Speech to PA Association of REALTORS GA Seminar, 4/15/08
Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Jim Lee, President of Susquehanna Polling and Research. Let’s first talk about the status of the race between Clinton and Obama from a national perspective. Even if Hillary Clinton wins PA next week, it’s still unlikely she can legitimately claim the rights to the nomination unless she convinces the super delegates to vote for her. Obama is winning with the pledged delegates, approximately by 164 at last count, leads with the total number of states won, and leads with the popular vote by more than 700,000 nationwide. Clinton would have to win 2/3 of the remaining delegates in the 10 remaining states yet to hold contests for her to tie him in the delegate count, and that is unlikely to happen because of the complex way the Democratic party rules award delegates based on proportional representation, where delegates are based on the winner of the popular vote in each congressional or legislative district. A good example of this is in the state of Nevada, where Clinton carried the state in the popular vote, but Obama was actually awarded one more delegate then she was because of how his vote was dispersed throughout the state.
Clinton’s main strategy has been to convince super delegates that she is the only candidate that has and will continue to win the big delegate-rich states the Democrats need to win in November to beat McCain. She points to her wins in New Jersey, California, New York, Ohio, even Michigan and Florida, and of course PA is vital to this argument. It may be an argument that the super delegates respond to, and at the current time she still leads in the super delegate count by approximately 30, but her lead has been significantly diminished over the last few weeks as more and more party leaders start to think it’s inevitable that Obama will win the delegate race when all the states have voted. So the key is, can the results of the remaining states yet to hold contests really make that much of a difference – starting with PA, and moving on to Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Oregon, Kentucky, Montana, South Dakota, Guam and Puerto Rico. Obama’ strategy needs to be to keep these remaining states close so that no one gets a decisive lead with the remaining pledged delegates yet to be awarded, and keep the pressure on the super delegates to not vote against the will of the people, something party leaders including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, are increasingly signaling would be a major mistake to do.
Now, let’s turn to the race in PA. This state was always considered Clinton’s to lose because of her family ties to the Northeast and the fact that this state, similar to Ohio which she won by 10 points, was tailor-made for her because of its strong emphasis on blue collar Reagan Democrats, older voters and culturally conservative Democrats. Our polling in early March and almost all the other polling conducted, showed Clinton with a double-digit lead. However things began to change when Obama started outspending her 3:1 on the airwaves here, something he did not have the luxury or time to do in Ohio because of the compressed election schedule. As of today, the polls show a tightening lead for her, with her margin now 40-37 with 18% still undecided according to our recently completed statewide poll just released this week. Clinton is still wining with Catholics, blue collar Reagan Democrats, senior citizens, lower income voters, and females. From a regional perspective, her lead is mostly concentrated in the Northeast, the Southwest and the Central PA/Johnstown-Altoona market. However, Obama has made gains in these areas and now wins in the Southeast region of the state including Philadelphia, and in the Harrisburg region, where Democrats in this region tend to be more white-collar, affluent and more like Southeast PA Democrats and not like the culturally conservative Democrats you tend to get out west and in the Northeast. He also leads with more affluent and higher income voters, younger voters, and among black voters.
The key to this race in the remaining days will be voter turnout, and how the undecided voters break. Because Clinton continues to hold a lead, Obama may be able to pull an upset if he can get turnout up substantially among black Democrats in Philadelphia where he is winning by huge margins, as well as the Southeast counties of Chester, Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery Counties where he has pulled ahead, and strong turnout among younger voters particularly on college campuses like State College, where the new voter registration figures show that for the first time in probably 50 years, Centre County now has more Democrats than Republicans. As you may know, Obama recently held a rally in State College and drew an estimated 20,000 people.
For Clinton to win she needs to win the Southwest and Central parts of the state probably by 2:1 margins, and hold her own in the Southeast where Obama’s support has been increasing. Also, the senior citizen vote is absolutely critical in this race, where Clinton still has a big lead. In the last competitive statewide election the Democrats have had, which was the ’02 primary between Rendell and Casey for governor, seniors made up 53% of all votes cast on Election Day. That’s a huge advantage for Clinton, and one reason why Obama needs to jack turnout up so much to help dilute the influence of seniors because his support is much stronger with younger voters, particularly those 45 years old and younger. The last key to this election is where the undecided voters go. Last weekend, Obama created a firestorm of controversy with comments that suggested that voters in small towns in PA cling to religion, guns and their anti-immigrant sentiments when they are frustrated with their economic anxieties. If this continues to play out, it could create a backlash against Obama in precisely these areas of the state where the latest polling has shown he was starting to make gains, but still behind. Our prediction is that Clinton will win the race in PA, but that her margin will be less than the 10-point margin she won Ohio by.
Let’s shift to the general election for president between John McCain and either Obama or Clinton. For tons of reasons, this should be the Democrats’ year to capture the White House. Approximately 70% of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, a sentiment which historically works against the party occupying the White House. A majority of Americans believe the war in Iraq was a mistake and not worth the sacrifice we have made in troops, and most Americans and most Pennsylvanians for that matter, think we are currently in a recession, or headed for one in the next several months. Even 70% of economists surveyed by the WSJ say we’re in a recession, even though they admit that technically we haven’t satisfied the definition of a recession with two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. All these factors have contributed to such a black mark on the GOP that according to polls, when you ask Americans which party they want to win the White House, by a 10+ margin they say the Democrats. When you ask Americans which party they belong to, fewer and fewer Americans are even admitting to being Republican, which is near historic lows. And you don’t have to look at the statistics to feel the energy the Democrats have had this year with record turnouts in the primaries, hundreds of thousands of new voters registering to vote for the first time, and huge advantages in fundraising where the Clinton and Obama campaigns have raised twice and three times as much money as McCain or the Republicans have. Just in PA alone, the Democrats have increased their voters by 8% recently, giving them more than 4 million voters on the rolls which is unprecedented – and even flipped 5 counties from Republican to Democrat in registration (Centre, Clinton, Bucks, Montgomery and Clearfield). Even here in Dauphin County the Republicans only have a less than 2,000 voter registration advantage in a county that Republican candidates have carried in the past by huge margins – which has to be a concern for elected officials like Sen. Jeff Piccola who is running for reelection this year.
Despite all this, McCain is still competitive with the Democrats both nationally and in Pennsylvania, and polling shows he either ties or is only slightly behind both Obama and Clinton if the general election were held today. McCain’s resilience can be attributed to many factors: as someone who has been willing to buck the Republican Party establishment, his maverick-style image has made him attractive to Independent voters, moderates and Hispanics. He has strong appeal to senior citizens and veterans, and is fairly well liked by most voters, and for the most part people are comfortable with John McCain and can actually visualize him as president sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office because he comes across as very presidential. Also, with McCain as the GOP nominee the entire electoral map of which states are competitive in November gets turned upside down. For instance, because of his appeal to Reagan Democrats, the McCain campaign believes they put states like Michigan and PA in play for the general election, and his popularity with Independents puts Minnesota, New Hampshire and even Wisconsin in play. Also, the increasingly bitter primary between Obama and Clinton is starting to give the Democratic Party leaders heartburn, since they are concerned about what impact this will have on the nominee in the fall, and if the Clinton voters will vote for Obama and vice versa in a general election. Polls show up to 1 in 4 Democrats may not vote for either Clinton or Obama if the other candidate wins the nomination. Ultimately, I think the general election for president will be closely contested, and I think a lot of it has to do with how successful the GOP is defining Barack Obama if he is the nominee, something Clinton has really not had the luxury of doing since she can’t afford to alienate the same base she’ll need to rely on in November if she’s the nominee.
And how will the Republican attack machine define Obama? They’ll try to make the case that he is more liberal than most Americans. They’ll remind people the National Journal, a respected Washington think tank, rated him the most liberal senator in 2007. They’ll remind people he opposes a ban on partial birth abortions, something most Americans want abolished. They’ll remind people he supports drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, something even Hillary Clinton says she opposes, I think…? They’ll point to the fact that he favors a repeal of the defense of marriage act, which protects the institution of marriage between a man and a woman, something polls show most Americans support. And they’ll try to paint him as soft on terror, since he supports undoing some of the tough tactics President Bush has used to interrogate suspected terrorists. And lastly, many people are starting to believe that his recent comments about small towns America just gave the Republicans their “Ah-hah!” moment, which is to say: “See, we told you all along he was an elitist, out-of-touch liberal!”
The PA Congressional Races
There is one open seat in the 5th District represented by retiring Congressman John Peterson, and a lively 9-person field on the GOP side for this seat which should stay Republican in the Fall. Democratic incumbents are defending 9 seats in the Fall elections. Two to watch are freshman incumbents Chris Carney, who represents the 10th District formerly held by Don Sherwood. This is the best chance for the GOP to win back a seat because this district gave Bush his highest vote of any district in the last presidential election. Another seat to watch is the 11th District held by Paul Kanjorski, who is being challenged by Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, who has the benefit of his popularity as the first mayor in a nation to crack down on illegal immigrants which makes him an instantly credible challenger. Other freshman Democrats like Jason Altmire who represents Allegheny/Beaver Counties, Joe Sestak, who represents Delaware County, and Patrick Murphy, who represents Bucks County, will be an uphill climb for the Republicans.
On the Republican side, GOP congressmen are defending 7 seats. Two to watch are Congressman Phil English, based in Erie, who faces a tough challenger in a district that is trending Democrat and which polls show is economically distressed, and Congressman Tim Murphy, who represents Allegheny County, who may end up facing former Auditor General Barbara Hafer’s daughter if she wins the primary. Allegations have surfaced against Murphy relative to his staff’s involvement in illegal campaign activities, so this seat bears watching if the issue stays on the media’s radar screen. Two other seats that Republicans are defending are Jim Gerlach in the 6th District in the Southeast and Charlie Dent who represents the Lehigh Valley. Both districts are trending Democrat in voting patterns but the Democrats have not recruited good candidates in these seats, so it’s unlikely either incumbent will be defeated.
Statewide Row Office Elections
There are three statewide row office elections up this year for Attorney General, State Treasurer and Auditor General. In the auditor general’s race, our March polling shows Auditor General Jack Wagner with a 40/21 lead over Republican Chet Beiler, and this race will be a tough uphill climb for the GOP, as will the treasurer’s open seat race which currently shows that by a 44/33 margin, voters would vote Democrat if the race was held today. There is currently a 3-way primary for treasurer on the Democratic side, the winner to face Republican Tom Ellis in the fall, a former Montgomery County Commissioner.
The attorney general’s race is most interesting however, between Attorney General Tom Corbett and Democrat District Attorney John Morganelli from Northampton County. And let me first ask this question: Does anyone remember who Melissa Hart was? Melissa Hart was a former GOP congresswoman from Allegheny and Beaver Counties who lost her seat in the 2006 elections primarily because Reagan Democrats went home to the Democratic Party, an election which was largely viewed as a referendum on the Iraq war and dissatisfaction with the Bush Presidency. It wasn’t that M.H. was involved in a scandal, or was out of touch with the voters, or did anything sinister. M.H. ultimately became the 4th incumbent GOP congressperson in PA defeated in the 2006 elections, and wasn’t even on the target list of the national Democrats until October when they realized how big the tidal wave sweeping the country was developing.
I bring this up because Tom Corbett could be the Melissa Hart of the ’08 cycle. In our March polling, Corbett is only winning by a slim 37/29 margin, and this is important because if you remember what I said before about the race for state treasurer, where a “nameless” Republican candidate is only getting 33% of the vote, Corbett is only polling 4 points ahead of a nameless GOP candidate, which means he is dangerously close to being swept out with the tide if he doesn’t get any separation from the lousy political environment that the GOP is facing this year. To win, Corbett needs to rely on a big vote in this region where our polls shows his support is the strongest partly due to his investigation into bonuses paid to House/Senate staffers, and big numbers out West in his home area. For Morganelli, if he has at least some money to communicate a message that he is qualified to run from his service as a DA, then between that and the higher surge in Democratic registration, it could be enough to get the job done. If Corbett wins, he wins this race 51/49, but I could envision a scenario where Morganelli wins by a much bigger margin.
State House/Senate races
The GOP margin in the state senate, currently 29R/21D, will continue to stay strong. In the State Senate, six state senators have announced their retirement – three Republicans and three Democrats – so expect lively races to fill these open seats, but none are likely to produce seats that swap from R to D or vise versa. One potential seat in question is State Sen. Bob Regola (R-39, Westmoreland), who is being investigated due to the accidential shooting death of his son’s neighborhood friend, who died from an apparent self-inflicted gun shot wound from a gun owned by Sen. Regola, which court documents say was obtained from Sen. Regola’s house. This is a Democrat seat in voter registration, but has trended Republican in recent years due to support from Reagan Democrats. Sen. Regola’s personal reputation in the district will be the deciding factor, and if he can rehabilitate his image and at the same time, convince voters his opponent is not a viable alternative, he may be able to win reelection. Expect this race to get ugly if Regola stays in the race, since the GOP will need to define the Democratic nominee in a very unfavorable light to keep the seat in GOP hands.
In 2006, House Democrats regained the majority in the lower chamber for the first time since 1994 by one vote. This year, a total of 94 incumbents- which is slightly less than 50% of the entire House – have completely free rides and face no primary or general contests, which is a huge increase from 2006 when the legislative pay raise from 2005 brought hundreds of candidates out of the wood work. This year, it seems as if we are back to the old days when most incumbents will probably get reelected, particularly if you take into account how handily the candidates for judicial retention at the statewide level last year won by near 2:1 margins, which said to us the animosity from the pay raise has definitely lost its shine. All this means that most of the competition for House races will be in 19 open seats.
The strategy for the Democrats will be to hold onto seats they snatched away from Republicans in 2006, including Rep. Tim Seip (D-125, Schuylkill), Rep. Rick Taylor (D-151, Montgomery), Rep. Chris King (D-142, Bucks), Rep. David Kessler (D-130, Berks), Rep. Scott Conklin (D-77, Centre), Rep. Bryan Lentz (D-161, Delaware), Rep. Barbara McIlvaine Smith (D-156, Chester) at the same time, pick up a few “insurance” seats primarily by focusing on several open seats formerly held by Republicans in the Southeast that are trending Democratic in voting trends.
The strategy for the GOP to reclaim the majority will be to hold open seats in the Southeast due to GOP retirements, and more importantly, defeat incumbent Democrats in marginal seats where Republican performance is strong. Our early polling indicates that if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee for president, more Democratic incumbents, particularly in rural and Western PA districts will be in play given how well McCain is polling in these same districts. In some cases, our polling shows McCain 20 points or more ahead of Obama in competitive House districts, while a McCain/Clinton match-up is a dead heat. This means the straight ticket vote for the Democrats will be minimized, and GOP candidates will be able to win more McCain votes down ballot from both Republicans and conservative Democrats. Or, with an Obama ticket, more Democrats in these districts might stay home on Election Day. This means most GOP candidates should prey for an Obama ticket in November to help their prospects, and this gives the House Republicans a much-needed lift in their prospects to reclaim the majority, which we think is probably a 50:50 chance of happening.