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PoliticsPA: Weeks’ polls show statewide races tightening

By Alex Irwin
PoliticsPA Contributor

Several polls released this week show a slightly closer race in the two statewide elections than previous results have indicated, due in part to the slew of TV ads to hit the airwaves over the past few weeks.

A Franklin & Marshall College poll released Wednesday has Republican Pat Toomey leading Democrat Joe Sestak in the race for the open U.S. Senate seat 38% to 29%, with 32% of respondents undecided. Gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett leads his Democratic opponent Dan Onorato 36% to 32%, with 28% undecided.

While the Senate numbers are largely unchanged from an F&M poll conducted in August, Onorato has gained a few points in the last month, previously trailing Corbett by 9%.

A Suffolk University poll released earlier this week showed Toomey up by 5% over Sestak, 45% to 40%. The same poll has Corbett with a larger lead over Onorato, 47% to 40%.

Terry Madonna, director of the F&M poll, said the numbers show a tighter race, but Democrats still face an uphill battle in both elections and need to zero in on boosting voter turnout.

“The structural environment for the Democrats is still very bad,” Madonna said. “The dilemma is not winning over independents, it’s getting their voters energized.”

Madonna noted Onorato’s slight gain in the gubernatorial race and said TV ads have helped increase his name recognition by 10 points. He pointed to Onorato’s spot helping voters pronounce his name.

“It introduces him in a lighthearted way and shows he’s not a typical politician — voters aren’t looking for a typical politician.”

But both would-be governors have a long way to go in advancing recognition with voters, especially compared with the 2002 election, when Ed Rendell and Mike Fisher had significantly higher recognition numbers at this point in the election cycle. Madonna said that outside the one Onorato spot, the primarily negative ad campaigns have kept voters in the dark about what the candidates actually intend to do if elected.

Kevin Harley, spokesman for the Corbett campaign said they’re working to get the word out on their candidate without putting much emphasis on the week-to-week numbers.

“Polls are just a snapshot in time. In a race like this the polls will be all over the map. So we just keep moving forward with our campaign strategy, which is really pretty simple — communicating Tom Corbett’s message of limited government, lower taxes and free enterprise in creating jobs for the voters of Pennsylvania,” Harley said. “We’re looking at Nov. 2nd, not whatever day the latest poll came out.”

The Onorato team said the recent polling numbers are an indication that more voters are starting to get a feel for the candidates.

“People are starting to really look at the candidates now, and as we continue to deliver our message about Dan’s record turning around an economy and reforming government, his support continues to grow,” said Onorato Communications Director Brian Herman. ” The contrast between Dan Onorato and Tom Corbett is becoming clearer, and voters are moving toward Dan because they recognize that he has the experience and the plan to help create jobs and clean up Harrisburg.  Dan’s strong performance in Monday’s debate only adds to our momentum.”

But Madonna said Monday’s debate between the Corbett and Onorato will do little to raise recognition.

“When you have a debate that’s not on a major network or cable channel, the only things that are remembered are the mistakes — the ‘YouTube moments.’ There was no YouTube moment Monday night,” Madonna said.

Mark Harris, Toomey’s campaign manager, said polling results continue to be encouraging for the Republican candidate.

“We’re excited with where we are in the race, and voters are looking for someone who’s going to end the extremism in Washington,” Harris said. “We still have a long way to go, but we’re confident with the position we’re in and that we’re going to be victorious in November — but there’s a lot of hard work that has to be done between now and then.”

The Sestak campaign is just starting to catch up in the advertising game after Toomey’s summerlong spell of unchallenged television ads. But Sestak spokesman Jonathon Dworkin said the ads are part of a larger campaign-wide message.

“It goes alone with everything else we’re doing in terms of pushing out a message in every aspect of the campaign — that Congressman Toomey is someone that has, and will, side with big corporate and Wall Street interests and will put that first, whereas Joe Sestak is going to be on your side,” Dworkin said.

Both Sestak and Onorato continue to battle voters’ unfavorable attitudes toward President Obama and Governor Ed Rendell. But the Suffolk poll found PA voters had a largely favorable view of Hillary Clinton. Madonna said he doesn’t expect Clinton’s popularity to carry into voting booths.

“She beat Obama in the primary by 10 points, and she has roots in Scranton — I think there’s a residue of support for her,” Madonna said. “Just because she’s popular doesn’t meant it’ll transfer into votes for the Democrats.”

In the Senate race, polls showed conflicting results on where independents are likely to cast their votes. F&M has Toomey leading among independents by a strikingly wide margin — 35% to 8% — while a Susquehanna Polling & Research survey from earlier this week put Sestak ahead 41% to 30%, according to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article.

But Madonna reiterated that the challenge for Democrats this year is all about getting voters energized and casting their votes.

“There’s still some room for the Democrats to grow, but I don’t think they can grow by winning over independents or Republicans. They can only grow by increasing turnout.”

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