Monday, March 17, 2008

Keystone State Tour--Stop 1

With a few weeks until the Pennsylvania primary, I thought we’d take some time to take a tour of the state and sample a bit of its political history and demography, especially in areas that I think will prove crucial to each candidate’s success.

After the Ohio primary, I highlighted the role the southeastern part of the state played in Hillary Clinton’s win. More rural, downscale, and white than the rest of the state, the area went overwhelmingly for Clinton. Much of the prognostication about Pennsylvania is centering on Obama’s ability to regain his momentum among downscale white voters. An area I want to focus on over the next little while is the southwestern part of the state, an area that mirrors Ohio in many ways.

A steep test for Obama could be southwestern Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district. The district, although redrawn (heavily gerrymandered) quite a bit after the last census, has been represented by Congressman Jack Murtha since 1974. The district snakes throughout SW Pennsylvania taking in some of the exurban Pittsburgh suburbs and larger cities like Washington and Johnstown. One of the “old bulls” of the House and currently the chair of the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense, Murtha’s politics are a good fit for the district. CQ’s Politics in America describes the district thusly:

“The strangely contorted 12th hopscotches in southwestern Pennsylvania across nine counties, eight of which are shared with other districts. Once a booming center of coal, steel, and iron production, this area is diversifying to escape economic distress and industrial loss…The 12th has been a Democratic stronghold since the New Deal. Like other Pennsylvania towns with an industrial past and aging residents, Johnstown wants federal help, but many voters are more socially conservative than the national Democratic Party.”

In the 2004 presidential race, the district narrowly went for John Kerry, giving him 51%. Gore won by larger margins in the parts of the counties currently in the district. Demographically, it is overwhelmingly white (95%) with only 3% African American. The median income $30,612 is quite a bit below the state average of $42,000. It has the state’s lowest percentage of college graduates (14% vs. state average of 22%) and the highest percentage of elderly residents (19% over age 64 vs. state average of 16%).

To this point, Congressman Murtha has yet to endorse either candidate. The above demographic profile would seem to bode well for Clinton. One aspect of the district that may help Obama somewhat is the fact that in recent years the district has seen an influx of high tech biomedical and defense research (thanks in large part to Murtha’s largess in steering federal funds home). These workers, more likely to be higher income and education, fit Obama’s voter profile. Whether their votes will outweigh the pro-Clinton bias of the district remains to be seen. This district should prove to be among the most difficult for Obama, given its recent trends, while still being Democratic territory.

**Update: On Wednesday, it was announced that Congressman Murtha was endorsing Senator Clinton.

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