Many people are talking about the dramatic tightening of the Pennsylvania Senate race between Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Sestak. But upon closer inspection, most of that apparent tightening seems to be a mirage.
The sense that Toomey's lead has substantially narrowed is based on three polls: one by PPP, which shows Sestak up 1; one by Quinnipiac, which shows Toomey up 2; and one by Morning Call Tracking, which shows a tie. These are the only polls that have been released since Rasmussen showed Toomey to be up 10 points just a week ago. However, all three polls appear to have significantly under-sampled the very voters who will likely put Toomey over the top.
John McCormack has written about the PPP poll (which Real Clear Politics designates as a Democratic poll). That poll's likely voter sample includes an even wider gap between Democrats and Republicans (+7 Democratic) than the gap measured by exit polls during the last midterm elections (+5 Democratic) -- when Democrats picked up 31 seats in the House. The odds of the Democrats securing a better turnout in 2010 than in 2006 are about the same as the odds that President Obama will admit that ObamaCare was a colossal mistake and needs to be repealed.
Unlike PPP, the Quinnipiac poll doesn't indicate how many of its respondents are Democrats, Republicans, or independents. But it does show what percentage of each group is supporting each candidate. Based on those percentages (Democrats favor Sestak 89 to 7 percent, Republicans favor Toomey 88 to 8 percent, and independents favor Toomey 56 to 35 percent), if the split in turnout were the same as in 2004 (41 percent Democrats, 39 percent Republicans, 20 percent independents), Toomey would win by 2 points. And that's what the survey shows: Toomey by 2. So whatever its exact breakdown of respondents by party, this survey is predicting essentially the same party turnout as that which materialized in 2004, a year in which neither party had a clear edge in voter enthusiasm.
That isn't the case this time around.
If, therefore, in comparison to 2004, we conservatively assume a 3-point decrease in the percentage of voters who are Democrats (to 38 percent), a 2-point increase in the percentage who are Republicans (to 41 percent), and a 1 point increase in the percentage who are independents (to 21 percent), this poll's results would instead show Toomey with a 6-point edge: 50.5 percent to 44.5 percent.
In fact, if anything the Quinnipiac poll shows Toomey's numbers looking slightly better than they did in the previous Quinnipiac poll, from a month ago, when he was said to have a 7-point lead. Since then, Toomey has gained 2 points of support among Republicans (from 86 to 88 percent), 2 points among independents (from 54 to 56 percent), and hasn't lost any ground among Democrats (7 percent). Meanwhile, Sestak has gained 2 points among Democrats but has lost a point among Republicans and another point among independents. This means that Toomey's alleged decline from a 7-point to a 2-point lead can only be attributed to Quinnipiac's having included a greater percentage of Democrats in its polling sample this time around.
It's not Democrats, however, but independents, who will disproportionately swing this election. And, in that vein, Quinnipiac highlights the major reason why Sestak isn't likely to win: independents favor Toomey by a huge margin: 21 points (56 to 35 percent). Not only that, but the polling largely tells us why: Among independents, only 30 percent would "like to see the next United States Senator elected from Pennsylvania generally support Barack Obama's policies"; only 30 percent approve "of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as President"; only 26 percent approve "of the way Barack Obama is handling the economy"; only 17 percent describe Pennsylvania's economy as "good" or "excellent"; and only 15 percent think Pennsylvania's economy is "getting better."
Perhaps most telling of all, when asked whether they "feel enthusiastic, satisfied but not enthusiastic, dissatisfied but not angry, or angry" about "the way the federal government works," 43 percent of independents say they're angry, while only 1 percent say they're enthusiastic.
That leads us to the Morning Call Tracking poll. The sample in that poll was 45 percent Democratic and 48 percent Republican -- a seemingly reasonable split. But it included only 6 percent independents. That's one-third as many independents as turned out in any of the past three elections in the state. Morning Call calls this race a tie. Maybe it will be a tie if almost all of the independents stay home.
It's as simple as this: 1. Toomey and Sestak each enjoy very similar levels of support from within their own party. 2. There's little reason to believe that Pennsylvania's turnout will favor the Democrats this time around, given that Republican turnout was within 2 points of Democratic turnout even in 2004 -- when neither party had a clear advantage in national enthusiasm or support. 3. Even in the unlikely event that the turnout does favor Democrats, Sestak would still have to overcome a huge disadvantage among independents.
This looks like Toomey's race to lose.