April 15, 2008

OBAMA: Guns and religion in Pennsylvania

After the American Century

Obama has closed the gap between himself and Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, and depending on which poll you believe, he is now behind by 4-5%. This will allow him to suffer an "acceptable loss" on April 22 - by which I mean a small loss compared to his initial weakness in the state, where he trailed by more than 10%. Note, too, that he narrowly leads John McCain in Pennsylvania polling, though Hillary leads by considerably more. 

However, Obama has not been having an easy time of it of late, due to some ill chosen words in San Francisco, when trying to explain why he is not winning in the polls in Pennsylvania. To summarize, he said voters were bitter, and that they were clinging to guns and religion. This was a rare mistake in what has generally been an extremely good campaign, and Clinton is riding it for all it is worth, in every campaign appearance.

Pennsylvania is a state I once knew very well. I grew up in the center of the state, in Boalsburg, which is far enough west to make me a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. The town claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, and it was the sort of small town where lots of farm boys were in the schools, and these boys went hunting with their fathers when they were about 11 or 12 years old. Some would come into school on Monday with tales of killing their first deer. Even if all you know about Pennsylvania is the early scenes from The Deer Hunter, then you know that hunting and gun ownership are not about fear. Whatever else might be wrong with the world, the rural Pennsylvanian can still go hunting. The woods will welcome the hunter each fall, and the man will recall when he was there for the first time with his father. Obama simply got that part wrong. Rural white Pennsylvanians love to hunt, and they connect gun ownership to going into the woods after game. No doubt in Chicago, where Obama lives, gun ownership has another meaning, and gun control has considerable appeal. But hunting and gun ownership are simply not debatable for the sort of people I grew up with. He has lost some votes for that mistake.

Unfortunately, Obama managed to drag religion into his remarks as well, as another thing Pennsylvanians cling to. Remember that the state was founded by Quakers, who were extremely tolerant about religion, allowing any sect to immigrate into the state. As a result, the variety of religions in Pennsylvania is greater than just about anywhere in the country. You can find sizable groups of Mennonites, Amish, Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Catholics, to make a short list. These groups do not merely persist, they flourish, and it is not because people cling to them due to bad times. The churches as I knew them, through endless suppers, bingo games, small carnivals, bake sales, coffee hours, markets, and strawberry shortcake specials, were the sinews that held communities together. In the small town you might well go to some of the events at another church, which helped them to raise money. We all knew one another, and the church was not so much a matter of doctrine as a matter of cultural identity. I do not think religious doctrine then was or now is quite as central to church-going in Pennsylvania as it might be in Alabama or Chicago. Rather, people were comfortable with their particular church, without being particularly zealous. Obama should get to the chicken dinners, and then have some apple cobbler and coffee.

When I lived in rural Pennsylvania, there were almost no Black people. There were none in my elementary school and only one fellow in seventh grade, as far as I can recall. Hillary will seem a more familiar figure to them than he will. Obama is definitely my candidate, but I wish he had found better local advisers and had practiced his bowling before heading out into the hinterland.  My guess is that for a decent showing in the primary there, he will have to rely on getting out the vote in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and the other cities. More generally, he will have to use his ability to learn quickly to understand this part of the electorate a bit better, or McCain will win Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the White House.