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Sen. Hillary Clinton won across Pennsylvania in the state’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday, but she built her ten percentage point margin in rural and exurban communities in an election that revealed an incredibly polarized Democratic electorate.
Clinton defeated Sen. Barack Obama by ten points statewide, 55 percent to 45 percent. The race was much tighter in Pennsylvania’s urban counties, where Clinton won by just four points, 52 percent to 48 percent.
In the state’s 46 rural and exurban counties, however, Sen. Clinton rolled up 32-point margins over Sen. Obama, winning those counties by an average of 66 percent to 34 percent.
Rural and exurban voters made up only 26 percent of the state’s population, but their votes accounted for two-thirds of Clinton’s margin of victory.
Clinton and Obama captured their votes in two different Pennsylvanias, just as the two senators split Ohio and Texas. Only, in Pennsylvania, the geographic polarization was more pronounced.
As in Ohio and Texas, former President Bill Clinton’s presence was felt outside the cities. “Backwoods Bill,” as the British paper The Guardian dubbed him, traversed rural Pennsylvania constantly over the past six week. “Moon Township, Leechburg, Arnold, Canonsburg — 47 stops in rural Pennsylvania by the time Clinton walked out on to the porch in Ebensburg,” The Guardian described a Clinton stop the day before the vote. “The town has a population of about 3,000. Around 300 were on the lawn.”
Bloomberg News reported that Bill Clinton was “Firing Up Rural Voters.” “Clinton has visited dozens of towns and small cities in Pennsylvania, including Cranberry Township and New Castle, with populations of fewer than 30,000,” Bloomberg reported. “He campaigns in high school gyms before audiences of just a few hundred people. At every stop, he saturates local media and fuels chatter, as he did in California and Texas, where his wife won primaries. `Don’t you let anyone tell you she can’t win,” he told a crowd in a high school gym in Kittanning, Pennsylvania.”
The Clinton strategy of catering to small towns in Ohio, Texas and then Pennsylvania contrasted with Sen. Obama’s comments at a fundraiser in San Francisco. The Illinois senator said that that there had been hard economic times in “small towns….And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
There is no way to determine if Obama’s “small town” comment affected the vote, but a Yonder analysis finds that Clinton did particularly well in rural and exurban counties that had low household family incomes. The New York senator won about 70 percent of the votes in rural and exurban counties where the median county income was below the national county median.
In counties that had incomes above the national median, however, Clinton won 61 percent of the vote — still an overwhelming number but below her average for all rural communities.
There were very few counties where the vote between Obama and Clinton was close. The state was geographically polarized, as most counties were either overwhelmingly for one or the other Democratic contenders.
In 53 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties there was more than a 20 percentage point difference between the two candidates. In only one county — Montgomery, a suburban county northeast of Philadelphia — were the two candidates within five points of one another.
Nearly 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s Democratic voters lived in counties where Obama and Clinton were separated by more than 20 percentage points. In comparison, 49 percent of voters nationally lived in a landslide county in the 2004 contest between George Bush and John Kerry.
The campaign moves on to North Carolina and Indiana, and the pattern remains much the same. Bill Clinton has already announced stops in the small towns of Lexington and Burlington, North Carolina.