Guy Benson
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Pennsylvania has not voted for a Republican presidential nominee in 24 years, when George H.W. Bush carried the state narrowly in 1988.  In subsequent cycles, the Keystone State frequently felt like 'the one that got away' for Republicans; polling would look close and tightening in October, only to go blue in November, thanks to Democrats' formidable firewall in Greater Philadelphia.  This year, it appeared that Pennsylvania wouldn't even be in the conversation for the GOP ticket.  Barack Obama won the state by double-digits in 2008, and numerous public opinion polls showed the president maintaining -- or even expanding -- his advantage.  Indeed, a CBS/NYT/Quinnipiac poll released at the tail end of September indicated that Obama led Mitt Romney by a whopping 12 points, 54-42 percent.  Game over, right?  Perhaps not.  A string of October polls suggests the president's lead is tenuous, sitting within the margin of error.  

The first pollster to detect this dynamic was Susquehanna Polling and Research, which measured a two-point, margin of error race in the state last month.  When the firm released its September data, outside observers dismissed it as an outlier and moved on.  Chief pollster Jim Lee penned a compelling memo defending his methodology and assumptions, but it garnered little notice.  When a separate Susquehanna poll, conducted for a media client, produced a nearly identical result this month, a few more eyebrows perked up.  Then came a perception game-changer:  Sienna College's published a presidential poll showing three-point race, within the margin of error, with many undecided voters still making up their minds.  And, crucially, the majority of the survey was conducted before last week's presidential debate.  Could Pennsylvania be much more competitive than the laugher many anticipated?  I spoke with Susquehanna's president and founder, Jim Lee, about his organization's findings. He doesn't see a massive or unexpected Romney surge in Pennsylvania; he sees terribly flawed polling assumptions from some of his competitors.

Susquehanna is a Harrisburg-based, Republican-affiliated polling firm founded in 2000.  They serve numerous campaigns as well as media clients.  "We only really poll for Republican candidates, but the media uses us and respects us because we're accurate," Lee says.  "In our public polling, we call them like we see them, based on the data," even if it means bad news for the GOP.  The outfit's track record over recent cycles has been fairly impressive.  In 2008, their final survey showed Barack Obama leading John McCain "by around eight points," Lee says.  The Democrat won by ten.  In 2010, Susquehanna slightly underestimated the margin of Republican Tom Corbett's victory, but nailed the high-profile Senate race.  "We were the only pollster who got that one right.  Everyone else had [Republican Senator Pat] Toomey leading pretty comfortably, but our data showed that the race was getting closer.  I even presented our information to Toomey, who gave me a lecture about polling methodology.  We had better information than his internals," Lee recalls.  An aggregation of polls from RealClearPolitics at the time showed most surveys projecting a 5-7 point win for Toomey.  Only Susquehanna anticipated the late tightening and correctly predicted Toomey's slender two-point win.  How did Lee and his team pull it off?  By studying historical data and poring over a huge volume of state-level data.  Based on this information, they determined a likely Democrat vs. Republican turnout model, then weighted their poll samples accordingly.  They've done the same this year, concluding that Pennsylvania's electorate will likely be in the D+6 range in 2012, two points less Democratic than 2008.

"Our polling has been validated and vindicated because our D-to-R ratio is much more appropriate than other pollsters'," Lee explains. Some firms keep under-sampling Republicans, by as much as 7 or 8 points.  That's a big deal.  Nationally it's tough, but on a state-by-state basis, you can use data to weight samples based on likely turnouts, and we do.  We know this state.  These other firms showing the president with gigantic leads here have been massively under-sampling Republican voters.  They have Republican turnout polling even lower than registration levels in this state -- which almost always understate Republican turnout.  It just isn't believable.  We've been polling at 48-42 D-to-R, for a D+6.  The political landscape has clearly shifted."  Another data point Lee finds relevant is that in his statewide polling, the incumbent routinely fails to hit or exceed 50 percent in any of what he regards as the three "key" measures: Job approval, favorability and head-to-head.   "Voters are pretty polarized at this point.  He was at 52-34 favorability in 2008, today it's 47-47, and it's been stuck there for months. That's just one example of why we've been looking at a much closer race than a lot of people were suggesting."

How much closer?  Susquehanna's latest poll shows President Obama ahead by two points, a statistical tie.  Among the likeliest voters, Romney leads by a point.  Lee says last week's debate didn't move the topline results, but substantially improved Romney's personal favorability.  For the first time, Romney is above water on the question and has even edged slightly ahead of the president.  Lee is doubly confident that his firm's numbers are sound because he's seen corroborating evidence as he's traveled the state.  He's polled 40 separate elections at the local level (state house, state senate, etc), many of which are contested seats.  "I've seen the micro numbers from across Pennsylvania, and at the presidential level, it's adding up.  The president has seen a very clear drop in support across the board."  
 
Earlier this week, Susquehanna released a poll of Pennsylvania's sleeper Senate race, pitting incumbent Bob Casey, Jr. against Republican businessman Tom Smith.  Casey has been regarded the odds-on favorite to waltz to a second term, but his margin has shrunk, and some handicappers have moved the race a notch or two toward "pure toss up" status.  Lee's latest figures peg Casey's lead at just two points, closely mirroring the presidential contest. "All the movement has been to Smith in the last three months, Lee observes.  "Casey's been sitting in the mid-to-high 40's for months.  Smith's done a pretty decent job at winning back a lot of Reagan Democrats, who are socially conservative, but identify as Democrats.  He's done two things right: He's spent the money to fight his way in, and he's had a very effective message -- which is that Casey's been ineffective in office."   

The Romney campaign has indicated that they're monitoring the situation in Pennsylvania very closely, but they continue to downplay expectations there.  Romney has devoted relatively few resources to the state, focusing much more heavily on other battlegrounds.  (The nominee did deliver a speech in Wayne, Pennsylvania in late September). Keystone presidential aspirations may again prove to be a mirage for the GOP, but the notion that the state will be an easy layup for Barack Obama looks more dubious than ever.  If the Obama campaign feels compelled to step up its efforts and expenditures to lock the state down, that could be an organizational concession of significant erosion elsewhere.  Stay tuned.


UPDATE - New Pennsylvania poll: Obama 47, Romney 45.  That makes three separate polls within the last week showing a two-to-three point contest.  Maybe Susquehanna wasn't such an outlier after all.


UPDATE II - Is Romney within six...in Connecticut?

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Guy Benson

Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Senior Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography