President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney entered the final days of the presidential race tied in a state that the campaigns only recently began contesting, a Tribune-Review poll shows.
The poll showed the race for Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes locked up at 47 percent in its final week. Romney was scheduled to campaign in the Philadelphia area on Sunday, and former President Bill Clinton planned to stump for Obama on Monday. The campaigns have begun to saturate the airwaves with millions of dollars in presidential advertising.
“They’re both in here because of exactly what you’re seeing” in this poll, said Jim Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling & Research, which surveyed 800 likely voters Oct. 29-31. Most of the interviews occurred after Hurricane Sandy inundated Eastern and Central Pennsylvania. The poll’s error margin is 3.46 percentage points.
Nearly 60 percent of people say the country is on the wrong track, and economic concerns continue to dominate. Almost half of likely voters say economic issues are the primary driver of their choice for president.
“I’m concerned about all the young people graduating from college, whether they’re finding jobs,” said Pauline Hoxie, 84, a Republican from Jersey Shore in Lycoming County. Her grandson graduated with a degree in graphic design but works a manual labor job because he can’t find openings in his field, she said.
Democrats shrugged off the Romney campaign’s late play for Pennsylvania, sending emails to supporters and journalists showing past Republican presidential candidates doing the same thing. Pennsylvania hasn’t given its electoral votes to the Republican candidate since 1988.
The state’s urban, suburban and rural voters usually give winners narrower victories than Obama’s 10-point win in 2008. John Kerry won by 2.5 percentage points in 2004; Al Gore won by 4.2 in 2000.
The state is a tempting target for candidates in close races. It has two more electoral votes than the 18 up for grabs in Ohio, the focus of more campaign activity in the past few weeks than any other state.
“Some people call it fool’s gold. Republicans come close but it just doesn’t happen at the end of the day,” Lee said.
It could be different for the GOP this year, Lee said.
Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate surpassed the national average in September after remaining below average throughout the recession. In Ohio, where both campaigns have spent far more time and money, the unemployment rate was 7 percent in September, more than a percentage point lower than Pennsylvania’s 8.2 percent.
“There is no president who only deals with what happens during his four years,” said Lorraine Gregor, 61, a Democrat from McKees Rocks. “I don’t care who the president would’ve been when Barack Obama took office; we would be talking about the same thing today.”
The national unemployment rate was 7.9 percent in October, when employers added 171,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I just don’t feel that President Obama is doing the job at all. What has he accomplished?” said Roger Briggs, 67, of Monongahela. He questioned why accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and Fort Hood gunman Nidal Malik Hassan haven’t been tried. “They’re too lenient on these Muslims, these radical Muslims. He’s bending over backwards.”
Obama enjoyed wide leads in state polling during most of the race. That narrowed when Romney’s image improved as a result of the October presidential debates. Susquehanna found 48 percent of voters view Romney favorably, the first time he tied Obama on that measure. A Trib poll in September found Obama with a 47 percent favorability rating, compared with Romney’s 41 percent.
“We’ve continued to show the president failing to hit the 50-percent mark. Pennsylvanians have pretty much split their perceptions of him. Those perceptions are hardened; they don’t change,” Lee said.
What changed, he said, is Romney’s image among undecided voters: “Romney has given undecided a reason to vote for him.”
Romney’s image suffered among some voters because of comments he made at a fundraiser that 47 percent of people see themselves as victims entitled to government handouts.
Romney has since called the remarks “completely wrong.”
“I don’t believe Romney is concerned with the working class. I just don’t like how we’re looked at these days,” said Gregory Lutz, 64, a Democrat from Mildred in Sullivan County. Attacks that highlighted Romney’s foreign bank accounts sowed more doubt, he said.
Because he’s taken advantage of offshore tax benefits, “I don’t trust what he says about keeping jobs in the U.S.”
Pennsylvania’s sudden emergence as a state up for grabs shouldn’t surprise anyone, Lee said. Even when state polls showed a wide gap in Obama’s favor, the president rarely registered more than 50 percent, he said.
“I think it’s always been here for the taking,” Lee said. The question, he said, is whether Romney’s recent play for the state is “a day late and a dollar short.”