Presidential Race is Up for Grabs in PA, But Will it Matter? By: Jim Lee, President of Susquehanna Polling and Research, Inc.
Presidential Race is Up for Grabs in PA, But Will it Matter?
With Santorum dropping out of the Presidential Race before the 4/24 PA Primary came to town it’s all but certain that Mitt Romney will be the GOP nominee for President.
In our Spring SP&R Omnibus Poll, Pennsylvanians already put Romney within striking distance of defeating President Obama if the general election were held today. According to our survey of 700 likely general election voters (conducted 3/24 – 3/28), Romney and Obama are in a statistical tie at 45 percent to 45 percent. Only 10% say they are still up for grabs – which is an unusually low percent of undecided voters with more than seven months to go until November.
However, just because the race in Pennsylvania will most likely be close doesn’t mean Pennsylvania will be a “targeted” state by either the Romney or Obama camps.
There are a couple reasons for this. First, a good rule of thumb to gauge the competitiveness of Pennsylvania is to look at the national picture. Past presidential elections show that Pennsylvania usually votes a few points more Democratic than the nation as a whole. For instance, in 2004 George W. Bush won the popular vote on a national basis by three percentage points but John Kerry won the Keystone State by 2.5 points. In 2008, Obama won the popular vote nationally by 6 percent but carried Pennsylvania by 10 points (54.6% to 44.3%). So our March poll showing Romney and Obama tied makes sense because national polling at the time showed Romney with a small lead.
This is important because Pennsylvania has not voted Republican for President since 1988 when the Philadelphia suburbs went heavily for former President Bush, while Southwestern PA and the Pittsburgh region held for the Democratic nominee. More than 20 years later, the Philadelphia suburban counties will never vote as Republican as they did in the 1980’s because of changing demographics. Plus, in both 2000 and 2004 Republican George W. Bush won the White House but still lost the Keystone State both times. Consequently, McCain ran poorly in Pa. in 2008 even with a great effort here. This leads all the Washington strategists to quickly dismiss the Keystone State as a swing state. As evidence of this, significant media buys were made recently by a well-known super PAC backing Romney and Pennsylvania was not one of these states. Even the Romney campaign seems to be downplaying their prospects for winning Pennsylvania according to media reports.
Pundits also say the electoral math for winning the required 270 electoral votes for Romney doesn’t necessarily come through Pennsylvania. This means Romney can win the presidency and still lose Pennsylvania if he can win 5 to 6 states that went for Obama in 2008, but voted Republican either before 2008 or more recently. States like Florida, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Nevada and Indiana will be central to this goal, and probably trump Pennsylvania on the target list in terms of resource-allocation by Romney and perhaps even Obama. But if polling shows Romney in serious jeopardy of stumbling in one or more of the states that flipped for Obama last time then Pennsylvania could again rise in national prominence. Conversely, given Pennsylvania’s Democratic leanings it is plausible to argue that if Romney defeats Obama in Pennsylvania we could be looking at a landslide victory for the GOP on a national basis.
And this is why the recent polling showing the race tied in Pennsylvania is so important. Crucial to Romney’s ability to win the Keystone State is staying competitive in the vote-rich Southeast where 1 in 3 statewide votes are cast and where voters are moderate on social issues. In our current poll, Obama holds only a 10-point advantage over Romney in the 4 counties surrounding Philadelphia. This area of the state is critical because Bush’s 145,000-vote loss to Kerry in 2004 was largely due to a 70,000-vote deficit in these same counties. Plus, Obama’s 600,000+ vote margin in 2008 was largely due to his huge margins over McCain in Philadelphia and the 4 suburban counties, where collectively he surpassed McCain by more than 650,000 votes. So if Romney is able to hold down Obama’s margins in Southeast Pennsylvania he’s in a good position to win the state in November. This is particularly true since Western Pennsylvania is trending more Republican due to voters’ conservative positions on social and cultural issues. So as long as Romney isn’t viewed as a hard-right social conservative by these suburban voters in the Southeast, he is likely to do better than McCain given that the president’s job approval score in this region is down in comparison to what he won this area by 4 years ago. At the same time, Romney is likely to hold socially conservative Democrats in Western Pennsylvania despite his moderate positions on social issues because the area is trending Republican, and antipathy towards Obama is still so high.
So pundits shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Pennsylvania as a battleground state. A lot will depend on the state of the economy in November. If a falling unemployment rate fuels voters’ perceptions that the future is looking better, Obama will benefit from this. If however the economy continues to underperform and Republican enthusiasm to oust Obama continues to remain high Pennsylvania could very well be a deciding factor in November.