear they expect to dominate the Philadelphia region, but we’re going to make them earn every vote they get and fight for our share,” said Clinton spokesman Mark Nevins. “We don’t concede any part of the state.”

For at least the last 20 years, the traditionally Republican Philadelphia suburbs have tended to support Democrats in statewide elections, and the gap in party registration has narrowed. Those developments have helped make Pennsylvania a swing state in general elections.

Now, the region is poised to play a similar role in the Democratic nomination process – a battleground on which Clinton and Obama struggle for demographic slices of the electorate.

“It should be an Obama stronghold. The question is: Can he get those people who are his natural constituents excited and motivated?” said Berwood Yost, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.

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