The steel mills and coal mines of western Pennsylvania helped fuel the nation’s economic engine. Today, old factory shells and boarded-up storefronts stand as bleak reminders of those once-prosperous times.
But the voters in working-class enclaves such as this still are a sought-after prize in presidential politics, and many are belatedly coming around to Democratic nominee Barack Obama.
In the Democratic primaries, working-class whites consistently backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Later polls showed them overwhelmingly favoring Republican nominee John McCain.
Now, driven by fears that their personal finances could further deteriorate, many see Obama as the better choice — their thinking in some cases driven more by concern about how McCain would handle the economy than any growing admiration for his rival.
"I don’t know that there’s anything I particularly like about him (Obama), but I dislike McCain, and I dislike the way the country is, and Republicans need to change," said lifelong Republican Ruth Ann Michel, 64, a retiree shopping in a market in Butler on a recent day. She said her vote for Obama would be her first for a Democratic presidential candidate.
While talk in these parts is mostly about the economy, a prominent — if not unspoken subtext — is race. A study of the impact of racial attitudes on the election conducted by The Associated Press with Yahoo News and Stanford University found that whites without a college education were much more likely to hold negative views of blacks than those with a college education.
Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell says a drowning man doesn’t care what color the person is who throws him a life preserver.
"This election is going to be decided when a husband and wife sit at a kitchen table, or a single parent sits at the kitchen table, looks at their bills and figures out who is most likely to help them with their financial condition," Rendell said. "If the answer’s Barack Obama, nobody’s going to care whether he’s black, green, orange, purple, fuchsia or whatever."
In April, Rendell backed Clinton in the primary and had to answer questions after saying some whites in his state were likely to vote against Obama because of his race.
Darryl Hendon, 50, of Beaver Falls, who is black and on disability, said he thinks some white Democrats are reluctant to back Obama because of his race.
Since early September, growing numbers of whites who have not finished college have been expressing the view that Obama cares about people like them, even as fewer say so about McCain, according to AP-GfK polling.
In early September, McCain had a 26-point advantage among white voters without a college degree who were likely to vote, according to the poll. But by late September, the advantage had dropped to 7 points, with McCain leading 46 percent to 39 percent among this group.
For Obama, that’s far better than Democrats have done in recent presidential elections. President Bush carried whites who haven’t finished college by 23 points in 2004 and by 17 points in 2000.
In Pennsylvania, a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Obama with a double-digit lead over McCain, compared with a close race after the political conventions. Clay Richards, a Quinnipiac pollster, said that’s because support among working-class voters in the state is growing, and he suspects many former Clinton supporters are moving to Obama’s camp.
The candidates’ campaign schedules make clear the importance they attach to Pennsylvania’s working-class voters.
McCain and running mate Sarah Palin staged a rally Wednesday in the former steel town of Bethlehem in northeast Pennsylvania. On Friday, Palin was stopping in Pittsburgh, then heading for Johnstown in western Pennsylvania, where unemployment recently topped 7 percent. The self-described hockey mom planned to drop the ceremonial first puck when the Philadelphia Flyers open their season against the New York Rangers on Saturday.
Obama, for his part, will be in Philadelphia on Saturday. And on Sunday, his running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, will be joined in his blue-collar hometown of Scranton by Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton.
In western Pennsylvania, Republican and Democratic voters alike tend to be socially conservative, pro-gun and anti-abortion rights. Many are so-called Reagan Democrats willing to vote for a Republican because of social issues.
While some pockets in this region have recovered and flourished after hard times in the 1980s, many never did. Populations have dwindled and many of those left are elderly.
"The ones who can get a good education … they leave, which I don’t blame them because there’s nothing here, really," said Georgia Lutz, 55, who was eating breakfast at a diner in Beaver Falls recently with Hendon. "The economy is absolutely horrible and we’re going into a depression right now."
The working-class vote is particularly important in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, where the percentage of adults without a college degree ranks exceeds the national average.
They also are a key voting bloc because those personally affected by the current economic woes appear to be among the more persuadable voters, according to a recent AP-Yahoo News poll. Among them is Michelle Smith, 41, who works retail during the day at a surplus shop in Kittanning and tends bar at night. Combined, she and her husband have six kids.
"Decent working families can’t survive. It’s very sad," Smith said. "They raised minimum wage, but now you’re paying triple in gas to get to work. It evens itself out."
A Democrat, Smith said she’s leaning toward McCain. While she said she likes Obama on a personal level, she wonders if Obama has what it takes to fix the economy.
Obama’s already won over Don Melochick, 58, a construction worker from Whitehall, Pa., in northeast Pennsylvania. A registered Democrat who’s voted Republican in the past, Melochick said he plans to vote for Obama because he’s "somewhat better" than McCain.
If McCain "hasn’t changed nothing in his 30 years … he’s not going to change anything now," Melochick said, from the counter of a diner outside Philadelphia. But he adds: "I don’t think Obama will either."