Politics & Policy

The Dynamics of Pennsylvania’s Dead Heat

With exactly two weeks to go before Election Day, Pennsylvania is starting to look a lot more like a battleground state. Pat Toomey led Joe Sestak for months in the polls, only trailing briefly after Sestak’s primary upset over Arlen Specter last spring.

Now, the first independent poll is corroborating what internals from both campaigns indicated: the race has tightened to what is functionally a dead heat.

According to the just released Muhlenberg/Morning Call survey, Democrat Sestak leads Toomey 44 percent to 41 percent among likely voters. Coming on the heels of yesterday’s Public Policy Polling survey showing Sestak leading by one, Real Clear Politics has adjusted its average down to a slim two percent Toomey lead.

“It was clear the race was always going to tighten,” political consultant Charlie Gerow told Battle ‘10, “but Toomey remains the favorite in the race.” Gerow, citing differing enthusiasm levels on the left and right, said he still saw a “rally” likely for Toomey in the final days in a way that union organizers on the left would have difficulty overcoming.

A dead heat late in this race doesn’t seem to be surprising either campaign. And polls aside, there are some very compelling dynamics in this race that could be instructive as we race to the finish line.

The Dollar factor

The DSCC is spending more in Pennsylvania than on any other race, and will have spent at least $9 million by Nov. 2. The NRSC, their Republican counterpart, has just begun its final spending blitz, injecting more than $600,000.

Another $1 million, at least, is coming from the Republican Jewish Coalition to target Sestak over his support of a civilian trial for 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Philadelphia will be a major focus.

The Club for Growth has also made it’s former boss’s race it’s top priority. A plea went out yesterday for more cash, but the Club will be throwing in at least $700,000 for Toomey.

The garden state Parallel

Yesterday, Chris Christie was in Pennsylvania campaigning for Mike Fitzpatrick in the 8th district, and recounted the story of his improbable gubernatorial victory:

“A year ago right now, 14 days out from our election in New Jersey, our polls were in absolute dead heat between me and Jon Corzine,” said Christie. “He was the incumbent. We have 700,000 more Democrats than Republicans in New Jersey. Jon Corzine outspent me 3-1 with $30 million dollars of his own money.”

“We had not elected a Republican statewide in 12 years, and we still have not elected a Republican United States senator since 1972. Now, those look like long odds, and they were, but over the last 14 days in New Jersey, people like you decided, ‘No, we’re not giving in to this.’”

Christie defeated Corzine on Nov. 3 of last year by a margin of 3.6 percent.

The take-away: when voters are presented with dire choices, and one man is seen as the vanguard of an ineffectual status quo, he loses.

Nate Silver’s Rule of Thumb

Earlier this month at The Campaign Spot, Jim Geraghty highlighted this from Nate Silver at the New York Times:

Senate candidates who have a lead of between 6 and 9 points in the simple polling average, with 30 days to go until the election — about where Mr. Toomey’s lead stands now — are undefeated since 1998.

Absentee Ballots

As Battle ‘10 mentioned yesterday, absentee ballots are reportedly favoring the GOP by an eight point margin. This is a decent indicator that the enthusiasm gap is already translating into a turnout gap for Democrats.

Closing Arguments

Both Toomey and Sestak will try to paint the other as the more extreme in their closing arguments to Pennsylvanians over these final two weeks, and especially at the debates happening this week.

Sestak has hammered Toomey for say in an old interview that his voting record is “pretty hard to distinguish from Rick Santorum’s.” Pennsylvanians rejected Santorum in 2006 by a nearly 20 point margin. This charge, along with other attacks, is probably responsible for a portion of the poll movement.

Toomey, meanwhile, has sought to link Sestak to Nancy Pelosi and has brutalized Sestak for saying he the stimulus should have been larger, at least $1 trillion.

Amidst a very poor economy, an unemployment rate at 10 percent, and an electorate that’s soured on Obama — and moderates who have abandoned him — it would be startling, to say the least, for Sestak to emerge victorious.

After all, this is man who continues to campaign with that president, and who now stars in attack ads from the right for declaring he seeks to be the president’s “strongest ally.”

As they go to the polls, Pennsylvanians might end up choosing who they dislike more: the Santorum of ‘06, or the Obama/Pelosi duo of 2010.

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