Don't Bet the House on Specter Reelection

In the wake of Arlen Specter’s party switch, Quinnipiac College has conducted a poll on his standing among Pennsylvania voters. The poll is attracting a lot of attention because it shows Specter with a substantial lead over Pat Toomey, and a very narrow edge over former Governor Ridge.

Newly-minted Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter would whip old Republican rival Pat Toomey 53 – 33 percent if the 2010 Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race were held today, but if popular former Gov. Tom Ridge becomes the Republican candidate, he trails Specter by just 46 – 43 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.

Independent voters, who back Sen. Specter over Toomey 45 – 36 percent, switch to Ridge 47 – 37 percent if he becomes a candidate. The former Republican Governor also gets 14 percent of the Democratic vote, the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University poll finds.

Of course, there are important caveats here. A full two-thirds of voters say they don’t know enough about Toomey to form an opinion of him, against just 12 percent for Specter and 23 percent for Ridge. As a relative unknown, Toomey must hurry to define himself before his opponents have the chance to do so. Further, Ridge nearly beats Specter despite having last sought elective office in Pennsylvania nearly 11 years ago. That’s a strong testament to Ridge’s strength, Specter’s weakness, or both.

Still, Specter seems to be blessed with positive press attention to his switch, and positive headlines from this poll. But those favorable headlines ignore some signs of serious trouble for Specter:

Looking ahead to the 2010 election for United States Senator, do you feel that Arlen Specter deserves to be reelected, or do you feel that he does not deserve to be reelected?

Yes/Deserves 49%
No/Does Not 41
DK/NA 10

Does Arlen Specter switching from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party make you more likely to vote for him for United States Senator, less likely, or doesn’t it make a difference?

More likely 25%
Less likely 28
Doesn’t make diff 46

With Arlen Specter switching to the Democratic Party, the Democrats could have enough votes in the Senate to block any filibusters by the Republicans. Do you think that is a good thing or a bad thing?

Good thing 41%
Bad thing 49
DK/NA 11

Some people say that losing a Republican in the Senate is dangerous because President Obama and the Democrats will now be able to steamroll over the Republicans. Do you agree or disagree?

Agree 52%
Disagree 44

Despite switching parties, Senator Specter says he will still vote against the Employee Free Choice Act which is legislation that would make it easier for labor organizations to sign up new members. This legislation is favored by labor unions and most Democratic leaders. Does this make you more likely to vote for Arlen Specter for United States Senator, less likely, or doesn’t it make a difference?

More likely 14%
Less likely 23
Doesn’t make diff 60

The traditional sign of an incumbent threatened for re-election is support under 50 percent; after Specter’s recent run of good press, he gets 49 percent support. More voters are turned off by his party switch than are pleased by it, and Specter’s opposition to Card Check is hurting his re-election chances. Clearly Pennsylvania voters are at least open to an alternative.

Further, in a state where 66 percent of voters approve of the job Barack Obama is doing, there’s clearly fear about Democrats having control of Congress. By an 8 percent margin voters fear that Democrats will be able to steamroll Republicans in Congress, and by the same 8 percent they say that’s a bad thing. And this is at a time when Democrats numbers are being lifted by the strength of a president with approval numbers that can only fall.

Right now Specter is riding a wave of positive press and is basking in the glow of association with a popular president and a popular agenda (at least among Pennsylvania voters). When Obama’s popularity drops, or when the public sours on his agenda, or when an opponent begins attacking Specter, his poll numbers will drop. If this poll is accurate, he faces a real challenge for re-election.