Speech to PA Business Council Election Forum, 5/6/08, 2PM
Good afternoon. Let’s first talk about the status of the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama from a national perspective. Even with Hillary Clinton’s win in PA two weeks ago, it’s still unlikely she can legitimately claim the rights to the nomination unless she convinces more super delegates to vote for her. Obama is winning with pledged delegates, approximately by 154 at last count, leads with the total number of states won (31 of the 46 so far), and leads with the popular vote by approximately 500,000 nationwide not counting Florida or Michigan and also not counting the imputed results from the four caucus states of Iowa, Maine, Nevada or Washington. Clinton would have to win 2/3 of the remaining pledged delegates in the 9 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. A good example of this is Nevada, where Clinton carried the state in the popular vote, but Obama was awarded one more delegate because of how his vote was dispersed. And in Texas, which had both a caucus and a primary, Obama was awarded more delegates because of his strong showing in the caucus despite Clinton’s win with the popular vote.
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 John McCain. She points to her wins in New Jersey, New York, Ohio, even Michigan and Florida, and of course PA. It’s an argument she’s hoping that the super delegates respond to, and at the current time she still leads in the super delegate count by approximately 15, but her lead has been significantly diminished over the last two months as more party leaders think it’s inevitable Obama will win the delegate race after all states have voted by June 3. So the key is, can the results of the remaining states really make that much of a difference – starting with Indiana and North Carolina both of which hold primaries today, and moving on to West Virginia, Oregon, Kentucky, Montana, South Dakota and Puerto Rico. Obama’s 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.
However, according to some political analysts, Clinton may also be contemplating making an argument that she should be the nominee because she is really the “choice of the people” if she can overtake Obama in the popular vote. She can do this by first counting her win in Florida, where she beat Obama by close to 300,000 votes, because Obama was on the ballot there, but not Michigan where he wasn’t on the ballot. If she does decent in North Carolina where polls show her trailing but closing the margin, wins Indiana decisively, and gets big margins in West Virginia and Kentucky as she’s likely to do, this could erase Obama’s popular vote lead particularly if Obama doesn’t get big wins in Oregon, South Dakota or Montana where he is expected to do well. Clinton may also be counting on big numbers in Puerto Rico, where polls suggest she’s doing well partly because her home state of New York has the biggest population of Puerto Ricans of any state in the country. And undermining this argument will be Clinton’s suggestion that Obama’s lead with pledged delegates isn’t as legitimate as her lead with the popular vote, because close to two thirds of his “pledged” delegate lead comes from delegates elected in caucuses, which were chosen by so few people in comparison to the states that held primaries. For example, approximately 1.5 million voted in caucuses compared to 30 million in states that had primaries. It’s probably a risky strategy to make, but the Clintons have obviously shown they aren’t afraid to play hard ball.
Now, let’s turn to a quick recap of the race in PA. Clinton’s win in PA was projected for weeks, with the real debate more focused on whether it would be a narrow victory or a 10-point win like in Ohio and New Jersey. Her 10-point margin in the state proved once again she has a much broader base of support than Obama in these key battleground states. She won 60 of the 67 counties, and exit polling showed big margins for her with Catholics, females, blue collar “Reagan Democrats”, super voters and senior citizens. She even won narrowly among white males, which have tended to be up for grabs in the past. Undecided voters broke for Clinton by a near 60/40 margin in the remaining 7 days of the race, a clear indication she had stopped his momentum in early April stemming from both self-inflicted wounds about his comments about how people in small towns in PA “cling to guns, religion, etc.” when they are bitter about their economic anxieties, as well as a poor debate performance on 4/16 in Philadelphia when tough questioning from the media kept him on the defensive.
For Obama, exit polls showed his strengths primarily among voters 45 years and under, affluent and white collar voters and black Democrats. Among those who registered to vote for the first time, exit polls showed they voted for Obama by a 62/38 margin. Obama needed a big win in the Southeast counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery, where polls showed he was neck-and-neck with Clinton; he ended up narrowly losing these counties collectively by a 52/48 margin. The other key region for Obama was the Mid State/Harrisburg region (Adams, Dauphin, Cumberland, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Berks and Perry), where Democrats tend to be more affluent, white collar and up-and-coming professionals, and therefore more like Southeastern PA Democrats and less like the blue collar, culturally-conservative Democrats you get in the Northeast and the West. Obama only split these counties 50/50 with Clinton. As expected, he won Philadelphia by a 2:1 margin, and also carried Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Dauphin, Centre and Union Counties, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Clinton’s home-grown advantages and institutional support in the state, even with the unprecedented turnout of more than 2 million votes cast, up from 1.2 million in 2002 which was the last time the Democrats had a contested statewide election between Rendell and Casey for governor.
However, the significance of a Clinton win in Pennsylvania really brings to light Obama’s potential problems as the probable Democratic nominee in the fall. Obama’s problems attracting support from working-class, white voters may not go away easily, and national polling shows that favorable impressions for Obama have dropped 5 points this month, while the percentage of Americans who view him as unfavorable jumped 9 points, a 14 point swing, with the highest negative ratings coming from Independents, seniors, blue collar workers, rural and small town voters and even suburban women, the last of which have given Obama some of his strongest support in past contests. In PA, our recent polling in Democratic-leaning districts shows that if Clinton is not the nominee, some Reagan Democrats are more comfortable with McCain than Obama, while others may simply stay home. For instance, our polling in three key regions of the state where support from Reagan Democrats is crucial, those being the Southeast, the Johnstown/Altoona market and the Northeast – showed Clinton either beating or narrowly losing to McCain, but McCain besting Obama by anywhere from 13 to 25 points in these same districts. In one district, even 11% of Democrats said they would not vote for either McCain or Obama, which means Reagan Democrats may not be particularly enamored with either candidate, but also means the Democrats may have a turnout problem in November if Obama doesn’t repair his image with this critical swing group.
Let’s shift to the general election between 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 sacrifices we have made, 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. 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-point margin they say the Democrats. When you ask Americans which party they belong to, fewer and fewer Americans identify as being Republican, which is near historic lows. And according to a Wall Street Journal poll released last week, only 27% of voters nationwide now have favorable views of the Republican Party, the lowest level for either party in the survey’s near two-decade history. 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 increase in Democrat registration was the highest of the state, a 38% increase adding 20,000 new Democrats to the rolls, giving the Republicans now a less than 2,000 voter registration advantage in a county that Republican candidates have carried in the past by huge margins.
Despite all this, McCain is still in a statistical dead heat with both Clinton and Obama nationally, and in Pennsylvania is trailing both candidates but still considered competitive enough to keep PA in play. 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. Polls show he has strong appeal to senior citizens and veterans, and is fairly well liked by most voters, and the WSJ poll I referred to earlier showed that among all three candidates, Americans gave the highest marks to McCain on “values and background”, which the survey identified as things like honor, trustworthiness and patriotism. In fact, McCain scored higher than Obama and Clinton among most key demographic groups on these issues including with men, seniors, independents, suburbanites, small town voters and rural voters. This means McCain’s appeal is more based on personal traits and his maverick image more so than his positions on issues, which can work to his advantage given his controversial positions on the Iraq war, and the perception by many that he lacks the credentials to grasp economic issues.
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 may put Minnesota, New Hampshire and even Wisconsin in play. Also, the bitter primary between Obama and Clinton is giving 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. We can discuss more about how the GOP will try to define Obama if time permits.
The PA Congressional Races
There is one open seat in the 5th District represented by retiring Congressman John Peterson, and the Republican nominee, G.T. Thompson, should be the favorite to win over Democratic nominee Mark McCracken since he won the primary relatively unscathed given that the two front runners for the race, Derek Walker and Matt Shaner, really suffered the brunt of all the negative campaigning. 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; the GOP nominee is Chris Hackett. Another seat to watch is the 11th District held by Paul Kanjorski, who is being challenged by Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, who is benefiting from his popularity as the first mayor in the nation to pass an ordinance cracking down on illegal immigrants which makes him an instantly credible challenger. In the spirit of disclosure I should also mention that we are the pollster for Barletta. 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 uphill climbs 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 from Kathy Dalhkemper in a district that recent elections show is trending more Democrat, and Congressman Tim Murphy, who represents Allegheny County. Allegations have surfaced against Murphy relative to his staff’s involvement in questionable campaign activities, so this seat bears watching if these allegations materialize before November; the Democrat nominee is Steve O’Donnell. 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; the Democratic nominee is businessman Bob McCord and the GOP nominee is former Montgomery County Commissioner Tom Ellis.
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 viewed as 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 anti-Republican tidal wave sweeping the country was.
I bring this up because in our estimation 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 the Harrisburg region where our polls shows his support is the strongest partly due to his investigation into bonuses paid to House/Senate staffers, and as well as big numbers out West in his home area and at least do decent in the Southest. 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 probably wins this race 52/48, 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, Tony Bompiani, is not a viable alternative, he may be able to win reelection.
In the state House, House Democrats regained the majority last election cycle for the first time since 1994 by one vote. This year, pending write-in candidates which have yet to be certified, up to 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, 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. However, an Obama ticket is probably the best chance the GOP has.