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Rural Pennsylvania May Help Swing Primary Vote

April 21, 2008 at 6:35 PM EST
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In the battle for Pennsylvania votes, the central area of the state may prove influential to the outcome of Tuesday's Democratic primary. A political reporter and a pollster assess which way the votes in central Pennsylvania may swing.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Travel east of Pittsburgh and you discover the hundreds of small cities and towns that make up Pennsylvania’s vast rural landscape. Here to describe which way the central part of the state might swing are: Brett Lieberman, he’s a reporter and columnist for the Harrisburg Patriot-News; and Christopher Borick, he’s a professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College.

They both join us from Harrisburg.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us. We’ve just heard Gwen talking to her two guests about Pittsburgh. We are moving to the center part of the state.

Lehigh generally moderate

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about the Lehigh Valley first. That's that area just north and a little west of Philadelphia.

And to you, Christopher Borick, who are the people who live there? This is part of an area that's been described as Alabama, between the east and the west. Tell us who they are, income level, political leaning, and so forth.

CHRISTOPHER BORICK, Muhlenberg College: Sure. This is one of the areas that we always think about in Pennsylvania as a pure bellwether community. It simply represents the state in a really nice nutshell, mixture of rural, urban and suburban areas.

The Lehigh Valley, although it sometimes gets lumped in with the rest of the "T," if you will, in Pennsylvania, the middle and the north, actually has a lot more in common with the southeast part of the state and suburban Philadelphia.

A lot of immigrants coming in from New Jersey and New York and migrants, I should say. It's got a growing population. And the unemployment rate and a lot of the local indicators of its economic health are actually pretty good.

So it's a little different than what we might consider some of the other small town areas within the central and northern part of the state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And political leaning?

CHRISTOPHER BORICK: Right down the middle. This is used often, as I said before, a classic bellwether in between Republicans and Democrats.

And when you look at it in terms of the Democratic Party, it's got a mix of traditional labor, still part of the manufacturing base of the Lehigh Valley that dates back to Bethlehem Steel and Mack trucks. So there is a labor presence within the Lehigh Valley, but a lot of the newcomers to the Lehigh Valley from New York and from New Jersey come in and have registered overwhelmingly as Democrats.

They have a much more-- greater likelihood of being seen in terms of progressive politics or in terms of more policies that might not be traditionally tapped into what we consider labor economics in the Lehigh Valley.

'Reagan Democrats' also influential

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brett Lieberman, let's talk about that south-central Pennsylvania area. That's your county, Lancaster County, Dauphin County, where Harrisburg is. Tell us who lives there and the political leanings you see.

BRETT LIEBERMAN, The Harrisburg Patriot-News: Well, who lives there tends to be actually Republicans, so it's not exactly a factor in this race, but they tend to be more conservative. Republicans outnumber Democrats by registration. They are more fiscally conservative, socially conservative.

You've got Bible Belt areas. You've got rural areas, farming. You've got a bunch of small cities. You mentioned York, Lancaster, Harrisburg, these small cities of 50,000 or so, maybe less, surrounded by a lot of little towns.

And these people tend to be older, fiscally conservative, socially conservative. They stay in their homes for most of their lives; they don't move around much. They are a little distrustful of government. And they're big on reform right now, so that favors -- that helps with Barack Obama's message right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you say it is mostly Republican, but there is a chunk of Democrats there, because both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went right through that area over the weekend. What are you seeing right now about how people are leaning?

BRETT LIEBERMAN: I mean, you mentioned there are Democrats there. And that's actually something the Democratic Party sort of realized like five or six years ago. They sort of took the area for granted and they started paying attention to these Democrats, reaching out to them.

Some of them were like those so-called Reagan Democrats, who are socially conservative, like their guns, like their God, but they don't like giving their money to the government.

And the Democratic Party, led by Governor Rendell, has reached out to them. They've talked to them more. And they've started getting them to vote again. And that's turned out to be helpful for Governor Rendell, Bob Casey's Senate election, some other statewide races for judges.

They are angry people, generally. Right now, I don't mean in general. Let me clarify that, sorry. They are frustrated with government. They want change. They are tired of seeing government waste money. They're also, you know, angry somewhat of the Republicans. They're angry about the war, a lot of those issues.

Economy tops voters' concerns

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Christopher Borick, back to you. When you talk to voters, what's uppermost in their minds in this election? And what are they hearing from the candidates and whether that addresses what their concerns are or not?

CHRISTOPHER BORICK: Yes. Well, first of all, all our polls and most of the statewide polls have put pocketbook issues clearly at the top of the heap. Health care and the war are second, but second by a long distance.

So economic issues, including unemployment, including tax prices, increasingly including inflation is becoming a major concern for Pennsylvanians.

And they've heard the message. I don't know how clear the message is, in terms of the two candidates, but they're hearing it repeatedly. If you look at the ads in Pennsylvania -- and they are everywhere in the commonwealth -- those ads increasingly throughout the campaign have stressed economic issues.

Obama's ads put him in front of steel mills all over the state, put him in front of gas pumps, expressing some of the frustration that a lot of Pennsylvanians are seeing.

So their messages have been targeted economically. You've also seen one interesting point: They've increasingly targeted the effect of the war, which is unpopular among Democrats and Pennsylvanians in general. They've targeted that in terms of its effect on the economy.

You've heard both Obama and Clinton make lots of messages and lots of speeches about the increasing toll that the cost of the war is having on the economy in Pennsylvania.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned the voters are divided. You've got a new poll out in that area showing voters pretty evenly split. How interested are people in this election?

CHRISTOPHER BORICK: Oh, they're very interested. By all our indicators, when we try to measure the likelihood that people are voting, we're seeing levels of following this race that are much more like a presidential campaign, in some cases even greater among Democrats.

It seems to be something that the Pennsylvanians have waited for, for a long time. As you know, we're not a state that usually gets to join in, in terms of the primary fun. And this year, it's been something special, in terms of the long campaign in the state.

I do note from talking to people over the last few days there is a fatigue setting in, though, the airwaves being so controlled by the campaign ads and the non-stop coverage. I think people are excited about the race, but they're just as excited to get it over with.

Obama doing better than expected

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Brett Lieberman, a new poll in the part of the state you were talking about, south-central, showing Barack Obama making some inroads, a little bit ahead. Why would that be? How is he connecting with the voters there-- and Senator Clinton?

BRETT LIEBERMAN: He's actually connecting a lot more than I thought he would. The projections for a while were that Senator Obama would do well in the cities like Harrisburg, Lancaster, in York, but not as well in the surrounding areas, that those would be part of the Clinton country, but it's not turned out that way.

And I think part of that goes to that reform message, that change message. There was an issue a few years ago here in Pennsylvania in 2005, where the legislature voted themselves a pay raise in the middle of the night. And that led to a whole big reform movement here, uprising, and people were very angry.

A few months later, the legislature rescinded that pay raise, but about 50 of them either retired or were voted out of office after that, including the top two leaders in the State Senate. And this was -- and Central Pennsylvania was the core area of that voter anger.

And so his message is playing well with that. But at the same time, Pennsylvanians like experience. They like to hear the meat and potatoes. They want solid numbers. And tell me how you're going to do it; don't just tell me what you're going to do.

And as I've been traveling across the state, not just in south-central Pennsylvania, I keep hearing -- you know, we hear a lot of these same promises over and over again, but tell me what you're going to do. Show me the money, sort of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, gentlemen, we are going to leave it there. Brett Lieberman with the Harrisburg Patriot-News, Christopher Borick with Muhlenberg College, gentlemen, we appreciate it. Thank you.

You can view a slide show and hear more about my reporting trip to central Pennsylvania on our Web site. Also there, much more information about tomorrow's primary. Visit us at PBS.org.