Attention, pundits. It ain't over

The press may be fatigued by the Clinton-Obama battle, but the actual voters in Pennsylvania are still pumped -- no matter who wins.

By Rebecca Traister
Published April 22, 2008 3:00PM (UTC)
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"Isn't this exciting?!" bellowed an improbably peppy Hillary Clinton from the stage of the Liberty High School gymnasium on Sunday afternoon.

Anyone old enough to vote would guess that Clinton's level of hyperanimated glee -- at the end of six weeks of pitched battle for Pennsylvania -- surely came straight from the Eleanora Duse School of Dramatic Performance. But she managed to radiate something akin to jubilation as she stood in front of a crowd that had been waiting for hours, and was certainly not faking its buoyant, foot-stomping pleasure.

The energetic gathering was a reminder, in the final hours before the Pennsylvania primary, that the popular election narrative about how sick and tired we all are of the fierce Democratic primary battle is, at least in some climes, a fiction.

It's true that it's late April, and that most of the journalists covering the primaries have been doing so since the Pleistocene. It's true that the contest between Clinton and Obama has become ugly, that political loyalties are testing friendships, that many people are in a very bad mood about the whole thing. Pick up a paper and you'll find calls for Clinton to pack it in; talk to friends and you'll hear grousing from both sides about how the competition is tearing Democrats apart, how McCain is gaining ground while we poke at each other's eyes with flag pins and fake Bosnian bullets. Everyone's grumpy and exhausted, supposedly, and more than ready for it to be over: candidates, reporters and the public alike.

Everyone, that is, except for the millions of people who have yet to vote. In states like Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina, voters who never expected to have an opportunity to cast a meaningful primary ballot are being presented with a thrilling opportunity -- the chance to help pick a president. In Pennsylvania, the voters I met were positively rapturous that they still had a voice in choosing a Democratic nominee -- and, in yet another instance where actual voters prove confounding to the punditocracy, they also seemed to like both of their choices.

If you doubt that Pennsylvania voters are stoked, check the turnout. Barack Obama spoke to the biggest crowd of his campaign to date on Saturday, when 35,000 people gathered in Philadelphia's Independence Mall. Here in Bethlehem, a faded steel town of 70,000 60 miles north of Philly, Clinton supporters started lining up before 7 a.m. to get into the Liberty High gym for the scheduled 1 p.m. rally. By 12:30, there was a queue snaking for blocks, and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Clinton backer, was feeding on the line like a hungry college student at a brunch buffet.

"I think she could win by 5 to 12 points," Gov. Rendell told me as he shook hands and posed for photos. "But even if she wins by 6 or 7, that would be tremendous, considering the record levels of money that the Obama campaign has spent in Pennsylvania." Here Rendell was clearly tempering any lingering expectations of a Hillary rout, and hewing to campaign talking points about the $2.2 million-a-week ad habit Obama reportedly developed here in Pennsylvania, a budget that made him the highest political spender in state history, including Rendell himself.

Rendell also spoke about what makes Pennsylvania such a potential sweet spot for Clinton, recalling that both Clintons banked goodwill in the 1990s by supporting his turnaround of Philadelphia as mayor. The Clinton administration sent his city gobs of federal money. Then there's the state's mix of high-tech and traditional manufacturing jobs. "We've been hurt by trade," said Rendell. "Not as much as Ohio or Michigan, but we've been hurt, and we have a lot of blue-collar workers who love her." Rendell also noted Pennsylvania's "strong feminist movement" (huh!) and the fact that it's the third oldest state in the union (Clinton does great with the olds).

But political stereotypes and pre-polled voter profiles often crumble in the face of actual flesh-and-blood voters. While the hordes of people waiting for Hillary were predominantly white, and the majority of them female, many did not conform to the suppositions about who will be supporting whom on Tuesday.

Joesette Houpe, 37, one of the few black faces in the crowd, said she has a "trust issue" with Obama. "I don't think he has a real vision for the future, and maybe no plan behind his words," she said. Houpe's daughter, Brianna, 8, shyly allowed, "I like Hillary." She didn't care to elaborate, but her mother told me that at school, Brianna engages in political jousting with friends. "They'll tell her, 'Hillary's going to raise taxes,' and she'll say, 'So is Obama!'" As a family, said Houpe, "we watch a lot of news in our house. Either way, this is going to be history in the making, so she picks up some of that, I'm sure."

But most of the people I spoke to were warm toward Obama, and said they would vote for him if he were the Democratic candidate. When explaining their preference for Clinton their reasons often had to do with her experience, or a sense that she was a woman of action.

Psychologist Ziona Brotleit, 57, wore a T-shirt that said "A Century of Women on Top," and praised Clinton's brains. "What impresses me is that she has the information, the knowledge, and that she can speak about more specific information than her opponent is able to," she said. "And that's what I want, someone who can think."

And even the Obama fans in the crowd were anxious for the race to stay competitive. Lori Felker, a 29-year-old teacher from Chicago, was visiting her native Bethlehem along with Adam Strohm. Felker said she was happy that Clinton was visiting her hometown, and was anxious to hear how she would address local concerns. Both Felker and Strohm are Obama supporters, but Felker said, "I'm not at all anti-Hillary. If she were nominated, I would be excited to vote for her in the general election." Moreover, she added, she does not believe Clinton should drop out. "Everyone should stay in to the end," said Felker. "No way should she give up."

This attitude -- pretty refreshing if all you've been hearing is the noise-on-the-bus refrain about the Democrats going to hell in a handbasket for keeping this thing going -- was shared by the Bethlehem crowd. And looking at the crowd's size and energy, the excitement made sense. While the press maunders on about this dragging out, voters are getting up on weekend mornings and coming out to become more informed about a political contest that, were the race already over, they wouldn't have had to care about at all.

But not everybody's feelings about both Democrats were heartwarming. Dave Eck said he was in line "to listen to Hillary and reinforce my thinking about her." Eck, 47, works full-time at Wal-Mart, part-time at Nestle Purina, and performs regularly with a church band. A registered Republican who said he has often crossed party lines to vote Democrat, his thinking so far includes the feeling that Clinton "has experience as a senator, is a real professional, seems headstrong, knows what she wants to do, and if she got in, her husband could give her some tips and advice."

Eck said that he felt that "Obama has some decent things to say," but his wife, LeeAnne, was less charitable, and seemed to conform to some popular stereotypes about how the multiracial senator might play in the heartland. "I don't even know what his name is," said Lee Anne, laughing. "Bahama Mama? Osama?"

Eck's words were not received warmly by the people standing around her; one man firmly told her, "His name is Barack Obama." LeeAnne Eck looked somewhat abashed. "Fine. I'll learn it," she said. "But I just love Hillary. I love everything about her. And I heard that what's-his-name doesn't salute the American flag. I don't like that." At this, about half a dozen people in line chimed in to correct her misapprehensions about Obama's patriotism. "That's just not the case, and you shouldn't believe gossip about him being a Muslim, either," said a woman wearing two Hillary buttons. Charles Johns, 68, added, "And even if he were Muslim, that's no reason not to vote for him."

Johns, as it turned out, was pretty sure that he would be voting for Obama, but was anxious to hear Clinton anyway. "I'm an ecumenical guy," said the former Bethlehem Steel employee. "Barack Obama is an internationalist in a way that very few people can be," Johns said, adding, "I wish he had more experience." Johns said that he feels that anyone will be an improvement on the current administration. "I think McCain will probably be a good president," he said. "I think that Hillary Clinton will be a very fine president. I think Barack Obama will be a fine president. The difference is that he may become a great president."

Further down the line, I asked 6-year-old Melina Heffner whom she was supporting. She paused. "If you say McCain," said Melina's mother, Lori, 47, "you gotta go live with Grandma." Lori Heffner, who works in healthcare, said her family is split -- along gender lines -- between Clinton and Obama, and that she is loving the Democratic race. "But let me tell you," she said, "no one's ever told a man to drop out of a race before the end because he's messing it up. This is our choice, to the end. So we'll have a convention, not a coronation; that's a good thing. I remember conventions when it went to four ballots to pick a president. It's our right to make this choice; this is history happening in front of us, this is what we fought for, and we'd better get to make the full choice available to us."

And so it was in that spirit that everyone finally crammed into the Liberty gym -- a cop estimated the crowd at about 3,000 -- to hear Clinton's stump speech. She opened with a spiel about her Scranton roots, recalling "the many long, wonderful car rides from Chicago to Scranton" she'd enjoyed as a child. Forget the sniper-fire mess; Clinton has got to retire this factually challenged line. No family drive from Chicago to Scranton was ever "wonderful."

"We love you!" came a young female voice from somewhere in the bleachers, at the precise moment that the paramedics wheeled in an empty stretcher. For one discombobulating second, it seemed that the rally might have produced an Obama-esque scenario in which a twitterpated youngster had collapsed in rapture for her candidate. But no. It was actually a middle-aged guy who's had a brief diabetic episode. In the words of Emily Litella: Nevermind.

Clinton knew her crowd enough that when she talked of ending tax cuts for those making over $250,000 a year, she added wryly, "If you're in that group, I'm sorry." There were not a lot of people in that group in this audience. Clinton talked of reforming tax codes, bringing back manufacturing jobs, supporting small businesses. When she gave shout-outs to nurses, teachers and truck drivers, the crowd went bananas, growing even louder when she described the site of a defunct steel mill in Bucks County, where there is now a clean-energy complex. This was music to the ears of Lehigh Valley residents, still recovering from watching Bethlehem Steel rust before their eyes.

But it was when she talked of going after student loan companies, and making college affordable, that the roof really came off the place. When she discussed a plan to forgive school debt for those who go into nursing, teaching and law enforcement, the crowd reaction was so intense that I was forcibly reminded of a "Saturday Night Live" skit of more recent vintage, the one where Oprah is giving away all those cars and a woman gets so excited that her head pops off her body.

Clinton, deprived not so long ago of the playlist of nascent Obama-man Bruce Springsteen, concluded her speech as the notes of John Cougar Mellencamp's working-class anthem "Check It Out" ("Goin' to work on Monday ... Got a brand new house in escrow") began to echo through the gym. (Maybe the campaign didn't know that Mellencamp will perform at an Indiana Obama rally Tuesday.) But as Clinton got close to the exit, the music took a turn that, after Tuesday, will seem either prophetic or elegiac. "Just a small-town girl, livin' in a lonely world," sang Journey. Clinton disappeared beyond a blue curtain as the song's refrain, "Don't stop, believin'" played behind her.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Democratic Party Hillary Rodham Clinton Pennsylvania