Welcome to Pennsylvania:
Steve Woods sat drinking a Coors Light and talking with his buddies. A Philadelphia Phillies spring-training game was on TV, and he glanced up at it every time the audio picked up the crack of the bat. I asked him if the presidential campaign interested him. “Absolutely,” he said. Rapid fire, he told me the issues he cared about: “No. 1, gas prices. It’s killing everybody. No. 2, immigrants. They should go back to Mexico. Three, guns. Everybody should have the right to bear arms. In fact, everyone should have a gun in this day and age.”
I wondered if he was a Republican. “Are you kidding?” he said. “I’m a Democrat all the way. I hate Republicans.”
Politics here just won’t fit into Chris Matthews’ little boxes. Obama is doing better than expected among this demographic, but it’s not an easy sell.
Woods, who is 32, said that he had been trained at the local technical high school as a land surveyor but had been working only sporadically. He had been picking up “side jobs,” a term I heard over and over again in Levittown. It refers to temporary labor: carpentry, landscaping, junk hauling.
Woods was for Hillary Clinton, and if Obama was the Democratic nominee, he said he would vote for the Republican, John McCain, in November. “Hillary all the way,” he said. “We need Hillary. She knows the game. Obama has no experience. He talks about change, change, change. Everybody says he’s new; he’s refreshing; he’s charismatic. I don’t think he’s got a clue.”
Obama’s lofty rhetoric did not move these men, but neither did it go over their heads, exactly. They heard it, and it seemed to have the opposite of its intended effect. It bothered them. All insisted that his race had nothing to do with their coolness to him. “The guy does a lot of talking, but I haven’t heard him say anything great yet,” said Dennis Haines, a 38-year-old self-employed electrical contractor and a Democrat who thought he would vote for Clinton in the primary but probably for McCain in November.
Times are really hard for blue collar workers in Pennsylvania, and Levittown is a planned community that originally specifically excluded blacks. It’s not exactly the kind of place that Obama should do well. But he’s doing okay, which may be all he needs to do. In fact, he’s doing well enough that Rep. Patrick Murphy doesn’t feel silly making this prediction.
Obama’s most important ally in the Levittown area is the first-term congressman Patrick Murphy, the son of a Philadelphia cop, an Iraq war veteran and a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of self-identified Democratic moderates and conservatives. His Eighth Congressional district is among the more volatile in the nation and regularly swings back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. (Even Murphy’s wife is a Republican and a swing voter. She switched parties to vote for Obama in the primary and plans to switch back. “I pick my spots,” Murphy told me in explaining why he did not think it was worth trying to prevail upon her to stay a Democrat. “She voted for me, or at least she says she did.”)
Murphy, who is 34, says he believes that Obama offers the best chance for quickly ending the American involvement in Iraq, which he fervently opposes. He told me, “Barack Obama is going to win Levittown.” I asked him if he really believed that. “Yes, I do,” he said. “He will win it.”
I wouldn’t make that prediction, but I also would never bet against Patrick Murphy. Patrick is what is called ‘a winner’.