Take it From This Pennsylvania Girl: Barack’s Remarks Could Hurt Him in the Keystone State

In my home town of Pittsburgh over the weekend and early this week, I conducted an informal poll of western Pennsylvanians concerning Barack Obama’s remarks about people in “these small towns in Pennsylvania.” I would speculate that his remarks will hurt him in next Tuesday’s democratic primary.

In all, I talked with fourteen people: seven at random in a coffee shop, six at a Hillary Clinton rally at Carnegie-Mellon University where Chelsea Clinton spoke, and one a relative (my sister-in-law, who hails from Saegertown, Pa., which also happens to be the actress Sharon Stone’s home town).

To each person with whom I spoke, I read the controversial portion of Barack Obama’s statement about small town Pennsylvanians: “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

I followed up by asking them if the statement would affect the chances that they would vote for Obama in next week’s Democratic primary (Pittsburghers tend to be Democrats, and as it happens, everyone with whom I spoke was either a Democrat or an independent). I also asked some of them questions like whether the remark offended them personally.

While the majority said the statement would not affect their vote, two of these 14 individuals—both of whom described themselves as undecided Democratic voters—said they would be less likely to vote for Obama because of it.

“[That comment] turns me off [to Obama] a little bit,” said Christina Leffard, 20, a Carnegie-Mellon student and registered Democrat who hails from a suburb 35 miles outside Pittsburgh. “That’s not like my town at all. I’m not the type to get up in arms, but I think you can’t just characterize people and I’m sure he’d be offended if we characterized him [in that way.]” She added, “My family would be more offended than I am.”

Another Carnegie-Mellon student and registered Democrat, Claire Morgenstern, 20, who identified herself as a reporter for Carnegie-Mellon’s student newspaper The Tartan, said that in the wake of the comment, she would not vote for Obama. In particular, she noted the inconsistency between the statement and the populist tone of Obama’s talk at a recent campaign appearance in Pittsburgh.

“When [Obama] came to Soldiers’ and Sailors’ [Memorial Hall at the University of Pittsburgh], the whole event was designed for the working class labor force that exists in Western Pennsylvania,” she said. “To hear that quote from him after that is disconcerting. I mean, writing off a huge portion of the country, that kind of elitism is not going to get you elected.”

While no other Pennsylvania Democrats with whom I spoke said Obama’s remarks about small towners would be likely to change their votes, some suggested the remarks seemed to reflect a shallow understanding of life in small towns and of the reasons people who are more traditional-minded may hold the views they do.

“He identified a bunch of conservative ideals and suggested they result from bitterness,” said Andrew Peters, 21, a Carnegie-Mellon student and reporter for The Tartan. “To say people in Central Pennsylvania are more conservative, it’s not that I feel it’s untrue…[but] that’s nothing new, and it may not be the result of being bitter, angry people, and not necessarily even the result of 25 years of de-industrialization. Maybe there’s more to being a conservative than that. I don’t think he’s making the right connections.”

“Small town Pennsylvania people tend to be NRA people, it’s the way many are raised, and they see [the right to bear arms] as a right that could be taken away. They don’t want the government to interfere,” said my sister-in-law, Bridget Robinson (an independent, she plans to vote for McCain but is quoted here for her knowledge about small-town Pennsylvania, having lived in two of them over the course of her childhood and adolescence).

In particular, she finds Obama’s suggestion that small town Pennsylvanians are clinging to religion due to bitterness to be off the mark, and offensive. “People are clinging to religion not just in small towns but all over the country for inspiration and community,” she said.

She adds that Obama’s idea that small town people tend to be religious out of bitterness reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of small town life.

“It’s true there’s not much to do in small towns, if you’re not part of a church or a synagogue,” she says. “[Church] is like a small town meeting place for people. It’s social as well as spiritual.”

Again, to sum up: although not many of the Pennsylvanians with whom I informally spoke this week said Mr. Obama’s remarks would probably affect their votes in next week’s Democratic primary, two undecided Democrats said they were less likely to vote for him as a result of the comments. And several said his remarks reflected a shallow understanding of life in small towns.

Most striking to me is that two of the voters who said they were turned off by the remarks were young urban Democrats attending an elite university. If even a small portion of Pennsylvania Democrats who hail from an upper class, highly educated, urban demographic feel offended by and turned off to Obama because of the remarks, I’m speculating that an even higher proportion of blue collar democrats in small Pennsylvania towns may be turned off. In the coming days I plan to hopefully interview some blue collar, small town Pennsylvania Democrats about this.

Another thing I noticed is some of the people with whom I spoke seemed not to have heard the remarks, or not to have heard about them at all. When I read them the remarks, I got the sense that most—even those Obama supporters who said their support for him was unchanged—were made uncomfortable by them. For that reason, I think Hillary Clinton’s strategy of running commercials reiterating the remarks is probably a good strategy for her.

Anyone who knows Pennsylvania knows that the state is chock-full of small towns stretching from Philly in the east to Pittsburgh in the west. In fact, so many towns blanket this woodsy state (whose name in old English means, “Penn’s woods”) that I, who lived here till I was 17 and often return to visit, constantly meet people from small Pennsylvania towns I’ve never even heard of.

If even a narrow margin of Pennsylvania Democrats are swayed by the remark, it could hurt Obama in Pennsylvania. And based on what I heard, I think a narrow margin of Democratic Keystone staters are pretty smokin’ mad.

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1 response to Take it From This Pennsylvania Girl: Barack’s Remarks Could Hurt Him in the Keystone State
  • 1.

    Marylin Pitz

    April 16, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    The longer this primary season---though in some ways too long---the more that gets revealed about the candidates. Obama is just as human, just as subject to prejudices and attitudes as everyone else he supposes he's going to "uplift." As you've pointed out before, he's bee as "uplifting" to his pastor as to anyone else who isn't hyponotized by him. Of course, there are plenty of them--he's a magnet, a charmer, has all the attributes of a master salesman. Anybody need some snake oil?

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