Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pennsylvania Senate & Virginia Senate: New Numbers, Same Races

By Stuart Rothenberg

Well, there are new numbers out in both the Pennsylvania and Virginia Senate races, and to hear some of the spin, those races are starting to turn on their heads.

Here’s my advice: Don’t get carried away. The changes in both races are, so far, superficial. The fundamentals basically remain unchanged.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans (and some in the media) are all excited that Sen. Rick Santorum (R) has closed on his Democratic challenger, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. Casey once held a double-digit lead, but two recent polls show that margin cut virtually in half.

An Aug. 8-13 Quinnipiac University survey showed Santorum trailing 48 percent to 42 percent among likely voters, while a Strategic Vision poll had the Democrat up 47 percent to 41 percent.
“Senate Race Tightens,” crowed the Strategic Vision release, while Quinnipiac’s release asserted, “Incumbent Has Gained Ground on Challenger.”

If you are a Pennsylvania (or national) Republican, any improvement in polling is reason for celebration. But the reality in the Keystone State is that Santorum’s prospects are not much better now than they were a month ago, even if Santorum has cut into Casey’s lead in the ballot test.

Quinnipiac showed Santorum’s job ratings as 42 percent approve/44 percent disapprove — a small improvement from his standing in Quinnipiac’s June poll and statistically identical to his standing in a May survey. In any case, those job numbers are mediocre at best for an incumbent seeking another six-year term.

The Strategic Vision survey is troubling not so much for its numbers as for its methodology. That poll asked the Senate ballot test as its 17th question — after a series of questions on the war in Iraq, terrorism and illegal immigration. It is accepted practice to place ballot tests early in a survey to avoid biasing respondents.

No matter what the new polls show, Santorum is an incumbent at 41 percent, even after airing a significant number of television ads statewide. While it’s always better to be ahead than behind — or behind by a few points rather than many — Santorum obviously has not yet changed the dynamics in the race: He remains a very weak incumbent who is seeking to overcome a challenger in a political environment that strongly favors Democrats.

The situation is reversed in Virginia, where Democrats are reading big news into slight evidence.
National Democrats sent out a press release hyping a News 7-Survey USA poll of the Virginia Senate race shortly after a controversy exploded in the contest between Sen. George Allen (R) and challenger Jim Webb (D).

Allen, identifying a Democratic campaign staffer who was following him around, used a word that may or may not have been inappropriate. In any case, the controversy became substantial, and Allen had more than a couple of days during which he received terrible press and generally looked inept and on the defensive.

An Aug. 17 Survey USA poll showed Allen’s job ratings as 47 percent approve/38 percent disapprove, which prompted Democratic operatives to issue a press release getting in a few shots at the Republican and asserting that Allen is suffering from the incident.

Well, Allen’s approval did dip from 51 percent to 47 percent, but his disapproval rating remained unchanged from earlier surveys. The new survey didn’t include any data suggesting that Allen would be measurably weaker against Webb in the fall or that large numbers of Allen voters were reassessing their opinion of the Senator.

Any quickie survey conducted in the middle of a controversy and media frenzy isn’t likely to provide the kind of information one needs to evaluate the race long term, and the Survey USA poll is no exception.

The controversy may hurt Allen in the fall campaign, or most voters may shrug it off as just another political skirmish in a campaign. The question is whether Allen voters will now desert the Republican to support Webb, an underfunded challenger who is having difficulty getting his message heard.

Of course, we won’t know that for a while, just like we won’t know for sure if Santorum’s movement is anything more than either the natural closing of a race or the result of Santorum media.

But the wise move in both Pennsylvania and Virginia, even after looking at the new poll numbers, is to believe that relatively little has changed. Casey and Allen remain the favorites and the frontrunners, and their opponents need to alter the fundamental dynamics in those races if they are to pull even between now and November.

This column first appeared on on August 22, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.