As she heads into the Acela primary on Tuesday, I wonder if Hillary Clinton is feeling a sense of déjà vu. After all, Clinton was in a similar position in Pennsylvania before in 2008: Competing for the Democratic nomination against an upstart who’s captivating young voters. Clinton won Pennsylvania then, but it wasn't enough to beat Barack Obama for the nomination. This time around, can Clinton not only win the Keystone State in Tuesday's primary but ultimately, lock up her spot on the November ticket? She doesn't just need a win, but a big one. Even the nearly double-digit win she pulled off last time she battled in Pennsylvania wasn't enough to stem Obama's tide.
If the polls are accurate, Clinton has little to be concerned about for Tuesday. As the Pennsylvania primary approaches, the latest RealClearPolitics average has Clinton beating Sanders by nearly 17 points.
However, even Clinton may not feel so comfortable in this lead, as shown by the fact she's paid frequent visits over the last month to the state where her father grew up, stopping on Friday in his hometown of Scranton for a rally, and meeting with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members in Pittsburgh, while eating a sandwich with fries on top at Primanti Bros. restaurant .(It's a thing — and, might I add, a delicious thing.)
Also, there was a very strong show of labor union support at a Bernie Sanders rally in Pittsburgh last month. Could a divided union electorate be an issue for the frontrunner Clinton?
"If you look at what happened in 2008, it's very similar to what's happening today," Allegheny County Labor Council president Jack Shea tells Bustle. "You had a third of Democrats supporting Clinton, a third supporting Obama and a third supporting both."
And with both candidates courting the union vote in Pennsylvania, it's given renewed attention to unions and the issues most important to them, Shea adds.
"We've got two candidates making a lot of noise here. That's a good thing."
Normally by the time Pennsylvania’s late April primary rolls around, a candidate has enough delegates to clinch the nomination. Campaign visits to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, if they happen at all before the primary, are usually done with a look ahead to the general election.
Prior to 2008, the last time Pennsylvania figured prominently in choosing the Democrats’ nominee was 1976, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Although he (obviously) went on to win the nomination, Carter was unsuccessful in the Pennsylvania primary; he was edged out by the slimmest of margins by Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.
In 2008 Clinton and Obama were neck-and-neck by the time Pennsylvania's primary showed up on the calendar, and both Democrats dug in and campaigned hard.
While Clinton won the Keystone State in 2008, the Hillary love wasn't evenly spread throughout the state. For example, while she took 54 percent of the vote in Allegheny County, Obama got nearly two-thirds of Democrats’ votes in Philadelphia in the primary.
And like Obama, Clinton's opponent this primary season, Sanders, is galvanizing crowds and running on the promise of big change, not (the ever-cliché but still valuable expression) politics as usual. But does Sanders have enough momentum to pull off an upset and overcome her lead? Some local leaders think so.
Sanders supporter and Braddock, Pennsylvania mayor John Fetterman is in a three-way race himself to be the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. He is the only one of the three candidates to endorse Sanders and says whatever the outcome of the primary, he has no regrets about his choice of candidate.
"I've been to every rally he's thrown [in Pennsylvania], and the miles of humanity have just been insane," Fetterman tells Bustle. "It's very high energy, very heavy intensity and has made this a very competitive race."
The March Sanders rally I attended in Pittsburgh drew some 8,000 people to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Before he took the stage, the Vermont senator spoke to reporters surrounded by union members, including the United Steelworkers and the United Electrical Workers. Sanders said what union leaders were happy to hear during that pre-really press conference, blaming the North American Free Trade Agreement and trade relations with China for the loss of some 4 million American jobs, of which he estimated more than 145,0000 were in Pennsylvania.
"It was trade unions that helped build the middle class in this country,” Sanders told reporters. “If I have anything to say about it, we’re going to make it a lot easier for people to join unions."
The biggest union endorsement, that of the AFL-CIO won't go to either candidate ahead of the primaries; it's decided to hold off choosing sides until after the nominees have been selected. But on April 24, just two days ahead of the primary, Sanders announced the endorsement of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. It has 35,000 members.
In a statement, the union's national president said Sanders was "the most pro-worker pro-union presidential candidate I have seen in my lifetime."
The thing is, unions were a big part of Clinton's support system in 2008. When it came to Democratic voters, 55 percent of union members went for Clinton. This group is crucial for any Democrat in Pennsylvania. Could Sanders be chipping away at the former Secretary of State's Pennsylvania network?
Granted Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto declared his support for Clinton — albeit at the much smaller Carnegie Mellon University rally of about 2,000 people. During his own bid for mayor in 2013, Peduto had some, but not all, local union endorsements before the Democratic primary.
"The progressive mayors across the country are backing Hillary Clinton," Peduto said at the rally. "Because she understands our past, she knows where we’re at, and she has a vision for our future and America, for all."
But with labor, including Pennsylvania labor, increasingly feeling the Bern, it remains to be seen whether Peduto's statement holds. By all accounts, Clinton will win the Keystone State on Tuesday. At the same time, the support Sanders has received in the state could do some lasting damage that could ripple out beyond the Pennsylvania borders.