Over the past two weeks, polls tracking Pennsylvania's Senate race have covered the gamut: Democrat Joe Sestak is leading; it's a dead heat; Republican Pat Toomey is winning by a little; Toomey is winning by a lot. One tracking poll in the past eight days alone has swung from showing a 3-point edge for Sestak to an 8-point lead for Toomey.
The conflicting data are enough to make accurate predictions about the pivotal race nearly impossible. But an analysis of the polls, coupled with interviews with key staff at the campaigns and with Pennsylvania officials, paint this picture: Sestak is still the underdog, but he remains within striking distance of his GOP opponent. Both candidates are locked in a frantic battle to turn out their base, a much easier task for Toomey in a Republican year but still critically important in state where the number of registered Democrats dwarfs Republicans.
The news for Toomey this week has been good: A week after he saw his once comfortable lead vanish, an array of polls have showed him ahead, if by a smaller margin. A CNN/Time poll released on Wednesday reported him leading by 4 points, 49 percent to 45 percent; a Franklin & Marshall College poll from the same day had him leading by 7 points, 43 percent to 36 percent.
Most significant of all, a Morning Call/Muhlenberg College tracking survey that had Sestak leading by 3 points last Tuesday showed that lead widening to 8 points, 48 percent to 40 percent, by Thursday.
The surveys came a week after several polls put Sestak in the lead for the first time since he defeated Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter back in June. In addition to the Muhlenberg survey, one from Public Policy Polling reported Sestak ahead by 1 point, and an internal Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee poll maintained he led by 2 points.
But Sestak was never going to surge past Toomey. Why? Despite Sestak's momentum, Toomey enjoys the support of about 90 percent of Republican voters--and, like most GOP candidates this year, he leads among independents. The CNN/Timepoll found Toomey leading Sestak among the independents, 54 percent to 41 percent. In normal years, Pennsylvania Democratic candidates could overcome those disadvantages, thanks to their edge in registered voters (Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than a million). Yet the far greater enthusiasm among GOP voters has given Toomey an edge.
Sestak retains advantages, however. Democratic turnout is likely to exceed the GOP’s, and Sestak has received significant help from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has spent millions of dollars on ads, and from unions, which have poured millions into a ground game. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday reported that the race was tied at 46 percent.
Even a Toomey internal poll memo, while making it clear that their candidate was the favorite, said that “there is no question that this is a close race.”
Republicans remain bullish about Toomey’s chances and say that Sestak’s inability to surge ahead in polling after consolidating his base shows he faces an uphill battle on Tuesday.
“I think the most salient point is that Sestak has never broken away from Toomey,” said Ray Zaborney, a Harrisburg-based GOP consultant. “Even if you average all these polls together, Toomey has a slight lead, and my thought would be that’s where the race is.”
What defines a “slight lead” depends on which campaign is asked. Toomey officials describe the race as hovering between a 3- to 5-point edge for the Republican. But officials affiliated with the Sestak campaign say that their polls show the race is a dead heat.
Their analysis is premised on the belief that public polls, such as the ones conducted by Muhlenberg or CNN/Time, have girded their likely voter screen too tightly. Muhlenberg, for example, expects the voting electorate to be 5 points more Republican than Democratic, 48 percent to 43 percent. Sestak officials believe that the electorate, which normally favors Democrats by 8 points, will favor them by 4 points on Election Day.
They readily acknowledge a giant Republican wave, one that could lead to an equal number of Republicans and Democrats voting--which means that Sestak will lose. But if it’s just merely a bad year for the party, they argue that Sestak has a shot.
“I think it’s still too close to call,” said Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist. “But if I were heading into the last week, I’d rather be Joe Sestak than Pat Toomey.”