Two percentage points separate President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney in a state poll conducted for the Tribune-Review, even though the campaigns largely are ignoring Pennsylvania and concentrating on other battlegrounds.
Obama polled 47 percent to Romney’s 45 percent among likely Pennsylvania voters, with 6 percent of voters undecided and 44 days until Election Day, according to the survey by Susquehanna Polling & Research. The survey of 800 voters, conducted Sept. 18-20, has a margin of error of 3.46 percentage points.
The poll showed most voters are disappointed with the country’s direction, evenly split on whether Obama deserves another term and hesitant to back Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. Fifty-one percent of the state’s voters approve of Obama’s job performance.
Other recent polls showed a larger margin for Obama, leading some to speculate that Pennsylvania — which hasn’t voted for a GOP presidential candidate since 1988 — no longer is a swing state. Two of those last four polls gave Obama a lead larger than his margin of victory in 2008, when he defeated Sen. John McCain of Arizona by 10 percentage points.
“All the evidence points to a much closer margin,” said Jim Lee, Susquehanna president. “Nothing suggests we’re looking at anything like 2008.”
Voters continue to put the economy at the top of their list of concerns. Only one in three believes the country is headed in the right direction.
Yet, a deeper look at the numbers shows a more nuanced picture. Romney leads Obama, 48 percent to 44 percent, on the question of who would create jobs to speed up the recovery. Ask who looks out for the interests of the middle class and Obama leads, 56 percent to 38 percent.
“People run with the numbers without really paying attention to what’s behind them,” said Dilip Namjoshi, 66, of Abington, a Philadelphia suburb. “Somebody says, ‘I created 2 million jobs.’ Well, yes, but 600,000 of them are in China.”
Obama gained his lead on gut-level issues like that with his campaign’s early attempts to define Romney, the former head of a private-equity firm, as wealthy and out of touch, Lee said. Although Romney fought off primary challengers, Democrats developed his public persona.
“The Romney folks failed to develop a positive image in this state,” Lee said.
Leah Brooks, 63, a Republican in New Wilmington, Lawrence County, said she has a hard time reading Romney.
“He seems to mean well, but I’m not sure he always sees the whole picture. I’m not sure he can get down to where we are,” Brooks said. “I don’t blame him for it. But I’m not sure he really can see what it’s like.”
Brooks said she’s troubled by recent events in Arab countries where protesters stormed U.S. embassies and, in an apparent terrorist strike, killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
“It is important how we’re seen and how we handle ourselves,” she said.
Obama leads, 49 percent to 41 percent, among likely voters on the question of who would better defend the homeland. But voters who peg foreign affairs and international events as their top concern prefer Romney, 53 percent to 46 percent, the poll found.
“We seem to get ourselves stuck in the mud and can’t get out. I’m not sure anybody knows how to get out of the messes we’re in,” Brooks said. “It seems that what (Obama) does best is campaign. I just wish he’d get down to business.”
Politicians and government operation tie with voters’ concern about the deficit as the second-biggest problem facing the federal government, according to the poll. Thomas Hohler, 67, of Scott and other Democrats point to Republicans in Congress as the problem.
“You can’t get anything accomplished if their goal is to say no to anything Obama wants,” Hohler said. The way to solve the country’s problems “is to get members of Congress, elected officials, that are willing to work together to achieve something. I’m not sure how you can do that, or how soon that’s going to happen.”
Hohler volunteers for Obama’s campaign, though he says the past four years included disappointments.
“Obviously, Obama hasn’t done as well as I would’ve liked. On health care, I would’ve liked to see him go for single-payer or Medicare for everyone,” Hohler said. Overall, the former high school teacher gives Obama a B grade.
Joseph Mozaleski said he used to vote for Democrats before the party embraced legalized abortions. Decades later, the Republican sees increasing reliance on government assistance and rules in Obama’s health care law that require coverage of contraceptives as the consequences of a moral drift.
“Something is wrong with the moral fabric, and I think Romney has a better chance of bringing back my ideals in this country,” said Mozaleski, 62, of Sterling, Wayne County.
In Abington, Namjoshi registered to vote as a Republican in 1988 but changed his registration to independent last month, saying he’s fed up with both parties. He said he liked Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s small-government libertarian message during the GOP primaries and will watch the presidential debates to see whether either candidate says something convincing about stabilizing the country’s financial situation.
“You’ve got to be fiscally responsible. Whoever does that is probably going to get my vote,” Namjoshi said.
The debates, the first scheduled for Oct. 3, might change the dynamic of the Pennsylvania race, Lee said.
“Three in four (undecided voters) say the country’s going in the wrong direction,” Lee said. If they believe that, they’re unlikely to back the incumbent, he said. “They’re either staying home or they’re voting for Romney.”