Presidential and Congressional Races Tightening Up In Pennsylvania

September 12, 2020 by Dan McCue
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden talks with union leaders after taking photographs outside the AFL-CIO headquarters in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

It’s going to be a close one. That’s about the only reasonable thing anyone can say about the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania with less than 60 days remaining before Election Day.

Most recent polling in the state gives former Vice President Joe Biden a slight edge over President Donald Trump, but in each case his lead is either within the margin of error or there are enough undecided voters to make the results a wash.

On Tuesday, Susquehanna Polling and Research, a Harrisburg, Pa., firm that typically works with Republican lawmakers, businesses and trade groups, cut right to the chase and declared the results of its latest telephone poll a statistical tie, with 7% of voters saying they were still undecided and 6% saying they preferred somebody else.

The findings seemed to confirm the results of a Quinnipiac University Poll released last week, which found 94% of likely voters in the state had already made up their minds, with a mere 5% saying their minds might change in the precious little time left between now and election day.

But, this is Pennsylvania, where small shifts in voter preferences mean a lot. Trump won the state in 2016 by just 44,000 votes out of more than six million cast.

The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA ranks the state as one of just six key battleground states likely to decide the elections. The others are Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

And Biden appears determined not to allow Trump to keep Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes in his grasp.

In August, his campaign spent $10 million on television advertising in the state, and he spent another $5 million through Labor Day, effectively outspending Trump on Keystone State airwaves $15 million to zero.

Trump did begin buying ad time in Pennsylvania this week and plans to spend about $5.6 million during the month of September, according to Advertising Analytics, a media intelligence firm based in Alexandria, Va.

But that’s about half the $11.8 million in ad reservations the Biden campaign has booked during the same period.

“Both campaigns are raising massive amounts of money but have very different priorities about how to spend it,” Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien told reporters earlier this week.

“In addition to advertising, President Trump’s campaign has invested heavily in a muscular field operation and ground game that will turn out our voters, while the Biden campaign is waging almost exclusively an air war. We like our strategy better.”

It should be noted that Pro-Trump GOP groups did spent about $11 million on commercials in Pennsylvania in August, while Pro-Biden groups spent just over $6 million.

Trump and a host of campaign surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly visited the state over the past several weeks, generating repeated television and newspaper stories.

On Friday, Trump and Biden nearly crossed paths when they both traveled to Shanksville, Pa., to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Economy, Coronavirus Top Issues With Voters

Not surprisingly, over the past month both candidates have aired ads intended to shore up their core constituencies.

Biden’s ads have focused extensively on the coronavirus, the economy, and accusations that Trump himself has encouraged the violence that has gripped parts of the nation this past summer.

Trump, meanwhile, has been lambasting the center-left Biden, as a tool of a militant left-wing that wants to defund the police and plunge the nation into an economic malaise.

The recent Quinnipiac University Poll found that a plurality of likely voters in the state (29%) say the economy is the most important issue in deciding who to vote for in the presidential race.

  • 16% said defeating the coronavirus is their top priority;
  • 15% said law and order; and
  • 13% said the top issue of the 2020 race is racial inequality.

In terms of party affiliation:

  • Republicans rank the economy (50%) and law and order (28%) as their top issues;
  • Democrats named the coronavirus (29%) and racial inequality (25%); and
  • Independents said the economy (30%), law and order (15%), and the coronavirus (14%) are their top issues.

“The economy is key in Pennsylvania and a majority of likely voters approve of the way President Trump is handling it, but it’s overshadowed by Trump’s handling of the coronavirus and his overall job approval,” said Quinnipiac University polling analyst Mary Snow.

“Both are registering double digit deficits. On top of that, likely voters have more confidence in Joe Biden to handle the coronavirus, racial inequality, health care, and a crisis,” she said.

The university’s pollsters also asked Pennsylvania likely voters which candidate would do a better job handling key issues:

  • On handling the economy: Trump 52%, Biden 45%;
  • On handling a crisis: Biden 52%, Trump 44%;
  • On handling health care: Biden 54%, Trump 42%;
  • On handling the response to the coronavirus: Biden 54%, Trump 41%;
  • On handling racial inequality: Biden 57%, Trump 38%.

Finally, they found likely voters in Pennsylvania have mixed feelings about Biden and a negative view of Trump.

  • 46% have a favorable opinion of Biden, while 45% have an unfavorable opinion of him;
  • 41% have a favorable opinion of Trump, while 55% have an unfavorable opinion of him.

House Races Could End in Upsets

Of course, there’s more at stake in Pennsylvania than the presidency this year and two congressional races bear watching.

The first race, in the state’s 1st Congressional District, pits incumbent Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick against Democrat Christina Finello, who is currently a local councilwoman in Bucks County, Pa.

The race is noteworthy because despite the fact many prognosticators, including Sabato’s Crystal Ball, rate the district as “leaning Republican,” Finello has been slowly closing the gap in polling where she once trailed the incumbent by 15 percentage points.

In 2018, Fitzpatrick, a moderate, was one of just three Republicans nationally to survive in a House district won by Hillary Clinton.

Finello’s biggest challenge is overcoming a lack of name recognition. However, she did pull off a strong primary victory over tech company owner Skylar Hurwitz, a Bernie Sanders supporter.

Fitzpatrick’s record of independence among House Republicans may potentially shield him from defeat even if Biden were to win at the top of the ticket, but the Philadelphia region has been trending Democratic, and Finello appears to have been somewhat successful in tying him to Trump.

Perhaps her biggest boost in the race thus far came when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added her to its Red-to-Blue program.

That effort “arms top-tier candidates with organizational and fundraising support,” according to the committee.

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who chairs the organization, said the district is ‘‘trending rapidly toward Democrats.”

Fitzpatrick, whose brother held his seat before him and who continues to maintain a decided advantage in fundraising, nevertheless responded tersely to the announcement.

In an email to supporters, he warned, “Washington elites have already begun trying to spread their socialism further and further into our communities and at this rate, our strong common-sense ideals could become a thing of the past.”

The other noteworthy Congressional race in Pennsylvania this year is in the 10th Congressional District, where four-term GOP Rep. Scott Perry is facing a staunch challenge from Democratic state auditor general Eugene DePasquale.

At present the district is rated a “toss-up” by both The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Perry, an Iraq War veteran, has represented the district since 2003, but he won re-election by only a hair’s breadth in 2018.

Prior to being elected Pennsylvania’s auditor general, DePasquale represented the state’s 95th district in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

An internal poll commissioned by DePasquale’s campaign shows him leading Perry 50%-46%, a statistical tie given the poll’s 4.4% margin of error, but the candidate’s campaign said the survey conducted by Washington, D.C.-based GBAO, shows his prospects for victory are trending in the right direction.

“Eugene’s working class upbringing and record of standing up to corrupt special interests on behalf of families is resonating with voters in south-central Pennsylvania during these difficult times, and as they learn more about him, his lead grows,” a campaign spokesperson said.

Meanwhile Perry hasn’t been helping his own cause.

In late August he came under fire for comments he made at a Rotary Club forum in York, Pa., during the event, the representative said he doesn’t believe systemic racism is a real issue, and said the stories about Blacks being killed by police were being sensationalized.

Though Perry continues to hold a money edge, it’s slight. He’s raised $1.87 million for his campaign, compared to DePasquale’s $1.66 million. The two candidates have close to equal amounts of cash on hand: Perry has $991,000 compared to DePasquale’s $985,000. 

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