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Election 2008: Previewing the Pennsylvania Primary

Dick Polman
National Political Columnist, Philadelphia Inquirer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008 12:00 PM

Blogger and Philadelphia Inquirer national political columnist Dick Polman was online Tuesday, April 22 at noon ET to take your questions on the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, the vice presidential chances of Gov. Ed Rendell and how things look in the state for November.

The transcript follows.

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Dick Polman: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining this conversation. I'm here in Philadelphia, the eye of the hurricane. Pennsylvania is usually a primary-season backwater and a general-election battleground, but in this historic race the old thumbnails no longer apply. Stick around for the hour.

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Formerly from Pittsburgh: Here's a small part of Dana Milbank's sketch today, which is something no candidate can counter reasonably, and is much more prevalent than polite society is allowed to permit: " 'I don't even think he's American,' added her husband, Edward, who lost his job when the steel mills closed and now mans the counter at the Puff Discount Tobacco and Lottery shop next to the Giant Eagle. 'His father's from Nigeria, right?' asked Maria, wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers T-shirt."

The willful ignorance vote -- how many points is that worth in the polls?

washingtonpost.com: In This Forgotten Town, Obama Can Forget About It (Post, April 22)

Dick Polman: Someone with an optimistic view of human nature might argue that the willful ignorance factor does not translate into many votes. Someone like me, with a more measured view of human nature, thinks otherwise. One respected poll the other day reported that 15 percent of the public believes that Barack Obama is Muslim, which apparently means they believe the viral emails more than they believe empirical (and oft-reported) reality. Few people want to say this out loud, but I sense that Obama as nominee would have to face the hurdle of selling himself to a sizeable number of people who see him as too different (in terms of race, lineage, name) to be president.

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Los Angeles: A large number of Republicans have reregistered as Democrats. Is there any idea how many really support Obama, how many really support Clinton, how many really support McCain and switched in order to vote for Obama because they think he'd be the weaker candidate, and how how many really support McCain and switched in order to vote for Clinton because they think she'd be the weaker candidate?

Dick Polman: By all indications, Republicans make up a decidedly small proportion of the new Democratic registrants; the overwhelming share are prospective first-time voters or independents who have leaned Democratic in recent elections. Some pollsters believe that, among all the newbies (total is roughly 310,000), Obama will draw at least 60 percent, perhaps much higher. Naturally, some of the minority opinion could include ex-Republicans seeking to vote for Hillary and game the Democratic race. But there are also a lot of moderate suburban Republicans, particularly in southeastern Pennsylvania, who might have switched to vote for Obama. Perhaps Julie Nixon Eisenhower -- an Obama backer -- influenced some of her brethren.

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Washington: Do you sense that there is any pro-Obama sympathy backlash in Pennsylvania or the country at large resulting from the questioning he faced during the ABC debate last week?

Dick Polman: I haven't seen any specific polling on that. My sense is that the reaction to the ABC questioning has cut a number of ways. Many of the people who were angry about the questioning were going to vote for Obama anyway. But I sense there's a sizeable number of potential voters who believe that Obama deserved to be questioned about some of the sensitive issues that had arisen since the last debates back in Ohio/Texas; and that his subsequent complaints about the questioning should be considered no more legitimate than Hillary Clinton's previous complaints, in other debates, about being singled out for questioning. Obama is still a new guy to many Pennsylvanians who want to see how he handles himself in all situations, and especially when under fire.

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Philadelphia: Professor Polman: First, can I have an extension on the final? Second, what do you think is the margin of victory Hillary has to cross to stay in the race, or will she stay in regardless through May 7?

Dick Polman: Is this a student of mine? Don't you want to get the final over with? ... And speaking of end games, Clinton probably has one margin in mind -- whereas the unpledged superdelegates and the punditocracy has another. The latter two groups probably believe that if she wins by five points or less tonight, that she is cooked and should face the reality that catching up in the popular vote (much less swaying superdelegates) just ain't gonna happen. Only a double-digit blowout (at least equaling her 10-point Ohio victory) will keep the skeptics at bay. Although I assume that, even if she wins a squeaker, she'll just say "a win is a win," as I satirized on my blog yesterday. If she wins by, say, 6 points  to 9 points, both sides will be spinning with impunity.

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New York: Dick, thanks for the chat. I was speaking with a friend from York, Pa., the other night -- a registered Democrat -- who joked about being "bitter" and said that while people there found Obama's remarks a little weird, they understood the point and were far from offended. (She didn't say who she's voting for, and I didn't ask.) How far do you think the "elitism" attacks can be taken, both in Pennsylvania and in the general election?

Dick Polman: Well, we'll know for the first time tonight whether the "elitism" tag hurts Obama, politically. He badly needs to break through with white working-class Democrats; he has done that in only a couple primaries so far. Maybe your friend is symptomatic of a trend in his direction, but I suspect not. The bigger challenge would be in the fall, if he is the nominee. The Republicans have been very successful, for at least 20 years, in tagging the Democrat as an out-of-touch elitist. They did it to Mike Dukakis in '88, Al Gore in '00, and John Kerry in '04. They'd love to take Obama's Hyde Park neighborhood, and make it seem as weirdly "out there" as they did to Dukakis' Cambridge. The question this year, however, is whether the old tactics still work -- given eight years of a broadly unpopular Republican administration, and a war seemingly without end.

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Charlottesville, Va.: When do polls close tonight? Do returns normally come in faster from the rural areas, suburbs, or big cities in Pennsylvania?

Dick Polman: The polls close at 8 p.m. Philadelphia -- where Obama should win big -- in recent elections has been somewhat slow in reporting results. I sense that the early TV returns will show big Clinton margins, and that they'll tighten as the urban counts come in.

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Sellersville, Pa.: Hi Dick -- I'm a big fan of your columns and blogs. I'm supporting Barack Obama in the primaries. I'm a little confused about the lapel pin thing. I have no problem with his explanation, but given that he already has his name and the GOP's viral e-mails working against him, why wouldn't Axelrod staple the damned pin to his lapel and say "shut up and wear it"? I know it's silly, but it seems like he's playing right into the right's hands. Thanks.

Dick Polman: Thanks for kind words. I bet that if Obama started wearing the pin again, it would merely generate a lot of news stories about how he had caved in, how he was now pandering, and how the critics were right all along. Not good. Frankly, I felt (and wrote) that he blew his answer when it came up at the ABC debate. He should have simply said (accurately), "John McCain doesn't wear a flag pin. And my opponent, she's standing 3 feet away, she's not wearing a flag pin either! They don't see a pin as emblematic of their deeply-held patriotism, and neither do I."

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Los Angeles: Mr. Polman: Your political writing has been a 90-mph heater of truth in a stadium of wiffle balls, and it pained me to see you suffering on a dreadful CNN show called "Rick on the Road" the other night. How much of this country's poisonous election climate do you attribute to the shallow, ratings-crazy broadcast media?

Dick Polman: Well, this is an easy one to knock out of the park: The broadcast media, particularly cable, is surely a factor, though I don't know how to measure it. The cable shows feed on visceral controversy, and they have an enormous amount of air time to fill. All of which means that they keep churning on Rev. Wright and nonexistent Bosnia snipers because commercial, primetime TV thrives on emotion.

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Los Angeles: What is happening in your primary race for State Treasurer? I read that one candidate is vastly outspending his rivals in a race where voters mostly are unfamiliar with any of the candidates. I ask because we sometimes face expensive campaigns in California, and I fear money often is becoming what decides elections, especially at the "row office" level.

Dick Polman: Yeah, we have a venture capitalist named Rob McCord, a newcomer in elective politics, who has loaned his state treasurer campaign $1 million. He has advertised heavily on TV and in the papers. Obviously, money is always a potential distorting factor in elections, but there are often correctives -- such as the unattractiveness of so many of the candidates who try to buy their way into office. Money gets you to the starting gate, but not necessarily to the finish line. Last year, we had a self-funding mayoral candidate, Tom Knox, who looked as if he'd win the job thanks to his own deep pockets. But his money could not mask the fact that he was a lousy candidate.

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Minneapolis: Mr. Polman -- what do you think the odds are that Obama could pull off a surprise and actually win Pennsylvania outright, thus perhaps bringing this whole battle to end today? Is that just wishful thinking?

Dick Polman: I have a hard time seeing that happen, although -- after New Hampshire, where we all though Obama would win -- we who predict elections should feel duly chastened. I wrote today on my blog that 10 percent of the potential voters still appear to be undecided, and the record shows that undecideds have broken for Clinton in most of the primaries so far. Hard to see how Pennsylvanians would be any different. That could be worth a couple percentage points for her.

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Flourtown, Pa.: Dick, how much attention are the superdelegates paying to Obama's fundraising ability and strategy? The amount of money raised and the number of contributors seem to counter a lot of Hillary's electability arguments. By the way, there was a line at our polling place at 10:30 a.m., and poll workers were amazed at the high turnout for a primary.

Dick Polman: The superdelegates right now, more than anything, are interested in results. They respect the professionalism of his campaign (putting the Clintons back on their heels for an entire election season is quite an achievement), and certainly his fund-raising prowess and broad base of small donors. But results matter most. He has dumped a ton of money into Pennsylvania - out-spending Clinton in the TV ad wars by as much as four to one -- and if he winds up losing the state by double-digits percentagewise ... well, some superdelegates may ask, what good was all that money and organization?

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Philadelphia: Love your blog, Dick -- I'm addicted to your contributions, as well as the often humorous contributions of your readers. My question: Bill is campaigning for Hillary and Michelle is campaigning for Barack, but are they hurting their spouses more than helping? How do race and gender play into spousal stumping? Thanks!

Dick Polman: Thanks a lot. Michelle has mostly helped Obama (except for the passing flap about her "proud for the first time" remark) -- whereas Bill has mostly hurt his wife, by reminding people of their complicated marital psychodramas (Democrats might ask themselves, do we want eight more years of that?), and, more importantly, raising the question of how decisions would be made -- or not made -- in her White House, given his myriad business dealings that sometimes conflict (as we've already seen) with her stated policies.

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Franconia, Va.: In your opinion, are there parts of Pennsylvania where a significant number of Democratic primary voters just won't vote for a black man (or, for some, a woman) regardless of the individual? There was an opinion piece or sketch in The Washington Post today about McKeesport that certainly sounded that way. If you add up all the "Obama voters" to date across the country, the great majority are white -- otherwise he couldn't be the front-runner. Is something different about race relations in Pennsylvania?

Dick Polman: See my earlier response on this, early in the transcript. I bet there are some Democrats who are uncomfortable or worse about Obama's race, but will tell their friends (and themselves) that they're really most concerned about his lack of experience, his being "wet behind the ears," etc.

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University Park, Md.: I grew up in Bethlehem and visited over the weekend and was really struck by how engaged with the campaign everyone was. It also seemed like Obama might have a slight edge there. The Lehigh Valley is a good microcosm of the state; do you see the potential for an upset? The other thing that really struck me was how much nicer the quality of life seemed than it did a generation ago when Bethlehem Steel had more than 10,000 blue-collar jobs. The same is true for Philadelphia, which was really nasty in the '70s.

Dick Polman: I answered a question a little while ago, saying that I would be surprised if Obama staged an upset win. But let me say that Philadelphia is indeed a better place than it used to be, which is why I recently chose to move downtown. Come visit.

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Sellersville, Pa.: Hi Dick. I thought that, considering the mood of the country, this would've been the perfect cycle for a red-meat, Western populist like Schweitzer out of Montana. Do you think some of these types stayed out of the race because Hillary was going to run? Thanks.

Dick Polman: In some ways, I'd put Bill Richardson in that category -- a Western governor who defends guns, etc. But look how far he got. It was widely assumed early on that Clinton would sweep up most of the donor money, thereby making a race difficult for anyone with low name identification. Al Gore chased people out of the '00 race for similar reasons.

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Lansdowne, Pa.: I'm a former independent voter who changed his registration just to vote in this Democratic primary (planning to change registration back to independent). Just came from voting; people at the polls say they've seen a much higher turnout than they've in the past few general elections. Who does a huge turnout in the Philadelphia suburbs favor -- Obama or Clinton?

Dick Polman: As a rule of thumb, the higher the turnout in the Philadelphia suburbs, the better it should be for Obama. That's one of his core demographics (higher-income, better-educated). To have a shot at an upset, he needs to see roughly 45 percent of the statewide turnout coming from Philadelphia and surroundings.

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Burbank, Calif.: Please explain how delegate allocation works. I understand that both candidates are expected to get the threshold in probably every congressional district to win a delegate, and to win additional delegates they need to go above higher thresholds. What are these thresholds? Is it correct to presume that in areas such as Philadelphia, which appears to be voting solidly for Obama, that he is more likely to go above the second threshold to win more additional delegates than Clinton is in the rest of the state?

Dick Polman: It's very tough to explain the system here. Here's the bottom line: Even if Clinton wins a solid victory, she won't have a very impressive victory margin among pledged Pennsylvania delegates. The biggest clusters of delegates are awarded to congressional districts where past Democratic performance has been strongest -- i.e. heavily minority districts where the Obama vote will be strong. The smaller clusters of delegates are awarded to districts where past Democratic performance has been weaker -- i.e. some of the more rural districts where the Clinton vote will be strong. Likely result: no major Clinton victory among the Pennsylvania delegates ... unless she somehow wins in a landslide that nobody foresees.

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Los Angeles: Hi Professor -- what's your predication for tonight in terms of the popular vote?

Dick Polman: Overall popular vote? Maybe around two million voters, which would be a record. Hope that doesn't translate into a late night. But this whole election already feels like a late night. Clinton would like to win by a margin of 200,000 votes, so that she can slash deeply into Obama's national 700,000-vote popular vote margin.

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Dick Polman: I stayed around an extra 15 minutes, and still didn't get to all the questions. To those who posted in vain, I apologize. Thanks for stopping by, hope I was a good guest.

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