Hmm: Are Dems Right to Be Nervous About Pennsylvania?

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Posted: Nov 03, 2020 1:05 PM
Hmm: Are Dems Right to Be Nervous About Pennsylvania?

Source: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Elections data guru Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight recently described the importance of the Keystone State to the Biden campaign in concise and stark terms. He told ABC News that if Trump ultimately finds a way to again thread the needle and win, that victory "would come down to Pennsylvania." He said that "without Pennsylvania, then Biden becomes an underdog." FiveThirtyEight gives Biden a 90 percent overall chance of winning the election, but Silver clearly believes that the percentages would shift dramatically if the president is able to recreate his surprise victory in the state. As Matt noted yesterday, the Washington Post has reported on Democratic jitters about how Pennsylvania is closing:

Most Democrats still believe Biden will capture Pennsylvania, and he maintains a modest polling lead there, but their confidence has eroded in recent weeks with emerging signs of a tightening contest in the state, according to elected officials, strategists and party activists. Both sides believe the outcome in Pennsylvania will be crucial in determining who wins the White House. The causes of Democrats’ anxiety are varied. They worry about potential trouble with mail-in ballots during a pandemic. They are concerned about the prospect of a voter surge in White, rural areas favorable to Trump and signs of lower-than-anticipated turnout among the Democratic base.

They are nervous about GOP efforts to place limits on voting. They cringe at the recent looting and violence in Philadelphia, which Trump has seized on to portray Biden as weak on crime and hostile to police. And they harbor lingering concerns about Biden’s muddled rhetoric on oil and gas, which has prompted inaccurate attacks that he advocates ending fracking. “I am worried about Pennsylvania,” said Neil Oxman, a veteran Democratic strategist based in the state. Oxman cited several concerns, including the possibility that Trump’s base “will come out just a little bit stronger than our base.”

RealClearPolitics shows Biden leading by roughly three points (and shrinking) in the state, a lead diminished thanks to a cluster of pollsters with pro-Trump "house effects" pulling the average down. The NBC/Marist, New York Times/Sienna and Monmouth polls show larger Biden leads, in the mid-to-high single digits. But Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna (which overestimated Mitt Romney's 2012 standing in the state by five points, but underestimated Trump's 2016 performance by three points) shows Trump edging ahead by one point, approximately matching Trafalgar's results:


As we've written, part of Trafalgar's "secret sauce" -- which will be put to the test tonight, resulting in either vindication or reputation destruction -- is attempting to account for "social desirability bias," a fancy way of describing "shy" or "hidden" Trump support. I'm dubious of that phenomenon on a massive, race-altering scale, but there's at least some data to back it up. And this on-the-ground reporting from Byron York probably helps illustrate why Democrats remain anxious:

A man who came to President Trump's giant rally at a local airport Saturday night said he knew someone who planned to vote for Trump but felt too intimidated to say so publicly. I asked who it was. It was his mother, he answered, but she would kill him if she found out that he told anyone. "There are a lot of people who are too afraid to put up a sign [for Trump]," he said, explaining that his neighborhood, more than an hour away, was mixed between Trump and Biden voters, and black and white voters. During the protests that followed the death of George Floyd, he said, "I pulled the Trump magnet off my Jeep. Everybody took their signs down. People don't want to be a target." At some pro-Trump events around Pennsylvania in the last week — the president's event, a big road rally that stretched over three states, a small event for Trump volunteers and activists featuring Ivanka Trump, and in other conversations — a large number of people who openly support Trump said they knew someone personally who would vote for the president but would not publicly acknowledge doing so...

At the Butler rally, Kori, from Freeport, said her sister and her father did not vote for Trump in 2016 but plan to vote for him this time. Dana, from Lower Burrell, said she knew people involved in the oil and gas industry who did not vote at all in 2016 but who plan to vote for Trump now...Shannon, who identified herself only as a Pennsylvania voter, said, "You don't tell everyone you know that you support Trump. Seventy-five percent of the people I work with are against Trump. And it's worse now [than in 2016]. A lot of people are afraid to speak up." Added Laura, of Daisytown, "There are people who are fearful of losing their jobs if they support Trump."...At the road rally, nearly everyone said they knew someone who is too fearful, or intimidated, or just too private, to say they will vote for Trump. "I know people in their 50s who haven't voted in their entire lives, and they're going to vote for Trump," said Patrick, from Beaver County. Bradley, from Monroeville, said he not only knew such people, but he was close to them. "I've got family who have never voted," he said.

Those are anecdotes, not data. But click through to read York's reporting on why the "shy Trump support" effect may be more of a statistical reality than many of the experts are willing to believe. Count me among the skeptics, but also among the open-minded, on this question. I'll leave you with two words that could come into play, and potentially haunt Democrats, if PA ends up being a true nail-biter: Naked ballots.