Just three weeks ago, Pennsylvania's Republican presidential primary was the pinnacle of political intrigue—an unpredictable showdown between a native son with an insurgent candidacy fueled by the party's social conservative wing, and an establishment favorite aiming to regain his air of inevitability as the party's eventual nominee.
Rick Santorum's decision to drop out of the race two weeks ago sucked virtually all of the drama out of Pennsylvania's primary. But as voters in the state head to the polls Tuesday to hand Mitt Romney an expected victory, the presumptive Republican nominee faces an equally suspenseful question: Can he win the state in November?
If polls are to be believed, Romney has the best shot of any Republican presidential candidate in recent years of carrying Pennsylvania in the general election.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters in the state found President Barack Obama leading Romney by just 3 points, 45 percent to 42 percent (a result barely outside the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points).
According to Quinnipiac, 50 percent of likely voters in Pennsylvania disapprove of the job Obama is doing as president—a number higher than Obama's disapproval rating nationally. Asked if the president deserves a second term in office, half of those polled say no—another number that has been substantially higher than the national polling average.
"Romney has a real chance to win this state," G. Terry Madonna, head of Franklin & Marshall College's Center for Opinion Research, told Yahoo News. "All signs that we see indicate that this will be a pretty close election."
But as a swing state, Pennsylvania has long been a political tease to Republican presidential contenders—seeming to be in their grasp as late as the final days of the general election, only to slip away.
In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush spent millions of dollars on TV ads and crisscrossed the state—only to lose to his opponents Al Gore and John Kerry by 5 points or less. In 2008, John McCain was virtually tied with Obama in Pennsylvania up until October and spent days holding last-minute town halls around the state. Yet Obama eventually won Pennsylvania by 10 points—one of his biggest margins of victory among the so-called swing states.
A Republican candidate hasn't won Pennsylvania since 1988, when George H.W. Bush carried the state.
But Obama faces a far different political climate in Pennsylvania than he did four years ago, when he was elected as the candidate who could bring change to Washington. He now faces a state that is filled with angst over the state of the economy.
"The economy is the driving issue in Pennsylvania and it's an issue where Obama is extremely vulnerable," Madonna said.
Although the state's overall unemployment rate is currently lower than the national average—7.6 percent in March, compared to 8.2 percent nationally—some of the hardest-hit areas of the state, including Allentown, boast unemployment rates as high as 8.8 percent. And it's Allentown—in addition to the suburbs southwest of Pittsburgh and southeast of Philadelphia—that is home to the biggest concentration of swing voters that could decide the election, according to strategists from both parties.
It's no coincidence that Romney has spent much of his time campaigning in these regions in recent weeks, talking up his message on the economy. According to Quinnipiac, 48 percent of likely Pennsylvania voters believe Romney would do a better job handling the economy, compared to 42 percent who trust Obama more. Among self-described independent voters, that margin is even higher: 51 percent think Romney would do a better job, compared to 37 percent for Obama.
But the president seems to have a lifeline to at least one set of swing voters this fall: women. While Romney wins among Pennsylvania men, Obama is preferred by a narrow plurality of the state's women, beating Romney 46 percent to 40 percent on the question of who they want to see elected this fall. When asked whom they view more favorably, women overwhelmingly say Obama: 50 percent compared to Romney's 33 percent.
The polling mimics what the campaigns are seeing internally, prompting Romney to retool his message to female voters in recent weeks, specifically aiming his economic message at them. At a town hall near Philadelphia earlier this month, Romney accused Obama of waging " the real war on women" by his failure to improve the economy.
"The brunt of the burden of job losses during the Obama years have been suffered by women," Romney said, per CBS News.
Democrats aren't concerned about Obama's iffy poll numbers in Pennsylvania. Among other things, they point to the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans in voter registration in the state by at least 1 million. And they point to Obama's ground game. Already, the president has at least 13 field offices in Pennsylvania manned by more than a dozen staffers and even more volunteers. By comparison, Romney had just four paid staffers in the state as of earlier this month—a number his campaign says will increase as it shifts into general election mode.
Most observers believe Pennsylvania is too close to call, but Romney has not been shy about expressing confidence in his ability to win the state. Speaking to reporters at his campaign headquarters in Harrisburg earlier this month, he said he thinks he'll win the state this November. (Granted, a similar sentiment was expressed by many Republican presidential candidates before him.)
"I do believe that I will win Pennsylvania in the fall," Romney said, describing the state as "critical" to his White House bid. "Winning the state will give us the White House."
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