Keystone Misfire
Obama's tin-eared appeal to Pennsylvanians.


Jim Geraghty

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.”


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