Yocco’s has been serving hot dogs,sausages and other uniquely American fare since 1922. In the short span of a lunch hour,a visitor can meet a cross-section of Allentown,the Lehigh County seat and urban center,eager to fill themselves with Yocco’s signature chili dog. With mustard,onions and other toppings,the tab runs to $1.32.
Beyond excellent prices for food,Lehigh County is interesting for another reason: its status as a bellwether for Pennsylvania and the nation as a whole. In the past seven presidential elections,Lehigh County has gone with the victor every time but one. The outlier was 2004 when the county went for Sen. John Kerry over President George W. Bush. However,the county was in lockstep with fellow Pennsylvanians that year.
“If you look at Lehigh County itself,it’s such a great bellwether place to look at presidential elections,” Christopher Borick,a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown said. “How it goes,the state almost always goes,and it’s a pretty good predictor for national politics.”
Public opinion in Lehigh centers,as it does in the rest of the nation,on the economy. Borick,who also directs the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion,said the institute’s recent polling found low but,crucially,improving opinions on the state of the economy.
“Which,in many ways,really benefits the president,since when we ask them in polls what’s the most important issue is,overwhelmingly they say the economy. Nothing’s even close,” Borick said.
Borick cautioned that the findings could be outdated soon,given the recent rise in gasoline prices.
“People often see the lens of politics through what they’re putting in their gas tank and how much they’re paying for it,” he said.
The lens of Yocco’s
Joe Gillmeyer sees politics through the lens of the Allentown community that eats at Yocco’s.
Able to deftly keep up conversation with three patrons at once,while slathering multiple dogs with Yocco’s secret chili sauce,the 23-year employee has no shortage of opinions on the state of the community around him.
“Right now,we’re in a very negative environment,” Gillmeyer said,between playful jabs at his co-workers and patrons. “People are on the system that are capable of working. They don’t care.”
But Gillmeyer,a registered independent,refused to put the blame on President Barack Obama.
“He’s doing the best he can with the circumstances,” Gillmeyer said.
Only registered party members can vote in Pennsylvania’s closed primary April 24,but Gillmeyer is closely following the back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats to decide which way he will vote in November.
“I don’t really know yet,” Gillmeyer said. “I like to see what their campaigns are like. I like to get good input from those guys before I vote.”
“Things are heading in the right direction for what we have to work with,” Heilman said,as he waited for a hot dog at Yocco’s. “There are some obstacles to overcome.”
Heilman,a registered independent,has said that he is already sold on Obama and will vote for him in November.
Heilman owns and runs Heilman Construction,which specializes in home renovations and plumbing. Despite being in an industry that was one of the hardest hit in the collapse of the housing bubble and financial crisis,Heilman has been doing “relatively well,” supported by a loyal customer base.
He is not nearly as sunny about the country’s wealth gap,which he thinks is too big.
“If the gap was different,I think things would be better for everyone,” Heilman said.
That tone contrasts sharply with the cynicism of the otherwise cheerful Tanya Kremsner,26,a cook. She joined her coworker Gillmeyer’s banter as they filled a constant stream of orders,but she gave the political process a resounding sigh.
She is not registered to vote.
“I don’t think it makes a difference who is involved,” Kremsner,a 15-year Allentown resident,said. “They’re all out for themselves.”
The lens of students
Kristen Vargo,19,a freshman at Muhlenberg College,who was studying in the Seeger’s Union building,admitted she didn’t follow politics closely. But what she does know has left her ambivalent.
“Everyone is very opinionated and very extreme in their viewpoints,” Vargo,a history and secondary education major,said. “I just don’t feel like there’s a candidate that represents me or people my age.”
No candidates excite Vargo,who is not registered to vote,but the issue of education does. Vargo,who plans to become a history teacher or professor,pointed to the example of her sister.
“I care about education,and with all the cuts,it’s almost impossible for my sister,as an elementary school teacher,to get a job,” Vargo said.
Brian Borosky,20,an English major and a registered Democrat,used the issue of education to inform his opinion of the candidates. While he does not know who he will vote for in November,he does know that “some candidates are worse than others.”
Borosky pointed to Rep. Ron Paul,R-Texas,as being what he does not want in a candidate,for fear of him “jumping on everything,on a lot of institutions and privatizing them.”
“There would be a totally different demographic of educated people in the U.S.,” Borosky said. “We’d have two nations in one.”
The Primary Lens
Although most voters are eyeing the general election,Pennsylvania still has its primary this month. The late date means it is likely to have little impact on the final outcome of the Republican nomination process.
“It’s one state,” Borick said. “And the broader trends will overwhelm any of the results.”
While the nomination likely will not be changed by the Pennsylvania primary,the fate of one candidate could rest entirely on what happens at the polls April 24.
“For Rick Santorum,it has all the meaning in the world,” Borick said. “If he loses this race,it not only ends any relevance he has in the broader campaign,but it also damages his reputation moving forward.”
After two terms in the Senate,Santorum lost to Sen. Bob Casey Jr. in 2006 by 18 points.
Santorum had a 29-point lead over Romney in February – 45 percent to 16 percent. One month later,the candidates are essentially tied.
The lens of the operatives
While the battle for the Republican nomination lurches on,Lehigh County’s political operatives are preparing for November.
“I don’t look at politics as a seasonal business,” Wayne Woodman,chairman of the Lehigh County Republican Committee,said. “So we’re always keeping the organization focused on its task.”
He argued that people would vote “down the ticket” in a presidential cycle,and he highlighted education as a statewide issue that could draw voters in.
“The cuts to education cut across the board,both Democrat and Republican,” Daugherty said. “So in terms of turning voters out,that might be a little different here than what you’d see across the nation.”
As to the prospects for the Democrats come November,Daugherty said that the Democrats have a registration advantage both in Lehigh county and Pennsylvania. He may benefit from that divide – Daugherty is running to unseat Rep. Charlie Dent,R-Pa.,a four-term incumbent.
“In terms of our performance,however,between Democrats and Republicans,historically it’s fairly even,” Daugherty said.
Reach reporter Frank Bumb at [email protected] or 202-326-9871. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.