The Transformation of Levittown
Published in New York Times
"Week in Review"
November 8, 2008
Early on Election Day morning in
the Philadelphia suburb of Levittown, Pa., Joe Sinitski, 48, stood
in a long line inside a school gymnasium, inching his way toward
three blue-curtained voting machines. He wore jeans, a sweatshirt
and a National Rifle Association baseball cap. He said he would vote
for Barack Obama, a choice that some months earlier he could not
“I have to admit, his race made my decision harder,?he said. “I was
brought up that way. And I don’t like his name. I’ll admit to that,
Mr. Sinitski, a heating and air-conditioning technician, repeated a
joke he had heard back in the spring about the choice in the
Democratic primary between a black man and a woman (Hillary Rodham
Clinton), and he used a crude term for each. But when I asked him
how he might feel to wake up the next morning to the reality of a
black president-elect, he said: “I do think it’s an historic
election. Part of me feels like it would be really cool.?br>
Political pollsters track trends and changes within big blocs of
voters. What they do less well is catch the complicated,
ever-evolving and often conflicted feelings within individual
Levittown had been Hillary country all the way ?it gave Mrs.
Clinton roughly three out of every four of its votes in the
Pennsylvania primary in April. In doing so, it conformed, in some
ways, to its history and stereotype. William Levitt built the vast
postwar development in the shadow of a giant United States Steel
plant, some 17,000 homes sprawling across three Pennsylvania
townships and one borough. He would not sell to black families.
According to the latest United States census, just 2 percent of
Levittown’s current 54,000 residents are African-American; about an
equal percent are Hispanic. The community is overwhelmingly
Democratic, but filled with older whites who did not attend college
?the so-called Reagan Democrats who in recent presidential
elections have been the voters most likely to swing between parties.
I grew up in Levittown, and in the spring had returned there before
the Democratic primary to write about how Mr. Obama’s message of
hope and change was connecting with its blue-collar population. It
wasn’t. My article in The New York Times Magazine reported that his
words were coming across as lofty and abstract to people more
attuned to concrete concerns like the hourly wage and the monthly
car payment. The article was published on the morning before Mr.
Obama made his one big gaffe of the campaign, telling attendees at a
San Francisco fund-raiser that some blue-collar voters have been so
beaten down that “it’s not surprising that they get bitter, they
cling to guns or religion... .?br>
The timing of those remarks and the article were not coincidental.
That evening in San Francisco, in the instant before committing what
he would later call “my biggest boneheaded move,?Mr. Obama had been
ruminating on his struggles to win over white working-class voters,
and said, “there were intimations of that in an article in the
Sunday New York Times today ?kind of implies that it’s sort of a
race thing.?What I wrote had seemed to hit at a deep frustration of
Mr. Obama’s ?his inability to reach a certain segment of voters.
Some of the reason for that was his manner of speaking; but in some
measure, for sure, his failure to persuade white blue-collar voters
was based on his mixed-race heritage.
I traveled again to Levittown on Election Day to see how people
would vote and how they would respond to what looked like an
imminent Obama victory. The contrast from the spring ?and, in fact,
this new vision of Levittown compared with what I had known in my
childhood ?was almost breathtaking.
“Obama,?said the ironworker, when I asked how he’d be voting.
“Obama,?said the plumber.
“Obama,?said the chef.
And on and on. Military moms. Vietnam veterans. Abortion opponents.
College students and retirees. Bank tellers, pipe fitters, officer
workers, machinists, meat cutters, boilermakers and carpenters.
I spent Election Day at a voting site inside the Magic Cottage
preschool in a section of Levittown called Appletree, where Mr.
Obama would defeat Mr. McCain, 682-388, a ratio slightly higher than
the Democratic registration edge in that precinct. Not a single one
of the more than 60 Obama voters I talked to said they had voted for
him in the spring. Some said they had come around slowly, and many
reported that they had been open to Mr. McCain.
These were the voters whom Mr. McCain was targeting when he made a
big bet on Pennsylvania, investing money and a substantial amount of
his time and the time of his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin. But Mr.
McCain’s message, to the extent it was received at all, irritated
them. The Democrats of Levittown did not defect ?they stayed in the
fold, and then some. Over all, in the four municipalities that
Levittown spans, Obama got a slightly higher percentage than John
Kerry did in 2004, and because of higher turnout, emerged with a
3,200-vote greater margin of victory. (Levittown is defined by ZIP
codes and Levitt-built homes, but is not its own incorporated town.
Large parts of it extend into towns with large white working-class
populations ?Bristol, Middletown and Falls Townships, as well as
Tullytown Borough ?but it does not make up the entirety of any of
those places. In those four jurisdictions, Obama defeated McCain,
41,110 to 25,034 ?contributing to his resounding
11-percentage-point victory in Pennsylvania.)
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“McCain pointed a lot of fingers instead of giving answers,?Steve
O’Connor, a plumber, told me.
Mr. Obama’s message, on the other hand, seemed like it had entered
some voters by IV injection. “I don’t want a clone of George Bush,?
Mark Maxwell, 47, a corporate chef, said. “With McCain, that’s
exactly what we’d get.?br>
Said Lisa Winslow, a 20-year-old college student: “I’m not rich. I
can’t afford to vote for McCain.?br>
What had changed for Mr. Obama? The financial meltdown obviously
made a huge difference. Five more months of exposure to him, and his
millions of dollars worth of advertisements, engendered a comfort
level. And Iraq, to a much greater extent than the pre-election
polls implied, mattered. Nearly every Obama voter I talked to
mentioned it, and many linked it to the economy.
“We’re like a trillion dollars in debt and spending what, $10
billion a month on the war??said Andrew Brehaut, 25, a waiter.
Levittown is filled with a great many veterans of the Vietnam War,
not all of whom served happily. “I didn’t want to be there when I
was told to go,?said Frank Carr, 62, who recently retired from his
shipping job in a corrugated box factory. “I know how the boys feel.
I believe Obama is a man of his word.?br>
When Mr. Obama says he is going to bring home the troops, “I believe
him,?Mr. Carr said.
Before Mr. Obama emerged on the national scene and began winning
primaries, few people would have predicted Americans were on the
verge of elevating a person of African descent to the highest office
in the land, or that they would have to confront any reluctance they
might have about accepting black leadership. The nation was
transformed on Tuesday, but what had to occur first was the
transformation of individual voters.
A lot of people in Levittown needed the five months between the
primary election and Tuesday to get used to a new idea. After Mrs.
Clinton’s defeat, followed by a financial crisis that shook
Americans to the core, they came to terms. If Mr. Obama’s race had
been a factor, they eventually had to weigh it against other
“For a long time, I couldn’t ignore the fact that he was black, if
you know what I mean,?Mr. Sinitski, the heating and
air-conditioning technician, told me. “I’m not proud of that, but I
was raised to think that there aren’t good black people out there. I
could see that he was highly intelligent, and that matters to me,
but my instinct was still to go with the white guy.?br>
Mr. Sinitski said what pushed him toward Mr. Obama, more than
anything, was McCain’s vice-presidential choice of Mrs. Palin. “She
might be a great person, but I had never heard of her before and I
couldn’t see how such an unknown should be put one heartbeat from
the presidency,?he said, “especially with all the problems we’ve
got. I didn’t feel it spoke well for McCain. It didn’t demonstrate
intelligence on McCain’s part and it just didn’t reflect well in
general on him.?br>
Tina Davis is the council president in Bristol Township, which has
the highest concentration of Levittown voters. She said she had
endless conversations with constituents who said they would not vote
for Obama. “Most of them couldn’t give me a real answer why,?she
said. “I had some of them reciting those stupid e-mails saying he
was a Muslim. I’m pretty blunt. I would just say to them, ‘You’re
against him because he’s black.??br>
She thinks some of those who argued with her and insisted till the
bitter end that they would vote for Mr. McCain just stubbornly did
not want to acknowledge they had changed their minds. In the end,
she believes they ended up voting out of a different kind of fear ?
fear for their own economic survival. Self-interest trumped racism.
“They had to ask themselves if they wanted a really smart young
black guy, or a stodgy old white guy from the same crowd who put us
in this hole,?she said.
The people I met in Levittown were not on Mr. Obama’s e-mail list or
among his donors, but they may be more likely than his younger
supporters and more affluent ones to give him what he most
desperately needs: time and patience. Like characters from the songs
of one of Mr. Obama’s celebrity endorsers, Bruce Springsteen, many
Levittowners have been weathered by life. They haven’t benefited
from a lot of quick fixes. Others of his supporters say they’ll be
patient, but I sensed these people really mean it. They were harder
to sell, but they could end up being pretty loyal.
“How long did it take Bush to get us into this mess??Mr. Carr, the
Vietnam veteran, asked. “It’s a lot easier to screw things up than
to make them better.?br>
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 16, 2008
An article last Sunday about blue-collar voters in Levittown, Pa.,
who gravitated to Senator Barack Obama in the presidential election
misstated the month of the Pennsylvania primary. It was April, not