CLIPS: Obama’s strategy pays off in Pennsylvania (11/05/08)

Of The Patriot-News

Barack Obama ‘s strategy of spending his campaign time in emerging battlegrounds — instead of old battlegrounds like Pennsylvania — was vindicated as he easily carried our 21 electoral votes despite John McCain’s repeated visits.

Turns out we weren’t as much of a swing state as McCain needed us to be.

McCain placed his hopes on Pennsylvania by spending far more time campaigning here, hoping to steal a state that pollsters felt was safely Obama ‘s.

Obama campaigned mostly in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but spent a whole lot of money on TV advertising statewide.

With 98 percent of the precincts reporting as of press time, Obama had a double-digit lead in Pennsylvania, 55 percent to 44 percent, based on unofficial returns. If that holds, it will be the biggest winning margin for a presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972.

“There was nothing in a sense unpredictable about this,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs in Lancaster.

Good night for Democrats

Democrats generally enjoyed a good night here.

In Congress, U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, D-Schuylkill County, easily won re-election, defeating Republican Toni Gilhooley.

Two longtime Democratic incumbents — Reps. John Murtha and Paul Kanjorski — kept their seats despite tough challenges. Murtha kept his seat despite controversial comments about his district. Kanjorski held off Lou Barletta, the Republican mayor of Hazleton who gained national attention for pushing tough laws against illegal immigrants.

Two Democrats took row offices: Auditor General Jack Wagner won re-election, and venture capitalist Rob McCord was elected state treasurer.

Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett won re-election, beating Democrat John Morganelli in a close race.

McCain’s effort falls short

But the presidential contest wasn’t close.

McCain’s loss wasn’t from a lack of effort. He spent 25 days in Pennsylvania since June, compared to just nine from Obama . McCain advertised in Pennsylvania more than every other state except for Florida.

But McCain lost Philadelphia and its suburbs by a greater margin than President Bush did in 2004, and won the predominantly Republican midstate and ‘T’ regions of the state by far smaller margins, with some noticeable losses in places like Dauphin County.

Cities like Scranton, Erie and Pittsburgh broke heavily for Obama , taking away any chance for the Arizona senator to make up significant ground in the surrounding northeastern, northwestern and southwestern regions.

Still, several strategists from both parties reached Tuesday night didn’t fault McCain’s initial strategic decision to try to win Pennsylvania.

They said he just got overtaken by an incumbent president whose approval ratings are at historic lows, an economy that may be headed toward recession, and an opponent with a record war chest and a history-making story.

“I’m convinced the people wanted a change,” said William Green, a Pittsburgh public relations consultant who has worked for state Republicans. “They didn’t care what it is. They just wanted something different. … I think this was a very anti-George Bush vote.”

“The idea to play for Pennsylvania was good,” agreed Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based public relations and political consultant. “Unfortunately, he ran a campaign for the reddest of red states to please the right wing of his party … and Pennsylvania is too moderate a state for that.”

But other analysts questioned McCain’s decision, as some have been for quite awhile, wondering why he’d spend time in a state seemingly out of reach when there were closer races elsewhere.

“It was absolutely a waste of time,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political expert at Gettysburg College. “He wasn’t going to turn Pennsylvania.”

But it wasn’t really about Pennsylvania, she said. It was a public relations tactic for the rest of the country; if he gives up on Pennsylvania, the rest of the country sees it as giving up on the election.

As for Obama , some criticized him for not spending more time in Pennsylvania. Gov. Ed Rendell urged him to visit more often.

But Obama proved he had the right strategy, said Christopher Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

“Obama folks never seemed to really panic,” he said. “They must’ve felt comfortable here all along, and they were vindicated.”

What it means

There was disagreement about what it all means for the future of presidential politics in Pennsylvania.

Ceisler said 2008 goes into the books as a Democratic year because of the economic problems. But looking at Pennsylvania’s history, he believes the state is still very much in play for either party.

“In two years, we could be having a completely different conversation,” Ceisler said.

But Green disagreed, arguing this may be the last cycle that Pennsylvania plays such a starring role for some time. With five straight wins for the Democrats in presidential races, at least for national candidates, Green said, “this is no longer a swing state.”

“This is a blue state,” Green said