The Pennsylvania campaign: Revisiting expectations

3 days from the Pennsylvania primary, the Democratic electorate appears more volatile than it has been all year. With polls showing all sorts of lead and attributing momentum to both candidates, I am at a loss to say what the expectation is, first and foremost because it is too early to tell whether ABC's debate had an impact on voters. After all, a number of debates have moved numbers significantly at the last minute throughout the year, and polls have not been very good at picking that quickly.

Yesterday's Rasmussen poll, taken entirely after the debate, showed Clinton dropping 6%. Zogby's tracking poll released today, however, suggests that Clinton is moving upwards ever so slightly: She is leading 47% to 42%. And then there is Gallup's national tracking poll which shows Clinton suddenly taking the lead against Obama, 46% to 45%. That's a 12% gain in 4 days, and an 8% gain in 2 days. In other words, Clinton has picked up a significant amount of ground since the debate, with Gallup adding that, "Clinton has been significantly higher in both of these post-debate nights of interviewing than in recent weeks."

The stakes of Tuesday's voting are very high: Clinton wants to keep her candidacy alive, and Obama wants to demonstrate that he can be competitive among blue-collar voters and rural Democrats; even if he loses, success on that front would deprive Clinton of one of her best arguments. Complicating matters is the question of just what Clinton needs to accomplish on Tuesday to remain in the race; we have discussed this question many times already, and I suggested that Hillary needs to win by at least her Ohio margin and demonstrate Obama's weakness among core Democratic constituencies.

But how do recent events affect these thresholds? Bittergate, followed by Obama's weak performance at the ABC debate, have lowered the expectations the Illinois Senator has to meet; most people expect him to have plunged because of those two events. The story of Obama's San Fransisco remarks forced Hillary Clinton to use all her arsenal in the run-up to Pennsylvania, much before she expected to have to do her final push to superdelegates.

April 22nd has thus become a test of Obama's resistance and appeal when until recently it was a test of Clinton's resistance. Consider, after all, that Obama is the overwhelming front-runner whose campaign never misses an opportunity to explain why it is impossible for Clinton to clinch the nomination. Despite that, he could be about to lose a large state like Pennsylvania after a 6-week campaign and overspending -- and that is quite extraordinary.

Yet, the burden to meet a potential is on Clinton again rather than on Obama. The problem is no longer "Will Obama get the result that suits a candidate who is as inevitable as he is or will the contest expose that Democratic voters distrust him?" Instead, the main question has become: "Will Clinton get the result recent events allow her to hope for, or will her failure to do so reveal that Obama is immune to these controversies?"

If Obama maintains himself at a decent level but loses, Pennsylvania will become a celebration of his resilience rather than a discussion of why he is unable to clinch the nomination.

The stakes are high, therefore, and the number of negative ads is rapidly increasing on Pennsylvania airwaves. The latest by Obama (watch it here) brings us right back to the early days of 2008, since the Illinois Senator is blasting Clinton's health care plan because it "forces everyone to buy insurance even if you can't afford it." This is, of course, a very old line by Obama and one that got him in a lot of trouble with many on the Left and with the Edwardses. But the fact that Obama keeps coming back to it -- and believes that the spot is a strong closer for him -- suggests that his campaign has enough indication and research that this attack line is helping him among voters.

Clinton, meanwhile, is airing her own attack ads and some even suggested that 100% of her spots in certain markets are negative; Marc Ambinder contests that number but there is no question that the proportion of negativity has increased in the past two weeks from both campaigns. How that will affect the vote of Pennsylvanians in the general election, of course, will only be determined in the weeks and months ahead.



  • Expectation stay the same Clinton needs to do better than she did in Ohio. PA is whiter, older and less educated than OH and demographics have been key to this primary season. She has also had 6 weeks and only one state to campaign in and spend money on. She started with a 20% lead so really should win by double digits.

    Obama has lowered expectations on him because of the debate and the "bittergate" stuff. He has also been looking ahead to IN and NC and not putting all his eggs in one basket.

    By Anonymous Mike, At 19 April, 2008 21:14  

  • I have a running comparison of the latest PA polls to the OH endpolls for the 6 pollsters that have polled both states here.

    There are similarities, but also some important differences.

    I have also the margin movement over a 2 to 3 month time-period (PA) from 11 in table format here.

    To remind: Clinton must win all 10 remaining contests with at least 65% of the PV (that's a 30 point margin) in order to pull just 2 PDs ahead of Obama. That's not spin - that's the math. So, she needs triple the landslide she got in OH - and it is not going to happen.

    Her margin average in PA is currently + 6.8, and if polling continues at this rate, she won't even have a 10% margin in PA.

    Also, going against traditional wisdom, there is a paradox between the delegate strength of PA, NC and IN and the actual number of eligible registered voters for the DEM primaries there, respectively.

    PA is the most polled, most watched primary campaign in our history, I would bet.

    By Blogger Mark, At 20 April, 2008 02:32  

  • So Obama thinks that saddling rural hospitals with so much debt from the uninsured that they go bankrupt is a good idea that helps him? Short term gain from healthy cheapskates is not a good longterm strategy. That's a policy even a republican would have trouble advancing. I think that reeks of desperation.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 20 April, 2008 08:00  

  • Mark - interesting blog entries. The polls were a little out for Ohio because of the late shift of undecideds. The 3am ad had some impact. If Clinton wants to repeat that she needs to have had some event or special ad by today really since we are 3 days out.
    Looks like that hasn't happened (so far) so maybe the undecideds will break more evenly this time.

    By Anonymous Guy, At 20 April, 2008 09:28  

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