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Toxic Tom

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The various polls disagree over the spread on the Obama-Romney race in Pennsylvania, but they sync perfectly in another area: They all show Gov. Tom Corbett's popularity in the tank.

Corbett got only a 30 percent approval rating in the latest Muhlenberg College poll. He got a 30 percent approval rating in the recent Franklin & Marshall poll.  Ditto in the Inquirer's latest sample of voters' mood.

The rule of thumb in politics is that if an incumbent's approval rating is at or below the 40 percent mark, he is vulnerable to challenge. At 30 percent, you are toxic.

To a degree, Corbett has been snake bit by the Penn State scandal, which happened during his watch as attorney general.  In the F&M poll, done by Terry Madonna and company, 65 percent said Corbett did only a fair to poor job handling that case.

On that issue, Corbett gets it from both sides: Those who are unhappy because they believe he was not aggressive enough in pursuing the case and those who believe he was too aggressive in going after their beloved Joe Pa and Penn State.

Talk about being whipsawed.

But Corbett's problems go deeper.  He was lucky in 2010 because he benefited from running as an antidote to the big-spending Ed Rendell. Now that people have gotten a taste of what it means when state government does the cut-and-lower taxes routine, they are not happy.

Terry Madonna, the Franklin and Marshall political scientist who regularly polls the state, says the Corbett cuts are the kind that hits the middle class where it hurts. He has slashed money for higher education, the public schools and state aid to counties for social welfare programs.

For the most part, this hasn't had the effect of reducing overall spending, so much as redistributed the burden onto local school districts, the counties and parents who pay tuition.

It doesn't pay to tick off middle-class swing voters, especially given the new geo-political make up of the state -- with so many moderate and swing voters residing in the southeast.

As we note in our Cover Story this week, the eight-county Philadelphia market constitutes 40 percent of the state electorate.  Win big here and you are virtually assured of winning statewide.

Madonna says there are seven swing counties in this state: Bucks, ChesterDelaware and Montgomery in the Philadelphia suburbs, plus Lehigh, Northampton and Monroe Counties.  Two years ago, Corbett won all but two -- he narrowly lost Delaware and Montgomery.

For the record, Corbett lost Philadelphia by a ton of votes.  Dan Onorato, an Allegheny County pol little known in this area, got 83 percent of the vote in the city. 

Of course, two years is a lot of time in politics and Corbett could rebound.  But let us look at the 2014 through the prism of geo-politics. 

Will he do better in Philadelphia? No.

Will he do worse in the Philly suburbs? Yes.

Will there be a protest vote in central Pennsylvania because of Penn State?  Yes.

Will he hold his own in his base, which is Allegheny County and the Pittsburgh media market?  He can if he works at it.

Can he win in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Market, which includes Monroe County?  No.

This explains why so many Democratic pols are lining up to be mentioned as potential gubernatorial candidates, including state Treasurer Rob McCord and County Commissioner Josh Shapiro.  Both are residents of Montgomery County.

The Big Dog, though, is U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr.  Once he wins this November will he be tempted to run for governor?  It's a job he's always wanted.  If he enters the race I don't think Corbett could be competitive.

What's the downside for the Democrats?  If Casey opts out of running and southeastern candidates abound, a Democrat from western Pennsylvania could be tempted to enter the race -- and win the primary, but end up being a weak candidate in the fall.

Never underestimate the Democrats' ability to shoot themselves in the foot.

-- Tom Ferrick






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