A Gray State for Obama?

Pennsylvania is a must win for McCain. But, Obama's secret weapon might be the over-60 crowd.


John McCain has decided that if he is to have any chance of winning the election, he must win Pennsylvania. It is a shrewd, maybe desperate, calculation that speaks to today's difficult political landscape. Pennsylvania has the second oldest population, and therefore is a natural demographic target for McCain.

Not so fast. There has been much talk about whether the commitment and enthusiasm of smitten 20-somethings might give Barack Obama an edge, but the Democrat has also built up a slim lead among older, more traditional voters in the Keystone State. There, recent polls have shown, voters care more about McCain's age than Obama's race.

Even more surprising than this inverted prejudice: Obama is leading in Pennsylvania and other swing states with the help of this older demographic—older men and women, particularly blacks, who first engaged with politics during the civil rights era and have now returned in full force.

My recent trip to the battleground state shows that some of Obama's most-devoted, most-invested volunteers are in fact retirees, Americans who long ago foreswore the kind of back-breaking grassroots work for which Obama's campaign is known. They are the parents and grandparents of the young people who have become the face of the Obama campaign. And the political forces that have brought them to Pennsylvania organizing may make all the difference on Election Day.


The West Philadelphia office of Obama for America lies on a windswept, trash-strewn block of the biggest city in one of the biggest swing states in this election. It's a clear-blue day—the last of the summer—and the mood inside the office, not unlike that of the candidate himself, is one of calm intensity. Stacks of paper documenting turf to walk or homes to call dot the space; computers bearing "vote builder" software line one wall. The office opened just after Labor Day, yet there are still not enough folding chairs to match the community's enthusiasm.

"Your handwriting is great," says Emma Davenport, one of three office managers, to a young girl constructing a sign to read: "West Philly for Obama." Emma turns to usher in a man with kindly, whiting eyebrows and a cane, obviously delighted to be in the mix. "This is Mr. Gill," she says. Freshly arrived from New York, Alfie Gill, 76, will spend the next three days in Pennsylvania, turning out the vote for Democrats.

Born in Barbados, where he served as the first assistant secretary of the island's Democratic Labour Party, Gill has not participated in an American political campaign since Barack Obama was six years old. "When Bobby Kennedy ran I had just come back here, and I didn't have a job and so I volunteered," he says with a pointed, clipped accent that reflects both his island roots and his former career as an acting coach.

Barack Obama has brought him back.