Keys to Obama’s Keystone Loss

How Pennsylvania was lost. Five reasons why Barack couldn't defeat Hillary.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

As most experts predicted, Hillary Clinton defeated Barack Obama in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania Democratic primary. Given his recent resurgence in momentum, however, many believed that Obama could close the gap to a respectable 5 or 6 percent. Instead, Clinton garnered a commanding 9.2 percent victory that will justify her extended stay in the increasingly volatile primary election. Although it is highly unlikely that Obama will lose the nomination, his inability to put Clinton away places his presidential run and the immediate future of the Democratic Party in serious peril.

Why couldn’t Barack seal the deal? Here are the top five reasons:

The Debates

Seven days before the election, 1-in-5 Pennsylvania voters remained undecided; 58 percent of them ultimately voted for Hillary Clinton. A key factor in this outcome was last week’s Democratic primary debate. Unlike the twenty contests that preceded it, last week’s debate paid considerable attention to Barack Obama’s recent scandals, flubs, and foibles. By spending most of the first hour discussing everything from flag pins to Bill Ayers, Clinton and her comrades at ABC successfully painted Barack Obama as an unknown and dangerous entity. This, combined with the remaining racial anxieties surrounding Jeremiah Wright, played a considerable role in swaying still-undecided voters.

Key Endorsements

Given the Clintons’ deep ties to the Democratic Party elite, Hillary was able to secure key Pennsylvania endorsements early in the race. In particular, Governor Ed Rendell (also the most popular mayor in Philadelphia history) and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Ravenstahl served as powerful surrogates who helped to shore up Hillary Clinton’s base in the Western part of the state. Philadelphia’s new African American mayor, Michael Nutter (whom Obama did not endorse in the local mayoral race in favor of Rep. Chaka Fattah) helped to keep Obama’s Philadelphia victory within an acceptable margin.

Barack’s Lack of Street Smarts

In Philadelphia, Democratic candidates help to mobilize election day voters by paying “street money” to local operatives in order to get out the vote. This strategy, which is perfectly legal, is a tried and true method of getting the city’s 3000 committeepersons to hit the block running. Citing philosophical and moral reasons, Obama elected to rely upon his unpaid volunteers rather than spending the half-million dollars that it would take to stimulate the local political economy. Although Barack won the city by 60 percent, he likely lost a sizeable chunk of voters due to his failure to feed the local Democratic machine. This decision not only reflects a failure to embrace the realpolitik –you think Hillary wouldn’t have dropped some money on the block if she had the dough?— but also a deeper naïveté that could hurt him in November.