As President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney prepare to debate Monday night, speculation mounts that Romney has been so boosted by recent Pennsylvania polling that he’ll actively contest the state in the campaign’s final weeks.
Several prominent commonwealth Republicans say that the Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday — the survey showed Romney had pulled within 4 percentage points of Obama in Pennsylvania — caused a flurry of activity.
Though some previous internal GOP and right-leaning polls had shown a tightening race in the Keystone State, the news of an independent poll reflecting that shift inspired real optimism among Republicans and dread among Democrats.
“They’re nervous because of that first debate,” said Michael Federici, chairman of political science at Mercyhurst University in Erie. “It was such a disaster for Obama that it really put Romney back in the race. If he’d crushed him, it would have been over.”
But Romney’s initial debate win prompted a resurgence in his campaign and a gain in polls nationwide. And for many Pennsylvania Republicans, last week’s Quinnipiac poll meant the state was back in play.
A high-ranking state GOP fundraiser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that talk of the Romney campaign buying television ads in Pennsylvania last week was “heating up” but that no decision had been made.
On Saturday, Republican vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of about 500 people at a hangar near the Pittsburgh airport, saying the country couldn’t afford “four more years” of the Obama administration’s energy policies and repeatedly mentioned the importance of coal mining, historically a major industry in the region.
As for ads, however, Romney has not aired anything in the state since the April GOP primary. But if the former Massachusetts governor returned to the Pennsylvania airwaves, it would signal his belief in carrying a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
“My impression is that Romney is definitely ratcheting up in Pennsylvania, but the timing on television is uncertain,” said Phil English, a former Erie congressman and early Romney supporter.
With the Nov. 6 election pulling closer, any decision to air ads or send Romney or running mate Paul Ryan to stump in the state will be made on a day-to-day basis, said Romney supporter and former Lancaster congressman Bob Walker.
“If Pennsylvania continues to close as it has in the last couple of weeks, it’s almost certain that Romney or Ryan will be in the state at some point,” Walker said. “Right now the momentum is pretty substantial.”
However, an influential commonwealth Republican, who did not want to be identified, said Romney was still “holding off on Pennsylvania” and that his gain in the polls had come because both camps had essentially abandoned campaigning in the state.
“They’ve made a calculation that Pennsylvania is a place they could come in the last few weeks and make an impression,” the GOP figure said of the Romney campaign.
But if Pennsylvania returned to its battleground status, with Romney and Obama actively campaigning here, some observers say the state likely would revert to its Democratic-leaning voting tendency.
“The problem with Pennsylvania is that Romney’s come from so far behind. How much more momentum does he have here?” Federici said. “It’s much more likely things will go back to the pattern we’ve seen before. But if Pennsylvania really comes into play, then a whole bunch of other states are, too, and Romney’s going to win very decisively.”
Walker, who chaired Newt Gingrich’s GOP primary campaign against Romney, argued that if Pennsylvania does become viable, the campaign’s focus on neighboring Ohio ceases to exist.
“A Pennsylvania victory would take away a need to win narrowly in Ohio,” he said. “It would mean they would simply add Pennsylvania into the late campaign repertoire.”
Ed Rendell, the state’s last Democratic governor, shared that sentiment during an appearance Friday on MSNBC. But the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee cast doubt on the veracity of the polls showing Romney within striking distance in the state.
“Mitt Romney’s campaign … they haven’t put one dime on television in Pennsylvania,” Rendell said. “I’ve been telling the press since those polls came out, the Romney campaign is telling you those polls are no good.”
Polling in Pennsylvania and nationwide has been particularly schizophrenic in recent months. At various times, independent polls have produced starkly divergent results.
Privately, pollsters say the science of forecasting voter inclinations has become significantly more difficult with the advent of certain technologies and the proliferation of exclusive mobile phone use.
Such new factors make it significantly more difficult to get enough respondents to produce a predictive poll.
“Republicans are more likely to have landlines than Democrats, and Democrats are more likely to have cellphones than Republicans,” said Federici, who has overseen polls at Mercyhurst. “It is a great challenge for pollsters.”
And even if Romney’s recent gain in the Pennsylvania polls is legitimate, Federici doubts that the GOP nominee would make the commonwealth a campaign priority.
“There are a lot of other places it makes sense for Romney to go first than spending time and money here,” he said. “Obama’s lead in Wisconsin is under 3 points. His lead in Ohio is under 3 points. And if you have a better chance of winning Wisconsin or Ohio, why would you spend time and money in Pennsylvania?”