U.S. Senate Race (Sestak v. Toomey): A Referendum on Obama’s First Two Years in Office?
Congressman Joe Sestak’s successful insurgent campaign over Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter in the May 18th Democratic Primary sets up a black-and-white, crystal clear choice for voters in the fall. Basically, a vote for Sestak is a vote for a strong advocate for the president and his policies. A vote for Pat Toomey is largely a repudiation of Obama’s policies, and particularly his handling of the economy and what he believes is a Keynesian-style, big-government approach to governing. Sestak ultimately defeated Specter by a convincing 8-point, 54 to 46 percent margin and winning 64 of 67 counties in a clear repudiation of the Specter brand.
A Specter versus Toomey match-up in November would have been a much murkier choice to some voters, pitting Toomey against a self-described moderate like Specter who tried to make the case that he was an independent voice for the state because he proved time and time again that he was not afraid to cross party lines for the good of the country or state, like when he cast the defining vote to support the president’s $787 billion economic stimulus bill in February 2009. In a poetic twist of fatal irony, it was largely this vote that did him in with the state’s conservative GOP base and ultimately led to his party switch quickly thereafter. Back then, our firm was the first to publicly release a poll after his vote for the Obama stimulus bill, which showed Specter’s base of support at an all time low leading us to be the first to provocatively and prophetically proclaim that Specter “could be toast” in the 2010 elections. [For more information on this poll Google the 2/29 Pittsburgh Tribune Review article entitled “Specter could be Toast in 2010, Pollster Says”].
So now that the battle lines have been drawn, the key for a Toomey victory is to make the election a referendum on President Obama. Our recent polling shows Obama could be an albatross around Sestak’s neck. In our latest April poll the president’s popularity in the state was down to 42%, an 8-point drop from his fifty percent approval rating less than a year ago, and an even steeper decline from his 55% vote margin over John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. In this same poll support for the president’s health care overhaul is 43%, while 48% oppose the new law including 39% who “strongly” oppose it. This poll was taken even after the president signed the new law, which shows that President Obama has not yet succeeded in selling the new law to a skeptical public.
Since Sestak campaigned as the “real” Democrat in the race, the message he was sending to Democratic voters is that he will be a firm ally of the president’s policies, and that Specter could not be trusted because his party switch was done for opportunistic reasons, not the best interests of the state. This puts Sestak in a proverbial box, because he now has to appeal to all voters including Republicans, Independents and classic “swing” voters who say they split their tickets in most elections. In a state like Pennsylvania where up to 1 in 4 or more voters are known to split their tickets, winning support from self-proclaimed “swing” voters are the key to both candidates. And in a year when the political winds have clearly shifted in the GOP’s favor both nationally as well as here in the Keystone State, this will be no small task for Sestak. Since Obama supported Sestak’s opponent in the primary, Sestak will need to use this as proof positive that he is nobody’s lackey.
The playbook for the Sestak campaign is to make the case that the president’s policies have helped put the economy back on the road to recovery (albeit at a snail’s pace), and that the current time is not a good one to change horses in mid stream. Sestak will need to try to convince voters that the economic collapse was largely former President George Bush’s fault, and argue that a vote for Toomey is a vote for the failed Bush policies of the past. Sestak will have to rely on economic data to make his case. Although the nation’s unemployment rate has remained high (currently 9.9%), he will need to argue there is mounting evidence that the economy has shown positive signs of a comeback, like strong GDP growth, a stock market that has largely rebounded from a year ago, the fact that most Wall Street banks that received TARP funding have repaid back their loans to taxpayers, and that the economic reports suggest many businesses seem to be in a better mood to rehire and spend capital.
Sestak will also have the added challenge of trying to increase turnout among presidential-type voters (i.e., minorities and young voters) who were instrumental in helping elect President Obama in 2008, but historically sit it out in non-presidential years. Minorities in particular were seen as the key to a Sen. Specter victory in the recent Democratic Primary but ultimately did not turn out in significant-enough numbers to influence the outcome of the race (turnout was only 24%, even less than the historical norm for statewide contested primaries using the 2002 Casey/Rendell Democratic gubernatorial primary VTO of 29%). The difference in turnout between the ’08 presidential election and ’06 gubernatorial is approximately 2 million fewer votes, from 5.9 million in ’08 to 4 million in 2006. It is precisely this drop-off in VTO among minorities, younger voters and first-time voters that contributed to Democratic losses in governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia, as well as statewide judicial contests for Democrats in PA in 2009.
So the battle lines have been set for November’s showdown. Most polling prior to Sestak’s win on May 18th showed Toomey with a lead in a hypothetical match-up against Sestak, but the defeat of Sen. Specter in the primary has changed the dynamics of the race considerably. Good barometers to watch for as the race develops include the president’s popularity (will it rise or fall further), how economic data on the economy’s recovery is interpreted over the next few months and how both candidates reposition their campaigns to appeal to “swing” and moderate voters in a state known recently for its propensity to vote “purple”.