I drove across Pennsylvania only once, heading east at edgy speeds with the object of making it into work Monday morning in New Jersey. Having left Seattle on Friday evening, I was admittedly feeling the strain, but what really got me was the state's deceptively vast topography. Once you're out of Pittsburgh, there's big long stretches of rocks and trees, not much traffic, and of the lights you see in the dark, most shine out from burbling rigs of long-haul truckers.
Traversing that state was like crossing the Kingdom of Bocephus Klein, its wild terrain conjuring images of war-painted savages attacking Conestoga wagons, making the environs of South Dakota seem chock-full of sophisticates. After midnight when I got The Nods, it was hard to find a place, any place, with a bed--a simple task in even the sparsest reaches of my neighboring home-state, which can get pretty sparse indeed. Sparse? Hell, it was as if space invaders took out a giant vacuum and sucked up all the people. By the time I found a motel, my status had been downgraded to 'Road Hazard,' and I was almost in New Jersey.
Tomorrow's democratic primary will probably be decided in that central section of Pennsylvania, where easy prospects are faded memories and self-reliance is tattooed on the faces of men like hearts that say 'Mom.' If I hadn't driven across it, I'd be far more inclined to take the P.A. polls on their numbers, which have Hillary Clinton ahead of Barack Obama by as much as 15 points. Even though she has much of the party machine's backing there and counts both the governor and Philadelphia's mayor as fervent supporters, a number of factors may have eluded polling to make the contest surprisingly close:
1) Lots of Newly Registered Democrats
Democrats have gained 326,756 PA voters since a year ago, and the Republicans have lost 73,009. Two bellwether Republican counties, Bucks and Montgomery, have gone Democrat for the first time in living memory. Speaking of which, Hillary Clinton has been a national figure for quite some time, so she's probably not the attractant.
2) Newly Registered Voters Trend Away From Clinton
This is why Obama is winning the national contest, and a poll by Franklin and Marshall College found that almost two-thirds of new Pennsylvania Democratic registrants in the past 3 months plan to vote for Obama.
3) Clinton's Peaking Negatives
Public perception is an odd beast; H.R.C. is the same person who was fired for lying on her first legal case back in 1974, and few laurels for truth have festooned her since. Yet the polled negatives rose by double digits via the euphroes of Bosnian embellishment; this will be the first primary since they were exposed. Her low-trustworthy scores will cast a chill on both undecideds and swing Republicans, and these are probably the chief termites in her numbers, down from 20+ a month ago.
4) Obama's Counterpunches
The "Gotcha" Debate went almost an hour before a non-bizarre question was asked. If an erstwhile moderator asks you, "Does your reverend beat his wife less than you do yours," it sucks, but it does give you occasion to fire back. Referring back to point 3), HRC has a political glass jaw, one that can't take more than a light jab. Early on, Obama resisted his staff's urgings and said, "I'm not going to knee-cap her," rightly believing a positive-message campaign played to his greater advantage. Going negative departs from message, but it's effective. As the Clinton "Kitchen" ad plays today (in which images of Osama bin Laden figure prominently), he finally hit her on trustworthiness.
5) Republicans Can't Vote Against Obama
Pennsylvania is a closed primary. That means the Limbaugh Factor at play in Ohio and Texas is largely void. Because Ohio and Texas hold open primaries, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh (amongst others) urged his listeners to cross party lines and vote for Hillary so the Democrats would "bleed each other white" and hand McCain victory in November. Figuring out how big an effect the anti-voting had in Ohio is speculation, but because of the multi-staged system in Texas, it can easily be inferred. Obama won the mailed ballots 57-42 to take an early lead, lost the general open vote by a steadily eroding margin, and yet handily won the subsequent caucuses to win the state. Odd? The math works out when you factor in the 600,000 self-described "strong conservatives" who voted in Texas' democratic primary. It won't happen in Pennsylvania.
The stilted, drawn-out primary pace, the birth of a new, as-yet-unchristened political current, and the roiling lobscouse of a ravenous media randomly muting and amplifying deeply rocked intangibles have given pollsters a rough time throughout these contests. Obama may not win tomorrow, and my political prognostications are as bad as anyone else's, but it's really, really hard to see how Clinton could muster enough enthusiasm in Pennsylvania's sprawling central belly to achieve more than stalemate there. To have a slim chance of staying in the delegate hunt she has to win by 15+, and the margin will be tighter. If it's only by 5, 6, 7, the race is effectively over. A bumper sticker floats in my mind's eye: I'm Amish, And I Vote.