When native son Joe Biden held a campaign rally at the Riverfront Sports Complex in Scranton, Pennsylvania in October 2008, the future vice president could count on a vote from its owner, Michael Vacendak. That’s not the case three years later.
“People are less enthusiastic about the election as a whole, almost like we’ve been burned so many times now, it doesn’t matter who’s elected,” said Vacendak, 53. A registered Democrat, he is considering backing Herman Cain, a former Godfather’s Pizza Inc. chairman, because “he’s more of a businessman than a politician, which I kind of think is what’s needed.”
Pennsylvania’s 20 Electoral College votes are critical for President Barack Obama’s re-election as his support has slipped in battleground states such as Virginia and North Carolina. The president captured the state in 2008 with 54.5 percent of the vote. Since then, Republicans have taken Pennsylvania’s governorship, a U.S. Senate seat and five U.S. House seats from Democrats.
Obama’s disapproval rating in Pennsylvania stands at 54 percent and 51 percent say he doesn’t deserve re-election, according to a Sept. 28 Quinnipiac University poll. That poll also showed Obama tied with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a contender for the Republican presidential nomination.
“If it was Obama-Romney, as of right now, it would be tough for the president to carry Pennsylvania,” former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, said in an interview.
Blue Collar Workers
With time, he said, the president will regain the advantage, especially if he continues to push a jobs theme that gives him “a populist voice, which resonates tremendously well with blue collar workers.”
Almost one in five Pennsylvania workers are employed by the manufacturing or construction sectors, according to Labor Department data compiled by Bloomberg. Manufacturing jobs in the state decreased by 10.5 percent from August 31, 2008 to August 31, 2011, the data shows. The unemployment rate in the Keystone State is 8.2 percent, up from 6.8 percent in January 2009, when Obama took office.
Obama’s prospects in Pennsylvania will depend on how much support he gets in such Democratic strongholds as Scranton, an old coal mining town that was Biden’s home until he was 10 years old.
“If the president can’t win Scranton, he’s not going to win the state,” said Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Obama and Republican nominee Senator John McCain, of Arizona, spent more than $5 million in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton media market in 2008, which put it in the top 10 percent of targeted markets, according to New York-based KantarMedia/CMAG, which tracks political advertising. Ken Goldstein, the company’s president, said he expects the same results in 2012.
With its high percentage of Democratic voters, the re-election will “want to maximize” those votes. “They don’t need to just win Scranton, they need to really win Scranton,” said Goldstein.
Once the hub of a thriving steel industry, Scranton’s population has been falling since the Great Depression and today is about 76,000, census data shows. The unemployment rate in Lackawanna County, in which Scranton is the county seat, is 9.6 percent, compared with the national rate of 9.1 percent. The number of manufacturing jobs in the region in 2010 was 28,000, down from 43,000 in 2001. Democratic voter registration in the county is twice that of Republicans.
The White House has tried to maintain a connection with the state through 29 visits made by Biden, 68. On Sept. 16, the vice president toured flood damage in Duryea, about eight miles from Scranton, from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. On Oct. 18, Biden touted the administration’s jobs plan in York and Philadelphia, events covered by local media.
At Doc Magrogan’s Oyster House, just outside of Scranton, two local labor leaders, a county official, and a former local Republican Party official shared oysters, beer and their theories on why the political environment has soured on Obama.
“There’s a lot less hope now than when he ran on hope,” said Drew Simpson, 47, a leader of the local carpenters union and a former high school wrestler.
At least half of the approximately 1,400 members in his union “are not happy” with the administration’s job creation efforts and its support for the Colombia, South Korea, and Panama trade deals, which they say will cost U.S. jobs, he said.
“The frustration that our members have are with the whole political system,” Simpson said. “It’s not Republican. It’s not Democrat. It’s not independent. It’s not Tea Party. It’s all of them, but it rubs off on Obama because he’s the head man.”
That’s because, said Rick Schraeder, 61, president of the local electrical workers union, “people are losing things they worked their whole life for, some of them have to cash in retirement plans. So, when they suffer, they want to blame whoever’s there, whether they’re responsible or not.”
Paul Catalano, 68, the former chairman of the county Republican Party, said Obama’s “fallen short of leadership, they don’t look at him right now as a leader.”
A similar downbeat assessment can be heard at Hank’s Hoagies, a favorite stop for Biden when he’s in town. The small store is located just a few blocks away from the vice president’s childhood home on a tree-lined street with houses decorated for Halloween.
After picking up a ham and cheese sandwich, Paul McGloin, 60, who owns a florist business in Scranton, stopped for an interview in which he said that while he favored Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary he voted for Obama in the general election. He’s not sure he’ll do it again.
Uncertainty About Obama
“I really wasn’t that enthusiastic in 2008 and I was hoping Hillary would get the nomination,” McGloin said, adding that business at his store has gone down about 20 percent since 2008.
Shampooing hair in the downtown salon, NOW Hair, registered Democrat Kristen Sherman said she’s decided not to vote for Obama again.
“Democrats are being far too passive about things,” she said. “Bush, at least, stuck to his guns. Now I feel like we’re in this begging match with the Senate to pass bills that are going to help Americans.”
Ben LaBolt, an Obama re-election spokesman, said the campaign will be working to win back Sherman and other disillusioned supporters by drawing contrasts with the eventual Republican nominee.
“While the president’s fighting to create jobs now and restore economic security for the middle class, none of the Republican candidates have offered a plan that would achieve either goal,” he said. “Instead they’ve repackaged the same economic policies that led to our challenges.”
‘Give ‘Em Hell’
Anne Kearns, 76, raised six children in the three-story, six-bedroom house where Biden grew up. She plans to support Obama and Biden in next year’s election, as she did in 2008.
“I think they’re doing the best that they can with what they’re working with,” she said in an interview in the living room of the modest home.
Kearns said Obama should rely on Biden to communicate the administration’s message to middle-class voters because “Obama is the kind of personality that is not forceful in his talk. ’Give ‘em hell Harry’ is what everybody wants, get like Truman, you tell them what’s going on. Don’t present it to them.”
Jim Kennedy, 71, a retired judge who used to walk the vice president to and from school, said Scranton Democrats will rebound in time for the election. “Obama will do well here because of Joe Biden,” he said. “Winning is the name of the game, dragging every vote out, and we know how to do that up here.”