Scranton, Pennsylvania is a quiet little town. ‘The Electric City’ is about as far removed from excitement as one can get. Proto small town East America, 76 000 people. Perhaps this is why the American version of The Office is set here. Coal mining provided the economic backbone in the early twentieth century. After the Knox Mine disaster wiped out the industry, Scranton’s prosperity suffered. The city was reported to be nearly bankrupt earlier this year.
But politically, this town has a proud heritage, particularly for the Democrats. Vice President Joe Biden was born here. Hugh E. Rodham – Hillary Clinton’s father – was raised here, so Hillary spent a considerable amount of time here as a child. And the most popular speaker on the campaign trail, except for President Obama himself, made it his final stop on the 2012 campaign trail.
It started out with rumours and whispers, then excitement spread around the campaign office as the news was confirmed: William Jefferson Clinton was coming to town. There were squeals, there was giggling, there was gushing.
The volunteers were mustered together and told that yes, no matter what task they undertook at the event, they would be in to see President Clinton speak. More than one young campaigner began counting down the hours.
Clinton has been a revelation on this campaign. He had a relatively subdued – by his lofty standards – 2008 Presidential race, after Hillary lost an at times bruising primary battle with Barack Obama. Not this time. He was, alongside Michelle Obama, the standout performer at the Democratic National Convention. He mixed folksy anecdotes with substantive facts, underpinned by economic credibility and coated in charisma.
He’s thrived under the spotlight since then, making the case for reelecting Barack Obama and dismantling Mitt Romney in a way that the President himself has failed to. Democrats and the media have lapped it up. He’s been the rock star.
The line outside Scranton high school began forming in the early afternoon, and by 6pm was 1300 people long, with more people coming and the temperature dropping every minute. By 6:30pm darkness had fallen, and the otherwise motionless crowd started shivering in the near zero-degree cold.
Doors opened after 7, and the punters made their way through the entrances, no bags allowed and coats open to ensure there were no unauthorised posters that would make their way into TV footage. A few brave protestors cheerfully ignored the ‘designated protest area’ and stood just outside the entrance, copping plenty from the masses filing inside. A frantic event organiser sought out a police officer to move the protestors on, to no avail.
It was the only tiny glitch in an event managed down to the tiniest detail. People were ushered into seats in order, signs were distributed to appear perfectly in the background of panning video shots, and every opportunity was sought to acquire precious details from those attending. Several teams of people worked the line seeking names, phone numbers and a time that that person could work on election day, to help get out the vote.
Mercifully for the organisers, the fire marshall in attendance allowed all of those waiting to enter the hall; it reached capacity just as the doors closed for the main event. The gymnasium had been quickly but smartly transformed into a speaking hall, adorned with curtains, flags and signs that said ‘Forward!’ on both sides. The national anthem, the pledge of allegiance, a prayer. The crowd soaked it up, getting their ‘one nation under god’ on, before a succession of speakers cut the country in half.
Senator Bob Casey, not the most exciting orator under other circumstances, was the final support act. He received a huge standing ovation, both in enthusiastic appreciation for his words and because after the Mayor and Congressional candidate Matt Cartwright, there was only one name left.
A short introduction from Democratic Attorney General candidate Kathleen Kane, of whom Clinton was an early supporter of in April when she sought the Democratic nomination, ended with a rapturous roar, the familiar strains of “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” accompanying a beaming ‘Big Dawg’ to the stage.
For nearly forty minutes he captivated the crowd, personal observation leading into statement of supporting fact into some variation of ‘that’s why I’m for Barack Obama’. Though the content may have suggested it, there was not an undecided person in the house. This was a rally cry to the troops, a most beguiling request for help, a last minute call to get out the vote. A kick to the Romney campaign here, a ‘we’re going to have a big win tomorrow’ there.
When Clinton spoke of the achievements of the Obama administration, not least that he has ‘a heck of a secretary of state’, it was hard not to think that he saw them as his own as well. In untangling and articulating healthcare, he rebutted the most consistent attack from the Romney camp.
George W. Bush was mentioned, the crowd booed, and then fell silent when Clinton told us they have become friends.
“He and I have these huge arguments, but I don’t have to worry about him changing his position in mid-sentence” – a well aimed attack about Romney’s flip-flopping, that nobody else in the Democrat side can say quite as well.
The Republicans suggest that Clinton’s visit to Scranton, which followed stops in other Pennsylvanian cities yesterday, is indicative of the tightness of the contest in this state, and vindication for their renewed efforts here. It’s impossible to not see some merit to that. This was the last event of the campaign. The President and the Vice President were wrapping their last speeches in Iowa and Virginia as President Clinton concluded his remarks.
Clinton said he would do whatever the Obama campaign wanted, but he wanted to end in Pennsylvania with the last stop being Scranton. Political cover, truth or fiction, the adoring masses spilling out of the school hall didn’t care.