— -- The Republican and Democratic candidates running to represent southwest Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District are in a virtual dead-heat with less than a month to go before the highly anticipated March special election and with President Donald Trump's aura looming over the race.
A new poll conducted by Monmouth University found Republican Rick Saccone garnering the support of 49 percent of respondents, compared to 46 percent for Democrat Conor Lamb, well within the 5.5 percent margin of error in the poll of likely voters.
The survey could serve as a shot of momentum for Lamb, whose campaign faces the daunting task of flipping the deep-red district that favored Trump over Hillary Clinton by nearly 20 points in 2016 and where former GOP Rep. Tim Murphy ran unopposed in his last two races.
The seat, which came open when Murphy resigned in October amid a sex scandal, has since been eyed by some ambitious Democrats who believe that momentum from the party's electoral victories in 2017 — including Sen. Doug Jones' improbable triumph in Alabama's special Senate election in December — would carry into 2018 and eventually the November midterm elections.
The Monmouth poll, released Thursday, drew upon what it described as a "surge model" featuring turnout "similar to voting patterns seen in other special elections over the past year." In additional models that weighted responses based on turnout lower than the 2014 midterms and based on turnout at presidential election levels, the Saccone-Lamb split changes to 50-45 and 48-44, respectively, still within the poll's margin of error.
According to Monmouth, likely Democratic voters are far more engaged than their Republican counterparts, with 48 percent of the Democrats responding that they are following the election "closely," compared to 26 percent of Republicans. Such interest, which is usually a key contributor to an election's turnout, has adversely affected Saccone, a fourth term state representative, in the poll.
"If all potential voters were likely to cast a ballot next month, Saccone would hold an even larger lead of 48 percent to 41 percent over Lamb in the current poll," Monmouth noted in a press release accompanying the results.
Approval of Trump's presidency slightly outpaces disapproval among the district's likely voters. 51 percent said they approved of the president, versus 48 percent registering disapproval — a more positive result than the majority of recent national polls conducted on the topic. Some 84 percent of the 320 likely voters surveyed by Monmouth said it was important that they cast a vote for Congress to show support for or opposition to Trump.
The president was scheduled to travel to Ambridge, Pennsylvania — just outside of the 18th district — next week for a campaign rally where it was likely that he would have stumped for Saccone, but the trip was postponed Thursday afternoon out of respect for the victims and survivors of Wednesday's school shooting in Florida, the Trump campaign said. Though the orignal announcement of the event mentioned neither the special election or the GOP candidate, Trump formally endorsed Saccone in January (a fact known by 58 percent of Monmouth's respondents) and a fundraising email sent by the Trump campaign Thursday said that the president would be in the state "because… Saccone is running for Congress."
Lamb, a former assistant U.S. attorney and current Marine corps reservist, attracted the support of 64 percent of self-described moderates in the Monmouth poll and holds the edge over Saccone in favorable-unfavorable ratings at 49-31, compared to the Republican's 48-39 split.
For many in the district, Lamb's political independence, should he win, is a key factor. Though advertisements from the National Republican Congressional Committee and others have attempted to paint the 33-year-old Democrat as a liberal in the mold of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., -- going so far as to label the candidate one of Pelosi's "sheep," in a play-on-words with his surname -- Lamb has said he would not support Pelosi as the party's leader should he win.
However, only 40 percent of the likely voters tallied by Monmouth had heard of Lamb's pledge, though 18 percent said it increases their likelihood of supporting him.