Keystone Misfire: Obama’s tin-eared appeal to Pennsylvanians

National Review; by Jim Geraghty; March 27, 2008

If, as current polls predict, Barack Obama loses Pennsylvania by a double-digit margin on April 22, the truly ominous omen will not be the loss itself, but his campaign’s catastrophic inability to tailor its message to vital demographics.

Since the numbers for the Ohio and Texas primaries came in, the entire political world has known that Obama had to improve his numbers among the white working class, particularly union members, Catholics, and seniors. (Obama has similar problems among Hispanics, but they aren’t likely to be a key demographic in Pennsylvania.) There simply aren’t enough blacks, young voters, and latte liberals to build a successful coalition for a Democratic candidate in a general election.

Pollster and political science professor G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster notes that after about three weeks of campaigning in the Keystone state, the Obama campaign has not yet figured out how to translate the candidate’s lyrical rhetoric into a gut-level connection with these kitchen-table-issue-driven demographics.

“What has surprised me to date — and this is partially why Hillary’s campaign worked well in Ohio — is that Obama has not been putting his focus on specific policy proposals to help these kinds of folks,” Madonna said. “You’re campaigning in small town in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, blue collar communities, where families are having tough times getting kids to college or paying for health care. Hillary goes in and gives her five proposals, like she did with mortgages — and even if you don’t agree, you recognize that she has a statement, and she’s saying, ‘I’ll fight for you.’ For Obama, none of that has happened here, and that has shocked me.”

Concern about jobs is near the top of the list ‘for those voters, and Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a former strategist for John Edwards, says that much like in Ohio, these voters are suspicious of trade deals. Saunders expressed surprise at how easily Hillary Clinton has defined herself as the more populist of the two remaining candidates.

“[Obama’s campaign has let] Hillary redefine herself as the anti-trade-treaties candidate,” Saunders said. “How she got this mantle is beyond me. She never could do that as long as John Edwards, an economic populist, was in the race. But she seized it, and it’s very obvious she’s defining herself as the white-working-class candidate. Obama should have been able to say, ‘I was not the candidate that brought you NAFTA. Hillary should take credit for that.’”

Madonna points to the Obama campaign’s recent $330,000 television advertising buy in the Philadelphia market, spread over six affiliates. One ad‘s message was about Obama’s efforts on ethics reform and his refusal to allow “special interests” to run his campaign or his White House. Another ad features Republican Illinois state lawmakers praising his negotiation skills and bipartisanship.

The third, a 60-second, heavily biographical ad, mentions workers laid off by steel plants, and tax cuts, health care, and helping veterans, but ends with a note of standing up to “narrow interests” out to “capture the agenda in Washington.”

“Pennsylvania wouldn’t be on anybody’s list of top-ten reformist states,” Madonna notes. “It didn’t strike me as a terribly moving issue, or making a connection with people. It wasn’t a bad introductory note, but it wasn’t the most effective. He’s going to need something else. There’s this theme of ‘change,’ well, change is change. He’s still giving these very rhetorical, generalized talks that sound good but don’t have enough specifics attached to them.”

The ads feature shots of Obama reaching out and speaking to a typically young crowd, which may not be quite the right message for a state that has the third-largest number of seniors (as a percentage of the electorate) in the country. Will a 50-something former steelworker or factory laborer be swept up in talk of “‘turning the page”’ and “‘we are the ones we have been waiting for”’? Even presuming this voter didn’t tune out Obama the moment he saw footage of Jeremiah Wright God-damning the U.S.?

About three weeks ago, Hillary’s lead in the RealClearPolitics average was nine percent. Now it is 16 percent.

Madonna notes that from mid-February to mid-March, Obama lost ten points of favorability in a state in which he did only a little bit of campaigning. Some of that was due to sharper attacks from Hillary Clinton (particularly the “3 a.m.” ad), but a healthy chunk of is probably fallout from Wright. What’s more, it’s not clear how quickly Obama can earn back that trust. “His speech probably didn’t make much difference with the blue-collar, white, working-class Democrats — they’re more interested in ‘show me’,’ not ‘give me a speech.’”

A poster at the liberal blog MyDD broke down the Democratic electorate in Ohio into six different groups, adjusted the proportion to reflect the likely turnout in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary, and calculated a 57 percent to 43 percent victory for Hillary. ‘The analysis suggests that it is not unthinkable that Obama could win only one or two counties.

‘‘Obama has time to address the flaws in his campaigns’ pitch to those key demographics. But so far, Public Policy Polling has Obama losing the white-Democrat vote, 63 percent to 23 percent. Quinnipiac has Hillary leading among white voters, 61 percent to 33 percent.

A catastrophic loss among these groups would leave the super-delegates facing an even tougher choice than before, suggesting that Obama, the candidate most likely to finish with more regular delegates, cannot close the deal with key groups of Democratic voters, even with six weeks to hone his pitch.

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