Battleground Pennsylvania

pennsylvania quarter
AP
In the game of electoral roulette, Pennsylvania has a spot on the wheel again.

The state's 23 electoral votes seemed bound for the Al Gore win column about a month ago, with statewide polls giving the vice president an average lead of 10 percent over Republican George W. Bush. But polls released this week show the race has drawn even, into a situation one state analyst calls "razor, razor tight."

That means the Keystone State will play a key role on Election Day. According to some calculations, Gore would have to win Michigan and Florida to compensate if he lost Pennsylvania. But a Gore sweep of those three states could put the Texas governor in the position of having to capture just about every other contested state. Others speculate that the Democrats need to win Michigan and Pennsylvania - or Michigan and Missouri - to come out on top.

A poll of Pennsylvania voters released this week by the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University gave Bush a 43-42 percent advantage, while a Los Angeles Times poll gave Bush a 47-45 percent edge. But daily tracking polls of battleground states by Zogby International show Gore surging slightly in Pennsylvania this week, with a 3-4 percent lead.

"This election defies conventional thinking," says Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs and just one of many students of Pennsylvania politics scratching his head over the numbers. The Center's statewide survey a month ago gave Gore a 12 percent lead.

Madonna believes voters are now starting to base their decisions on the candidates’ character in the absence of economic or international worries. As a result, according to conventional wisdom, the wonkish Gore is losing ground to the affable, if detail-challenged, Bush.

"Trust looms as a big issue," he says. "Now they're free to pick and choose from a menu of things - and personal and cultural issues are back into play."

Moreover, "Gore's mistakes," as Madonna puts it, in the debates and in some of his speeches have caused voters to reevaluate the vice president. Many voters now see Gore as strident and prone to exaggeration.

"I call it the ‘second look’ after the convention," he says, referring to Gore's big bounce in opinion polls at the Democratic National Convention in August.

In the release of its poll, the Los Angeles Times reported that Pennsylvania voters gave Bush a 9-point advantage when asked which man has the most "honesty and integrity." It also noted that independents prefer Bush on these qualities by a nearly 2-1 ratio.

Madonna feels that Bush's oft-repeated vow to restore dignity and honor to the White House - and his promise not to let anyone slip through the safety net - has resonated among women in particular. (Gore’s lead among this group has slid dramatically in the past month.)

Michael Young, professor of politcs and public policy at Penn State University, also sees strange trends in the voter landscape this year. He notes that, while Gore has gained some support in the moderate suburbs of Philadelphia (where Bush should be doing better), he is losing ground in the southwest part of the state, an area traditionally known for its Reagan Democrats.

"The political map has been turned upside down," he says.

Another area Young and others will watch closely is Lehigh Valley, home to Allentown and Bethlehem. Once solid Democratic territory, the area has become fertile ground for Republicans in recent years; both candidates have paid visits there. It’s also considered bellwether territory because its voter makeup makes it a miniature Pennsylvania.

While stressing that numerous factors – the biggest being Democratic turnout – that could tip such a close election, Young points to some efforts "beneath the radar screen" by groups such as the National Rifle Association.

"This is a big hunting state… and they’ve tapped into that," says Young. "That explains a lot of what you see in the southwest (region of the state)."

With events like visits from NRA president Charlton Heston, the group has made guns into a wedge issue this year, and may have compromised Gore’s support among union workers with the gun issue.

All of the issue groups and geography notwithstanding, Madonna and Young return to the relevance of personality and character, calling it the fulcrum of Campaign 2000. For academics, it's a frustrating admission because it conflicts with conventional models of how voters should act in times of economic prosperity, when they traditionally back the incumbent.

"This election is so strange, with so many twists and turns, we may have to rewrite what we know about voting behavior," says Madonna.

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