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Teamsters for Obama: Truckin' but not Registerin'

By Alec MacGillis
Heading into next Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary, Barack Obama's campaign is counting on a big turnout among the nearly 300,000 Keystone State voters who have recently switched their registration to Democratic so that they can vote in the primary, which bars Republicans and independents. The campaign has been working hard to register non-Democrats drawn to Obama -- a subgroup that has helped carry him elsewhere -- and would like to think that the vast majority of new Democrats on the rolls are for him.

But traveling through the state, it's hard not to conclude, after meeting voter after voter unaware of the primary rules, that both Obama and Hillary Clinton could have done a better job in goading their supporters to register as Democrats by the March 24 deadline. And one group stands out in particular: Teamster members.

The union's president, James P. Hoffa, traveled through the state last week in a convoy of three empty freight trucks to drum up support for Obama, visiting truck depots and warehouses to tell his members why the union was backing Obama. He got a decent reception. But to what avail? At each stop, there were Teamsters who said they preferred Obama to Clinton, but weren't going to vote in the primary because they were either Republicans or independents.

You might think that one of the top benefits from a big union endorsement would be knowing that the union would do its best to make sure its members were eligible to vote in the contest at hand, particularly in a state like Pennsylvania where voters are unused to voting in a presidential primary that matters. Yet that did not seem to be the case with the Teamsters: Hoffa himself was unaware that Pennsylvania is a closed primary. He reacted with surprise when informed of that by reporters during the tour.

The union's top political liaisons said they were fully aware of the rules, and had been doing all they could to get out the word to members. But they acknowledged that there were probably Obama supporters they had missed.

One is Scott Hann, a registered Republican who heard Hoffa pitch Obama at a truck depot outside Reading, where he works as a mechanic. He will definitely vote for Obama over John McCain in the fall. "He handles himself very good in the media," said Hann, 39. "The support he's getting is phenomenal. There's no way I'm going to vote for Hillary [in November] but I'm leaning towards him because I can't take another four years of" Republican rule. But he didn't realize in time that he needed to switch his registration for the primary. "I'm not real big into politics," he said.

Standing next to him was Bob Evans, a 59-year-old truck driver and also an Obama admirer. "I'm a registered Republican and I wouldn't vote for McCain if he was running against Mickey Mouse," he said. Had he planned to vote for Obama in the primary? "If it's not too late, I'm definitely going to" switch, he said. But it was too late.

It was the same story at Hoffa's next stop, a grocery warehouse where he spoke to several hundred workers. Matthew Light, a 32-year-old independent, likes Obama the best of the three remaining candidates, saying he's "more available to people and down to earth" than Clinton and that McCain is campaigning on "more stay the course than anything for change." He knew about the primary rules -- but never got around to switching because he didn't think Pennsylvania's primary would be all that pivotal, and no one was urging him to think otherwise. "I thought about it, but I thought it wasn't going to matter too much," he said.

By Web Politics Editor  |  April 16, 2008; 5:07 PM ET
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