One thing’s for sure: the Pennsylvania Democratic primary matters to Pennsylvanians. Since the last election, over 160,000 people have registered as Democrats. Reporters describe unprecedented enthusiasm among voters.
So it’s no surprise that candidate appearances regularly pop up on the front pages of the state’s papers, and at the top of local TV broadcasts.
But scratch beneath that surface and you’ll see that this primary comes with a massive asterisk attached. It hardly needs saying at this point, but barring a shocker, the fundamental math of the race—the fact that Clinton is irreversibly behind in the pledged delegate count—won’t change on Tuesday.
So barring big surprises, is this an extraneous, Potemkin primary?
Well, yes and no.
“The race is still up in the air,” says Tom Waseleski, editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who then adds that “it’s crucial only as a matter of symbolism.”
But symbolism matters—especially if one of the candidates, namely Clinton, is relying on symbolic victories to translate into an actual victory in Denver. Clinton’s best hope is to keep the race going, and somehow garner the support of enough unannounced superdelegates to put her over the top at the convention. Her hope rests on rolling up a string of late victories, giving her the appearance of new momentum, while narrowing the gaps in both pledged delegates and the popular vote. She can’t do that without a healthy margin in Pennsylvania.
Millions of voters are expected to turn out on Tuesday. Clinton is crisscrossing the state, reminding voters of her family’s Pennsylvania roots. Obama has, in the last month, spent an eye-popping $10 million on campaign ads. (Neither candidate in the state’s hard-fought ’06 Senate race spent half that amount in the closing month.) That all looks very much like a race.
At the same time, Pennsylvania journalists aren’t blind—who could be?—to the math.
“Odds are we move on from here,” says Larry Eichel, a Philadelphia Inquirer veteran who started covering Pennsylvania politics over thirty years ago, and whose reporting in this campaign has focused on Obama.
That’s not a new note from Eichel, who last month, in a front-page story, dissected the state of the race and warned readers that “The primary will be important, but not all-important.”
He’s quick to add that there is at least one game-changing scenario. “If Obama wins here, it’s over,” Eichel says. “And that’s a huge outcome. But it’s not the most likely outcome. Anytime you’ve got a race that you’re sure will end up 60 percent to 40 percent you don’t stop covering it.”
John Micek, a statehouse reporter for the Allentown Morning Call who is covering the Clinton campaign, put it this way: “Pennsylvania isn’t going to be determinative. But everyone’s just gotten caught up with the excitement of it all”—including the press. “It’s all one happy stew.”
“The media gets jazzed up because ‘Ooh, it’s April and we’ll have something to do.’ I’m not sure how much of the voters’ being excited is Pavlovian,” he says. “But that has just got to be a good thing, to have everyone engaged. That’s kind of our job,” he says.
There’s also the understandable tendency to cover what’s happening on your home turf.
“I don’t think there’s a news organization in any state that would emphasize that when there’s a primary in the state,” Eichel said. Especially when Clinton still has some chance—no matter how slim—at victory.
In addition to his March 17 story, Eichel points to a piece he wrote for last Sunday’s Inquirer that noted the fact that, contrary to some pundit expectations, Pennsylvania failed to become “the new Iowa” with the “same up-close-and-personal treatment.”
With both those pieces, Eichel says he wondered if editors would exasperatedly say, “You can’t write that.”
“But it was no problem,” he says. “I think we’ve been pretty straight with our readers.”