John L. Micek, 4/13/2016 [Archive]

Sanders Faces Tough Challenge in Pennsylvania

By John L. Micek

Marion Cuttino was feeling the Bern.

As she stood in a hotel ballroom in Philadelphia last week, Cuttino had a Bernie Sanders campaign sign under one arm.

There was a blue-and-white Sanders campaign sticker on her shirtfront. And with just minutes to go before the Vermont senator was to make his pitch to labor activists who were generally supporting Hillary Clinton, she was evangelizing.

"He's for the working people, he's for all people," she said, her praise tumbling out in a jumble of superlatives. "He wants to keep jobs in the U.S. He wants to make everyone pay their fair share of taxes."

Sanders pitched more of the same to the members of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO on the final morning of the statewide labor organization's weeklong convention.

In a 45-minute speech, he fire-hosed a greatest hits collection of campaign promises that included a call for a higher minimum wage, free public college and university tuition, a tax on Wall Street speculators and a vow to reform a "corrupt" campaign finance system.

The contrast between the reception afforded Sanders and that of Clinton, who made her own, rock-star like appearance before the labor activists barely 24 hours earlier, could not have been more clear.

The labor activists clearly liked Sanders and were into The Gospel According to Class Warfare.

But, even with all her clear liabilities (not least of which is a looming FBI probe), labor still loves Clinton, with whom it has a relationship going back some 25 years.

And, that in a nutshell, is the same problem Sanders faces with Pennsylvania Democrats more broadly: Will his revolutionary rhetoric play in the Rust Belt?

Pennsylvania's April 26 primary is an important test case. Former President Bill Clinton twice carried the state in 1992 and 1996. Hillary Clinton won here in 2008, defeating another insurgent candidate, an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama.

"This isn't 2008 and the team behind [Clinton] isn't as young or as active as they were then, but still, [Pennsylvania] is Clinton country," said one veteran Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could speak freely. Indeed, the state's Democratic establishment, including both current Gov. Tom Wolf and former Gov. Ed Rendell, as its senior senator, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, have endorsed her candidacy.

Dan Long, who like Cuttino, is a member of the Communications Workers of America, which has endorsed Sanders, thinks the Vermonter can pull out a win among Democrats who (to resurrect James Carville's tired maxim) live in that vast Alabama that separates Pennsylvania's two largest cities.

"I think he'll fare well here," said Long, who lives in Bellefonte, Pa., which is just down the road from Penn State University (which could be Sanders country). "His message will resonate well with blue-collar people in a blue-collar state."

Sanders was on something of a roll as his campaign landed in delegate-rich Pennsylvania last week. Prior to Sanders' stop here last Wednesday, he'd won seven of the last eight Democratic caucuses and primaries. Last Saturday, Sanders added to that tally, winning Wyoming's Democratic caucus.

It was a momentum-builder, but not a game-changer.

Clinton holds an average lead of 16 percentage points in Pennsylvania, according to RealClear Politics. And they still have to meet in New York's April 19 primary match, where Clinton is heavily favored.

One big Keystone State problem for Sanders? His victories in other parts of the country were partly powered by independent voters who were lured in his message of economic populism. Pennsylvania holds a closed primary, meaning only registered Democrats are allowed to vote. So that's a whole swath of voters off the table.

But beyond any popular vote result, Sanders still faces a daunting challenge when it comes to closing the all-important delegate gap.

With 2,383 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, Clinton has 1,745 to Sanders' 1,080, according to MSNBC. That tally includes both pledged and so-called "super-delegates." Pennsylvania has 210 delegates up for grabs.

As The New York Times reported, even with recent wins in such states as Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Utah, Hawaii and Wisconsin, Sanders still needs to win an "estimated 56 percent of the remaining pledged delegates nationwide" to overtake Clinton.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the influential head of the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee, doesn't see that happening. Brady will be among the senior party leaders who will be out "beating the bushes" on primary day on Clinton's behalf.

"I'm sure he has some support," Brady said. "But not more than her."


©Copyright 2016 John L. Micek, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at

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