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The Race Race

How bigoted is Pennsylvania, really?

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Democratic strategist James Carville once famously described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other and Alabama in between. And the notion that a bunch of conservative white folks are sandwiched between two more liberal areas is a generally accepted Keystone State cliché. It's not completely conjecture: 18 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties are less than 1 percent black, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2006.

But is the center of the state so hopeless that black candidates must leapfrog from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia for support?

Larry Davis, the director and founder of Pitt's Center on Race and Social Problems, thinks not.

"I think people talk about [how race affects an election] like a light switch," he says. "And I talk about it like a dimmer switch," whose effect is mixed in with other factors and harder to determine. And while Davis admits that we haven't become colorblind, he says "America should be proud of itself" for the progress it has made.

So why do people, like our own Gov. Ed Rendell, suggest that Sen. Barack Obama's race will make him a need-not-apply candidate in parts of the state? Last month, Rendell made headlines by telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that in Pennsylvania, "You've got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate."

"You use whatever difference you have," Davis says. "People do that naturally. It's like boxers in the ring: You're trying to hurt each other."

At any rate, Obama's worst footing in Pennsylvania is in the state's largely white middle, according to a Feb. 27 Quinnipiac University poll.

In the central region (made up of the counties that run from Bedford to Lancaster and north between McKean and Bradford), he trails Republican nominee-to-be Sen. John McCain 49 percent to 31 percent in a question about a hypothetical November match-up. In the state as a whole, Obama and McCain are within the margin of error, with Obama leading 42-40.

On the other hand, Sen. Hillary Clinton does almost as poorly in that region, falling behind McCain 49 percent to 33 percent. (Statewide, Clinton leads McCain 44-42, which is again within the margin of error.) Obama actually fares better against McCain than does Clinton in the state's northwest region, which is less than 4 percent black-populated.

As Quinnipiac Polling Institute assistant director Clay Richards points out, those numbers may have more to do with McCain's popularity than with anything else. "Senator McCain is extremely popular in Pennsylvania," Richards says. "He has never lost serious support among Pennsylvanians."

Among Democrats statewide, Clinton has a decided edge in the primary battle. While the Feb. 27 poll shows Clinton leading by only 6 points, other polls conducted before and since have shown leads closer to the 20 percentage-point range. In a March 12 conference call, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told reporters that Clinton was a "prohibitive favorite" in Pennsylvania and "should win by a healthy margin."

Obama's biggest hurdle is among white women, who overwhelmingly support Clinton. But he's much closer among white male Democrats. Clinton's got him by only 3 points there -- a statistical dead heat.

"There's obviously a struggle among white males," Quinnipiac's Richards says. "It's been the defection of white males to Obama in other states that has brought him victory. So far, that hasn't happened in Pennsylvania."

That may be because Obama faces a host of other demographic challenges in Pennsylvania. Richards points out that the state as a whole is less educated, less wealthy and older than the national average -- none of which bodes well for Obama, whose appeal among whites is strongest among the college-educated and affluent. Among those without a college degree, Democrats preferred Clinton by 13 points in the Quinnipiac poll; Obama leads Clinton by 12 points among Democrats who did graduate college.

Working for Obama is the fact that fewer Pennsylvanians have made up their minds about whether they like him. While 49 percent think of him approvingly, according to the Quinnipiac poll, only 26 percent view him negatively.

One way or the other, voters have stronger feelings about Clinton. Clinton is just about deadlocked between people who find her favorable and those who view her unfavorably, with only 7 percent saying they haven't heard enough to have an opinion.

And that's a challenge for her, says Richards, who adds that combating negative perceptions is generally harder than generating a positive one when people don't know much about you.

"Even Republicans don't have a bad image of [Obama,] necessarily," Richards says. "They may find him attractive and interesting, even though they wouldn't vote for him."

Or not. Polls may be overestimating Obama's appeal, Richards acknowledges, since pollsters have a hard time revealing racial animus.

"Even though polling is supposed to be anonymous," he says, "voters tend to give politically correct answers, and there's not a whole heck of a lot that we can do about that."

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