The Democrats have won the presidential contest in Pennsylvania over the past six elections. Other than President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaPoll: Most Republicans believe Trump's wiretap claim Key conservative rep on healthcare plan: 'Let’s get out those regulations’ Trump climate move risks unraveling Paris commitments MORE’s victory in 2008, the elections have been rather close; none of the other Democratic candidates received more than 52 percent of the vote. In 2012, the state was the sixth closest popular-vote state in the presidential contest.
Currently, its large number of electoral votes, 20, make Pennsylvania a prime target for presidential campaigns. The familiar refrain, win two of three, meaning Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania was heard frequently, indicating that the 270 electoral vote prize was clinched.
But in 2012, the strategy of the candidates changed. Pennsylvania was virtually ignored by the presidential campaigns. Mitt Romney only decided to make a push in the Keystone State after he reached the conclusion that he could not win Ohio. So, for the last two weeks of the campaign Romney and Barack Obama spent some time and some money in the state, with about $30 million in television advertising.
What a difference four years makes! The Trump campaign has made Pennsylvania one of a handful of targeted states, and commercials now fill the state’s airways, forcing Clinton to respond likewise. The candidates and their surrogates have made repeated visits to the state.
All of that begs the question, how does the presidential contest now stand in the state with the post Labor Day scramble to November 8 underway? The latest Franklin & Marshall College Poll from the end of August provides some clues on where the election stands.
First, the contest has definitely tightened. In mid-August Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonRoger Daltrey: 'Dead dog' would have beaten Clinton Clinton targets Trump in speech, urging supporters to 'resist, insist, persist, enlist' Clinton defends April Ryan, Rep. Maxine Waters in speech MORE held a 9.2 percent lead in the state in the Real Clear Politics average. Three polls, including the F&M poll, were released during the last week of August. The Emerson College Poll had Clinton with a 3 percent lead and the Monmouth University Poll had her lead at 8 percent. The net effect was to reduce her average lead in the state to 6.5 percent.
The recent F&M poll had Clinton with a 7 percent edge over Trump, 47 percent to 40 percent among likely voters. In a four-way matchup including Libertarian candidate Gary JohnsonGary JohnsonTrump’s early economic success reveals Obama failures, could presage 2020 landslide Trump taps former congresswoman for Air Force secretary Other states should join Jerry Brown's California resistance MORE and the Green Party candidate Jill Stein, her lead slips to 5 percent, 45 percent to 40 percent, but Trump maintains the same percentage he had in the two-way matchup. The two third party candidates, Johnson and Stein, trail badly at 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
Clinton suffered a four-point decline (49 percent to 38 percent) from the F&M poll completed in July just after the Democratic convention. Her convention bounce had dissipated, the continued controversy over her role as Secretary of State and the Clinton Foundation, in addition to the email situation more broadly defined — all almost daily in the news are the most likely explanations for the tightening of the race in Pennsylvania.
At the moment, both candidates are more unpopular with registered voters in the state than popular. Clinton is viewed unfavorably by 54 percent of voters with 38 percent viewing her favorably (49 percent in July).
Trump’s unfavorables are even higher with 58 percent of voters viewing him unfavorably to 37 percent that say they have a favorable opinion of him. He has improved a bit from the 62 percent of voters that had an unfavorable view of him after the Democratic convention.
Both candidates are more unpopular at this point in the campaign than their parties’ nominees at least back to 2004. Trump’s numbers are much higher than previous Republican nominees George Bush in 2004, John McCainJohn McCainSenate braces for fallout over Supreme Court fight Republicans seek to lower odds of a shutdown Nunes endures another rough day MORE in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012. Clinton’s are higher than John KerryJohn KerryCongress, Trump need a united front to face down Iran One year ago today we declared ISIS atrocities as genocide Trump’s realism toward Iran is stabilizing force for Middle East MORE in 2004 and Barack Obama in the following two presidential elections.
What may come as a surprise, despite their unpopularity, is the fact that more voters say they are “very interested” in the upcoming election than the previous three presidential elections. Seven in ten voters indicate they are very interested in the election compared to 56 percent in 2004, 62 percent in 2008 and 58 percent in 2012. The current presidential campaign certainly does not lack in voter interest.
Trump holds a lead among voters who live in the rural parts of the state, with white voters that have a high school education or less and those that describe themselves as conservative. He also tops her among white men.
Clinton draws her largest support from urban areas, notably in Philadelphia and in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), as well as with female voters, those that say they are liberal, and with white voters that have college degrees. More generally, she also leads with white woman and minority voters.
Clinton continues to hold a decent lead in the Philadelphia suburbs where a pool of ticket splitting voters live. Equally important is the size of the four counties in the suburbs — Delaware, Bucks, Montgomery and Chester Counties — because in 2012 they contributed about 1.2 million of the 5.6 million votes cast.
There are several characteristics that matter to voters when they chose a president. Clinton leads on most of the ones tested in this survey. On two of the issues that are very important to voters in the campaign, the economy and fighting terrorism, Clinton and Trump are closely matched: fix the economy, Trump 42 percent, Clinton 40 percent; protecting against terrorism, Trump 41 percent, Clinton 40 percent.
Clinton does hold a sizable lead on the questions of who has the experience needed to be president (55 percent to 20 percent) and who is most prepared to handle foreign policy (55 percent to 25 percent).
On the other hand, Trump holds a narrow lead when voters were asked who is the most honest and trustworthy (33 percent to 27 percent) and who will change government policies in a way that makes your life better (38 percent to 34 percent).
Nine in ten Clinton voters tell us they are certain to vote for her. Trump is hard on her heels with 88 percent who indicate they are certain to vote for him. Now, 30 percent of the voters who changed their mind during the course of the campaign about which candidate they would support, the majority of them (51 percent) indicate they could change their mind again.
And so there is a degree of volatility in the most unpredictable and unbelievable presidential election in modern history.
G. Terry Madonna, Ph.D. is a Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. He is the Director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll, and the Director of the college’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs.
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