What’s going on in Pennsylvania?

Yesterday, Quinnipiac released a poll of three states that represent Democrats’ best chance at senate pickups in 2016: Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In Ohio, Ted Strickland holds a commanding 48-39 lead over incumbent Rob Portman; in Florida, with incumbent Marco Rubio left out of the poll in lieu of his imminent presidential bid, Republican State Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater leads Congressman Pat Murphy 38-34; and in Pennsylvania, Republican Senator Pat Toomey is way out in front in a rematch with former Congressman Joe Sestak, holding a 48-35 lead.

One of these toplines is not like the other.

Ohio and Florida make sense: President Obama won both of them twice, Ted Strickland was a popular governor and none of the candidates in Florida are well-known statewide. This being the case, one would expect to see Strickland ahead and no one in Florida breaking 40 percent.

But what do we make of Pennsylvania, a state President Obama also won twice but is currently indicating that it’s ready to elect the Senate’s 8th-most partisan Republican to a second term?

Of course, one poll does not reality make; it’s entirely possible that random variation in Quinnipiac’s sample produced a more favorable result for Toomey than he would actually see if Election Day were tomorrow. But still, 13 points would be a pretty drastic sampling error — barring mind-blowing incompetence in Quinnipiac’s methodology, it’s safe to say that Toomey is, at the very least, ahead in this race.

This is even more likely given that the poll also showed a 51-45 majority of Pennsylvanians supporting legalizing recreational marijuana, a policy that Toomey is on record saying he would never support. Majority support for a decidedly liberal policy like legal weed indicates that if Quinnipiac’s sample was off to the right, it wasn’t by much.

So what’s going on? Toomey only won by two points in the 2010 Republican wave and proceeded to rack up one of the most conservative voting records in Congress. How in the world is he ahead, especially by as much as he is, in a presidential year?

Measuring ideology is hard

DW-Nominate is one of the most commonly-used measurements of partisanship, and is often used as a proxy for ideology. But it relies solely on voting record, and no one expects the average voter to know how Pat Toomey voted on the legislation that factored into the DW-Nominate analysis. Other metrics, such as financial contributions or (especially) issue statements, could potentially tell us a lot more about how voters perceive a candidate’s ideology than their voting record.

And when it comes to rhetoric, Pat Toomey is, well, pretty quiet. Unlike Senators from deep red states with similar voting records, like James Inhofe from Oklahoma and Ted Cruz from Texas, Toomey has for the most part avoided making headlines with the bevy of derp that’s come to define the modern Republican party. In his floor speeches, he doesn’t throw snowballs on the Senate floor to “disprove” climate change, and he doesn’t read Green Eggs and Ham while protesting Obamacare.

Still, Pat Toomey is listed as a hard-core conservative by OnTheIssues, which FiveThirtyEight uses as their measure of rhetorical ideology. He may not say much, but when he does he makes it clear that he does not share Pennsylvania’s blue-to-purple values.

What about incumbency?

One obvious advantage Toomey has that he didn’t in 2010 is incumbency. With going on five years of holding statewide office — and all of the constituent services, committee assignments and official functions that come with it — Toomey could have garnered significant support from voters independent of his voting record, rhetoric and finances.

If this were the case, we would expect to see something similar in Ohio — Rob Portman has been in office for just as long as Toomey, and both Republicans are facing Democrats who lost in 2010, even if Ted Strickland has won a statewide race in Ohio before. Toomey may be way better at the nuts and bolts of being a Senator than Rob Portman, but incumbency alone probably can’t explain why He’s up by thirteen and Portman’s down nine.

There are a number of things that could explain Quinnipiac’s poll, starting with the fact that it’s just one poll. But all signs point to something being up in Pennsylvania — something that we should be very worried about if Republicans ever get serious about that rebrand they’ve been talking about for so long. In Toomey’s brand of meek corporatism, they may be on track to finding a formula for hardcore conservatives to win in blue states.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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34 Responses to “What’s going on in Pennsylvania?”

  1. Marry Thomas says:

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  2. hmontaigne says:

    He used to be president of the Club for Growth–which is in part responsible for the degradation of people’s lives and environment in Wisconsin, among other places.

  3. hmontaigne says:

    Here in north central Pennsylvania, Sestak is all but unknown. He definitely needs more outreach to people in rural areas. If he’s not up to it, maybe he’s not the right candidate. Many people here are by nature conservative but they could be won over by attention paid to their needs, which are very real. Our PA Democratic Party is slack in not recruiting new, strong candidates all over the state, and they are doing no better with Sestak. God knows we need to be rid of Toomey!

  4. Moderator3 says:

    It’s starting to look like you’re an online stalker. It’s time to back off.

  5. BeccaM says:

    You are not entitled to demand my time.

  6. Tatts says:

    You’re the one claiming that something is “demonstrably untrue”, yet you refuse to give us facts that will demonstrate it.

    Saying something is demonstrably untrue doesn’t prove it any more than saying the sky is green proves the color of the sky. If you’re going to make claims like that, they need to be backed up with facts. Unless you’re just bloviating.

  7. BeccaM says:

    I told you once and this is the last time I will tell you: YOU ARE NOT ENTITLED TO DEMAND MY TIME.

  8. Tatts says:

    If it is demonstrably true that there is something in the system that keeps people from voting in Philadelphia, please demonstrate it. Give us facts rather than unsupported (and, I believe, unsupportable, generalities). The city of Philadelphia bends over backwards to ensure that everyone can vote.

    I have NOT put my words in your mouth (and I would appreciate the same courtesy from you).

  9. BeccaM says:

    Whatever. You are not worth my time.

  10. BeccaM says:

    You wrote

    There is nothing keeping people from voting.

    This is demonstrably untrue. And based on your assertion that this is your version of reality — we are at an impasse and you wasted your time. I am done wasting mine on you, and probably should’ve just said “fuck off” when you snottily demanded I refute each of your points “with specifics”.

    And I stand by what I wrote. If you can’t handle that, and wish to go putting YOUR words into my mouth — then bite me.

  11. Tatts says:

    Oh no you don’t. Do NOT put words in my mouth. That’s a cheap trick and you know it.

    I did NOT say GOTV is all that’s needed.

    I did NOT say there were no voting irregularities at all any place.

    I did NOT say that there are never any voting lines in Philly. You said they were ALWAYS long, and that is simply untrue. We have almost 1700 polling places and they all serve approximately the same number of people. The wait is rarely more than 20 or 30 minutes even at peak times.

    I did NOT say there were never any voting lines in other Democratic concentrated locations. I never addressed other locations, and you didn’t mention them either.

    I did NOT say there’s nothing wrong with the Democratic Party or its ops. One thing that is wrong with them–particularly the Liberty City Democratic Club (the LGBT leader of GOTV in center city) is that they are often more concerned with “process” than results.

    I did NOT say that the GOP isn’t trying to mess with the electoral process.

    What I did say is that you were wrong in 5 particular statements, which I addressed. I stand by that view as an involved, concerned, knowledgeable, active resident of Philadelphia, and your reply has done nothing to refute any of my post.

  12. BeccaM says:

    Nah, you’re asking for a significant investment of my time for no particular gain. You just keep right on doing what you’re doing and believing GOTV is all that’s needed, and maybe some decade in the future, Pennsylvania’s legislature will automagically swing back to Dems and they’ll send a majority Democratic set of Representatives and not just one but two Dem Senators to Congress.

    Yeah, there are never any voting lines in Philly voting precincts, or in other Dem-concentrated locations. And no voting irregularities at all.

    Maybe one day we’ll talk about how if you put Sheldon Adelson in a room with 99 homeless people, on average they’re all millionaires.

    Until then, go on with your certitude there’s nothing wrong with Democratic Party ops or that the GOPers aren’t going to keep trying to f*ck with the electoral process in Pennsylvania. I’m done clapping for Tinkerbell.

  13. Tatts says:

    I wish you would, and be specific in refuting any factual point I made.

  14. BeccaM says:

    We are going to disagree. For my part, I don’t feel the compulsion to tell you you’re wrong.

  15. Tatts says:

    I’m sorry, there are just too many mistakes in your comment to let them pass.

    1. You completely ignored the growing blue tilt of the suburban ring of counties around Philly–Montgomery County, in particular, which is over 1/2 the population of Philadelphia. And the increasing blueness of the entire eastern part of the state.
    2. I don’t know how you can say that “…large numbers of African American and Latino voters in Pennsylvania either cannot vote or it’s been made hard for them to vote or the apathy has become overwhelming.” That’s a mighty broad brush covering a lot of ground, but “cannot vote” is simply wrong. There is nothing keeping people from voting. No ID is required to vote unless it is your first time in that division, and no photo ID is required in that case–a utility bill will suffice, as will a paycheck, government check, bank statement, any government-issued ID, etc.
    3. “The voting sites seem to change every year, they’re rarely conveniently located…” That could not be further from the truth. Voting sites RARELY change, and there are rules governing the change and flyers posted all over the neighborhood in advance if there is a change. Polling places are located in community-centered buildings with easy access a priority, and the voting divisions are physically small–only a few blocks square in the city proper.
    4. “…and lines are always long because they get the fewest and crappiest voting machines.” Completely wrong. Each polling place serves an average of less than 600 voting-age adults, and if you’re over 65 or handicapped and the polling place isn’t handicapped accessible (rare) you can vote from home with an alternative ballot.You can even vote in person in another division if it’s handier, using a provisional ballot.
    5. “…they get the fewest and crappiest voting machines.” What? All Philadelphia voting machines are the same. They are push-button, electronic machines that give visual indicators of your vote. They are stored and serviced and distributed from a central facility. No place has more user-friendly machines than Philadelphia’s.

    When was the last time you were in Philadelphia? The voting you describe does not reflect the experience I have had either voting, or working the elections, or participating in get-out-the-vote efforts in the past 20 years.

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  18. Tatts says:

    Why is it so hard to follow the players in this story?

    “In Ohio, Ted Strickland (R?, D?) holds a commanding 48-39 lead over incumbent Rob Portman (R?, D?)”

    Yes, I can look it up. And, yes, I don’t know the party affiliation of every politician in every state that I don’t live in (but I live in one of those 3).

    But Portman’s affiliation isn’t identified until the penultimate paragraph, and Sestak and Murphy not at all. And I don’t know if the opponents mentioned are of the opposite party or the same party in a primary, or the only candidates running in the primaries (PA hasn’t had their primary yet–Ohio? Florida?).

    There’s a reason for using (D) and (R)–clarity–and making it easy for the reader.

  19. Nicholas A Kocal says:

    You cannot underestimate the power of the corporate media to shape elections. The republicans that are leading are shown by the media to be reasonable people who are working hard for their constituents. They will play speeches by the republicans without comment, like for instance, showing were their words are the opposite of their voting record.

  20. BeccaM says:

    As someone who was born, grew up, and went to college in Pennsylvania and didn’t move from there until my early 30s, I can tell you some of what’s going on with the state.

    For a very long time now, it’s been torn between the conservative Red rural parts of the state — including folks who would just as soon be part of the Confederate South — and the more progressive Blue urban parts.

    It used to be fairly evenly divided until the urban areas began losing their heavily Union-dominated political power. While Pittsburgh has undergone quite a bit of a tech revival, the same cannot be said for Philadelphia, Scranton, or Allentown/Bethlehem. As a consequence, a diminishing population of minority voters have become increasingly concentrated in those areas…and today’s GOP is more than happy to gerrymander them into irrelevance.

    Now it’s true that U.S. Senators are elected statewide, but there the problem is Dem turnout and eligibility. As with so many other urban areas, large numbers of African American and Latino voters in Pennsylvania either cannot vote or it’s been made hard for them to vote or the apathy has become overwhelming. In a rural county, everybody knows exactly where to go vote and there won’t be lines or anything, but in Philly? The voting sites seem to change every year, they’re rarely conveniently located, and lines are always long because they get the fewest and crappiest voting machines.

    Then there’s the timing. As ever, we pick an election day schedule that favors those who aren’t working multiple minimum-wage hourly jobs. Those who have the most flexibility — the rural folks, the retired, etc. — they also tend to vote the most conservative.

    On top of everything else, the Dems have swung too far to the right and have alienated their formerly traditional base. Hence the apathy. The GOPers get their base all riled up all the time, working those levers of fear, xenophobia, and resentment. The Dems? Where’s their agenda? “We’re not Republicans” seems to be most of it.

  21. Houndentenor says:

    It’s more the laziness of the news media. How do I learn about someone I’ve never even heard of? I don’t even know what name to google. I just started seeing signs for a local election I didn’t even know about. Soon I’ll get a sample ballot and read up on the candidates. At the moment I’d be one of those “who’s that?” people.

  22. MoonDragon says:

    Because the American voter is lazy, a name they recognize, but about which they have no strong feelings, has an advantage over an unfamiliar name which would require some work to get to know. Besides, someone they know voted for him before, so he must be okay.

  23. Houndentenor says:

    Also why is incumbency a good thing? Congress is horrible. They make pretty good money and accomplish next to nothing. If you or I did our job that badly we’d get fired. They should too. Being an incumbent ought to be a problem for anyone running for office, not an asset. Oh wait, it means they get to take bribes I mean contributions from the big donors. This country is so fucked.

  24. Bill_Perdue says:

    Maybe if the Democrats cut their ties with corporations, passed a bill to make it easy and mandatory to prosecute killer cops, a bill mandating high trade unions wages for all workers, students and heads of single parent families and impeached Obama for his illegal wars of aggression and for murdering Arab am Americans then people might believe that there are differences between the parties.

    So much for pipe dreams.

  25. MoonDragon says:

    Toomey is supported by The Club for Growth, a right wing organization that is aggressively anti-regulation, which they believe as toxic to economic growth, the be-all and end-all of human existence. He should really be tagged as the senator associated with the Club for Cancer, since that’s effectively what unregulated growth is.

  26. Demosthenes says:

    This article answers it own questions. Sen. Toomey doesn’t froth at the mouth and take the lead on peddling unpopular positions. Thus, he is more popular than his voting record. The question, of course, is whether he will pull a “Mark Kirk” and pretend to be a centrist over the next 18 months to win reelection.

  27. Aaron Mason says:

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    Everyone knows that prohibition is the only thing dangerous about
    marijuana. If you support prohibition, then you support the cartels and
    violent criminal drug dealers in general. It’s that simple. When was the
    last time you heard of farmers who needed guns to protect their crops?
    Potato cartels? Carrot cartels? Beet cartels? Never heard of ’em.

  28. Eebadee-eebadee-thatsallfolks says:

    Another possibility, which I certainly hope is not the case, is that Strickland has not won over Ohio voters as much as Portman has lost some christian conservative GOP voters by not being a homophobe. Although I would prefer Strickland to Portman, in a way this is bad news, because Portman is one of the better Republicans on LGBT issues, and although Strickland talks the talk, when he was governor he didn’t really accomplish anything to overturn some of Ohio’s anti-gay laws. And Ohio by some measures is the worst of the worst for GLBTs.

  29. Eebadee-eebadee-thatsallfolks says:

    I was gonna say the same thing. Toomey’s voting record might be hard right, but he doesn’t make a lot of noise.

  30. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    Toomey flies under the radar; he doesn’t make a lot of noise to the public. What he says to RWNJ audiences, I don’t know.

    I guess Toomey learned from Santorum: once Santorium started letting it “all hang out”, the public saw what he *really* was and thumped him HARD.

  31. timncguy says:

    I don’t think of Sestak as a very strong candidate even if he only lost by 2 points last time around. I can’t stand to listen to him when he talks. His voice and his speech patterns always make him sound like he is whining. And, to me, that makes him sound weak.

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  33. Indigo says:

    Dynastic governance does not thrive in serious races. But you knew that.

  34. Houndentenor says:

    Maybe if Democrats actually ran serious races instead of being spineless surrender-weasels they might win more. It’s just a thought.

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