Sunday, April 20, 2008

Confessions of a provisional pundit

It’s been an adventure for lots of us these last few weeks. The national media clearly exhausted itself trying to fill daily coverage with the minute machinations of the campaigns and wound up focusing some of its attention on the region. For the region it must have been a marketing bonanza on par with any single sporting event. The run-up to the Superbowl, or potentially the Stanley Cup, pale in comparison to the focus we have had waiting for Tuesday to finally come. One difference between the Superbowl and this primary’s coverage has been the international media attention that may not be obvious locally. Personally it reached a bit of ridiculousness in the crescendo with at least brief snippets from me in everything from the Wall Street Journal to Le Monde, from NPR to German Public Radio and from CNN to PBS at one point or another. And that list does not include the many folks I spoke with just on background trying to ‘explain’ Pittsburgh (if that is really possible).

So it’s been fun. Speaking for the region it sure beats what we got out of Denver’s Bill Johnson whose own parachute coverage during the NFL playoffs in early 2006 was initially distilled down to Pittsburgh being “butt ugly”. Though Bill did warm up to us a bit in the end. I thought Bill might come back for some election coverage, but I don’t think he made the trip.

The national prism on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania has been both good and bad. It tends to magnify both the successes of the region as well as the warts. Truth be told, I tried to present a balanced picture to most everyone who came my way. Media folks have a tough biz in that they are often fitting in big complex stories into a finite amount of column-inches. So in each story you see with me at least, you are seeing one particular focus and often one particular angle. It seems to me that most came predisposed to write something positive about Pittsburgh or Pennsylvania and most of the coverage reflected that. That’s fine, but realize there is always a larger story out there.

What was there to write about? Pittsburgh and its environs has lots of uniquenesses. If you had to pick one voter story it would have to be the age of the local electorate, something I have beaten to death as a topic. So apologies to those who have read this here before, but for newer readers its important enough to go over again. Age is a particular issue in the primary season where younger voters are far less likely to come out and vote than in the general election. While there is clearly greater interest in this primary which will bring out more voters than usual, it is still going to be one of the oldest voter demographics compared to most anywhere else in the country. The three big factors affecting voter demographics are that we are an older region to begin with, that older folks vote much more often than younger folks, and that a lot of the younger folks in the region are here for just a short time for school and do not necessarily register to vote locally at all before they move on. It does not help much that it is finals week in some schools, though that may be an improvement over years where the primary takes place after the spring semester ends and most students have left town.

It all compounds to create a very unique electorate. In a typical primary, the weighed impact of your average senior citizen in town outweighs maybe 10 folks under 30. With historical turnout this primary season that ratio may drop to 5 to 1. However you cut it, it is clearly in the running for the oldest voter demographics in the country with certain precincts in the city and suburbs having median voter ages over 60, in some cases over 70. That is not something you see most anywhere else in the nation, but as the nation gets older it will become more and more common. That is actually the story the national media should follow up on.

If you don’t believe that, I wish I had a copy of the picture that the Pittsburgh City Paper once ran of the campaign chotchke that was given out. Not little magnets or keychains, not even bingo daubers (though they are a campaign staple here as well), but branded Bob O’Connor pillboxes. That one picture said more than all the numbers I have ever compiled.

But the uniqueness of voting patterns here reflects more than just the age of the voters. Pittsburgh, the city and its environs stand out in other ways. The region typically ranks #1 in the percentage of the population that has been living in their current house for 3 decades or more. Think about that for a second. That is in part a reflection of our older demographic, but it goes beyond that and it really has an impact on election day. Younger voters get both confused and frustrated by the fact that others’ decisions on whom to vote for or against is often driven by issues or circumstances literally decades ago. If you are a 20-something voter who is likely voting for the first time, realize that Aunt Edna has voted 100 times in the same exact precinct, and has known each of those poll workers that you have never seen before for longer than you have been alive. In some cases longer than your parents have been alive. Consider whatever news story dominated the media cycle last week. It may constitute the entire political memory of some voters, but looks much like 100 media cycles that came before it in one form or another and is appropriately discounted by many.

Then there were the unanswerable questions. The truth is that as much media as I have talked to in recent weeks, I wound up turning away more than I accepted. Lots of producers would call and start out with the question of “What does candidate X’s position on Y mean for the Pennsylvania economy?”. I really have not tried to read candidate position papers on most anything, it’s about as painful as trying to watch PCN. I would have to explain sheepishly that I don’t have answers for questions like that. Pittsburgh, the changes here, the economy, or more broadly in context to Pennsylvania I would be happy to talk about and many took me up on the offer. For others their primary focus was typically the political angle which I was decidedly unhelpful with, and they moved on.

Questions about the mythical “Pennsylvania economy” have at their core a curious premise that there is a Pennsylvania economy to talk about. The only real answer I could give is that there is no such thing as the ‘Pennsylvania economy’. The economy of Southwestern Pennsylvania has little interconnections with Allentown or even Philadelphia these days, certainly fewer connections than with nearby metro regions in Ohio, or West Virginia. That has been true from the time of Ben Franklin, but is even more true today than in the past.. Today, the connection between Bethlehem and Pittsburgh may come down to the fact that both are trying to save singular industrial artifacts from our shared manufacturing histories. The Carrie Furnace looks an awful lot like the former steel works in Bethlehem that preservation groups are trying to maintain, but both economies have moved on in divergent ways long ago. Ironically, the exception may be that both regions have also now turned to casinos for post-industrial financial salvation as well, but that is about it. We may be tied together by the range of legal paradigms that define the Commonwealth, certainly these political races give the façade of unity, and the policies that emanate from Harrisburg affect all of us. But in the end, an integrated “Pennsylvania economy” is just a figment.

Then there was the 2nd biggest topic of trade, specifically international trade and the election. Candidates I think become trapped in the trade debate and certainly the history and future of trade are big topics. If anything I tried to explain the context of trade here which is like so many things different from the trade issues of the past and different from that in many other parts of the country.

One trade angle I would try to pitch to journalists was a funny story from a few years ago. Nobody took me up on it (any biz journalists still desperate for a story still reading?), probably because it was too far in the past, maybe too esoteric or just too high on the wonk-quotient.. So maybe this is just interesting to me. But when the early Bush administration imposed some steel tariff’s on the European Union, there was an incidental story related to Pittsburgh that was never caught by US media. It turns out that the EU at one point proposed a series of counter-tairiffs. I like to think there was some uber-wonk in Brussels trying to answer the question of what products could be hit with tairiffs that would target the regions that would benefit from our steel tariffs. It turns out that one of the products they originally selected to place countertariffs on was “Nuclear power plant parts”. I am pretty sure the goal of that particular product on the list was to hit Western Pennsylvania specifically. But did anyone here notice? Not a whit as best I can tell. But it did make news in Europe because at the time, Westinghouse here was owned by BNFL, which stands for British Nuclear Fuels Limited. Someone across the pond noticed that these specific countertariffs were really only going to hurt Europe based businesses in the end and complained about it.. so it made more news over there than locally which is telling.. and that was before Westinghouse’s decision to stay and expand in Pittsburgh. The punch line is that trade is an awfully lot more complicated than in the past and certainly a lot more complicated than the way it is talked about in stump speeches on all sides.

So, do I have a clue what will happen on Tuesday? Not really. I could name more things that I suspect are being unaccounted for in polling than we are comfortable with. Some things work in OB’s favor, some in HC’s. When it’s over we will do the obligatory deconstruction of what happened, but beyond some last minute media spasms when the results come in, the national media will move on and we will be left talking to ourselves again... but that is ok. If Pennsylvania is seen as a toss-up state in the fall, we may get some of the limelight back for a time, but given all the other states out there it will be a diluted version of the all-Pennsylvania all the time coverage of recent weeks. The national media will now obsess on the national election until November for sure. Now that we are approaching the end of April, realize that it is only a year away from municipal elections across Pennsylvania in 2009, which means petitions, endorsements and campaigns are all but months away at this point.

But wait, I am jumping the gun, there are a few hours left. But very soon the important question will be: when do the Penguins play next? As always for those who make it this far, thanks for reading.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me, Sunday's top story in the PG says it all. Something about how and why the Steelers' schedule rules our lives. And they weren't joking. Not far below that was a story about the NFL draft, which is a week away. This morning on KDKA radio, an interview with Barack Obama ended with the morning knuckleheads asking Obama who the Steelers should pick in the draft, whether he could play wide receiver, and how tall he is. Obama went on at length about how the Steelers were his favorite team when he was a kid, but now the Bears are number one but the Steelers are still up there. And regarding playing wide receiver? Obama said he's 6 foot 1, but has about a "20-inch vertical." (I'll assume he was referring to his jumping ability, rather than some other physical attribute.)

Bread and circuses.

Monday, April 21, 2008 10:57:00 AM  

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