04/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In PA: It's Poll Numbers Versus The Crowds

All the polls this weekend show Hillary Clinton leading in Pennsylvania, but Obama's the one drawing the crowds. On Friday, he spoke to the largest group on the campaign so far-- 35,000, assembled in Independence Park, spilling onto the street-- and Sunday in Reading he drew about 2600. Clinton's drew an estimated 1500 at a high school a few miles away the day before.

It's possible that Pennsylvania voters already know Clinton, who has been on the national stage for years. They may also have made up their minds to vote for her and don't need to confirm in person. Obama has the advantage and disadvantage of being a lesser-known commodity.

"I'm just here for the hype," admitted Chris Huey, an "undecided Republican" accompanying his Democratic fiancée to the Obama rally.

"I'd be foolish not to be here," said Kristen Stuart, a teacher who wanted to know what Obama had to say about No Child Left Behind.

All are delighted for the chance to see the candidates in person--an opportunity that may not happen again in Reading, the fifth largest city in the state. Huey pointed out that in nearly a decade of campaigning and governing in the White House, Bill Clinton came to Berk County only once. I didn't tell him that on Friday night, the former president had been only sixty miles away, stumping for his wife at an art opening in a converted industrial space. There were maybe fifty people there. Bill Clinton, who'd already held five other events across the state that day, seemed more generally weary than shocked at the size of the crowd, although it might have been the smallest crowd he has addressed in twenty years.

Still, Hillary Clinton's message of fighting for solutions resonates, especially in a city like Reading, where crime is up and manufacturing jobs have all but disappeared. A waitress delivered an eloquent, fifteen-minute personal history, explaining how she'd worked as an administrative secretary for one manufacturer after another, only to be laid off when each one closed or moved. She has a college degree, fifteen years of professional experience, and a competent, authoritative way with a menu. When the last manufacturing plant closed, she was told that no jobs at a commensurate salary existed in a two hundred mile radius. If she wanted to make the same money, she'd have to move. Tired of chasing opportunities across the country, she decided instead to stay in Reading and return to the service industry. The restaurant where she now worked had been a former industrial plant--and, at the tail end of the lunch hour, it, too, was nearly empty. She declined to say for whom she was voting, but she said she was listening carefully to the candidates and would go with the one with the best plan to improve job opportunities in Pennsylvania.

Declared Clinton voters echo their candidate's themes of seeking solutions for specific problems. John Jasinki, a World War II veteran, said he hoped Clinton would first end the war in Iraq and then do something about phone companies. "Every time you call to get some technical help, you talk to somebody from Indonesia."

His wife, Doris, added that she thinks Clinton is "wonderful," and if she can't solve everything, she can "at least give it a good try."

Nanette Miller seemed to pick up on the Clinton theme of a country under threat, plagued by job loss, diminished infrastructure, rising energy costs, lack of health care, predatory loan companies, an ongoing war-- and "all the problems we don't even know we're going to be confronting."

"I feel safe with her. I can sleep at night," Miller said about Clinton.

Across town at the Obama rally the following day, many of the concerns about the economy, education, and the war were the same, but the tenor and appearance of the crowd was different. Whereas Clinton's event had been held in a leafy, quiet suburb, Obama was speaking on an urban street with potholes in the road and bodegas on the corner. Two hours before his event, a line stretched down the block. A quick scan of the crowd showed faces of all shades. The Clinton rally had been overwhelmingly white, and attendees could breeze into the gym, whose floor and bleachers remained partially empty.

Steve Krechman, an engineer originally from New York, praised Obama's ability to get people talking and energized. "The president has to have a certain amount of charisma. Obama has it in spades," he said.

Inside the audience kept rising to its feet and spontaneously chanting the candidate's name.

"This is a feisty crowd," Obama said when he took the stage. "Whaddya'll eat this morning?"

If an election were decided by volume alone, Obama would win hands down-- among the Democrats this season, demonstrated enthusiasm is like campaign donations: Clinton's support is impressive until you compare it to Obama's, which is an order of magnitude beyond. The number of people in the crowd were wearing Obama t-shirts and buttons was striking, and the audience erupted into chants without the direction of any campaign volunteer. Of course, each voter still casts only one ballot, and neither the size nor the reaction of the crowd can predict how an election will swing. Voters at both the Clinton and Obama rallies described themselves as undecided, and each included people who were definitely voting for the other side.

What is clear in Pennsylvania is that both candidates are going all out to win--their schedules are packed and their energies visibly ebb and flow--and that their approaches are distinct. Clinton's rhetoric invokes an embattled country in which change must be wrested from the forces of inertia, greed, sloppy policy. She suggests a social contract that is transactional: I learned that "if you worked hard and took responsibility, it would be rewarded," she said; and "when someone serves our country, we serve them in return." At the end of her speech, her campaign played the theme song from "Rocky."

Obama hits on almost all the same issues as Clinton, but his language affirms the audience's experience, even when he is describing problems. "We're spending $10 billion dollars a month in Iraq; that's money we could spending right here in Reading," he said, and the audience moaned in agreement. "People are losing jobs," he continued, acknowledging the Hershey plant would soon be moving. "Less money is coming in than going out. Costs are going up--a gallona milk, a gallona gas." Several people clapped and whistled. Obama offered a social contract in which people "were in it together": "Politics is not about tearing people down, but lifting people up," he said, and the crowd was on its feet again.

This is not to say anybody let anybody off the hook. Obama indulged in a good ten minutes of defending his campaign (if someone elbows you enough, after a while you elbow back) and painting the difference between him and his opponent as wanting to play the game versus change the game (at Clinton's name, the audience booed). In the Q&A session after the speech, voters posed sharp questions: would he reform welfare again? What did he think about the zero tolerance policies that punished family members of offenders in public housing?

The candidate gave tough love back. Some welfare reform had been needed and everyone must make an effort to find a job, although the government should provide more resources; he was sympathetic to grandmothers who didn't know their grandsons were dealing drugs, but not sympathetic to those who did.

Fathers also needed to be involved, he said, speaking as someone whose own father had left when he was two. In one of the folding chairs, a toddler let out a long wail. "I know, I know," Obama ad libbed. "It's upsetting when your father leaves." The audience laughed. When it was time to go, the campaign played Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," and a pair of women on the balcony grooved along.

In Reading, Obama supporters may be signed and sealed, but it's yet unclear whether they will deliver him the race on Tuesday. The conventional wisdom in this primary has been that Clinton appeals to white, working class voters and Hispanics, the two demographics are the bulk of the Reading population. At least two voters expressed the wish that the two candidates would work together instead of attacking each other.

And Lauren Scaduto, a twenty-four-year old transplant from New Jersey who loves Obama for being "progressive," characterized her adopted town as old-fashioned and slow to embrace change, the buzz word of the Obama campaign. "Reading is not conservative, but it's traditional," she said. "People don't try different things. We didn't get a sushi restaurant until three years ago."