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Pennsylvania in Play?

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Pennsylvania is about to have its 15 minutes in the national spotlight in the presidential campaign. In the weekend before the Nov. 6 election, the Romney campaign has turned its attention to the state.  The candidate will be in Bucks County on Sunday.  His campaign and the Super PACS that support him are pouring last-minute millions into TV ads that are up in most media markets.

After months of neglecting Pennsylvania, why is Romney suddenly such a presence?

His campaign's explanation is that they see Pennsylvania as winnable. 

Polls show the race tightening here. The two latest public polls, which were released this week, show Obama up by seven points (Inquirer poll) or by four points (Franklin & Marshall poll). That's a slip from the same polls last month.

I don't see Pennsylvania as winnable for the Republicans.  For an explanation why Romney is here you have to look elsewhere.

In the nine states that have been considered swing states since the summer, Obama now holds the lead -- albeit a slight lead -- in eight of them, according to the latest polls.

For the record, those state are: Colorado (Obama +2%),Ohio (+2%), Nevada (+3%), New Hampshire (+3%), North Carolina (+3%) and Virginia (+3%).  Romney holds the lead only in Florida (Romney +1%). This data comes from the New York Times summary of key-state polls.

Romney cannot lose these states and still win the election.  In fact, an Obama win in OhioVirginia and Colorado will seal the deal for the President, at least in the Electoral College.

With the potential of losses in these key states, Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes look appealing -- if not attainable.  The Romney campaign and its Super-PAC supporters have cash on hand. Why not lay some money down and roll the dice in Pennsylvania to see if they can make the numbers dance?

Forgive the analogy, but this reminds me of the Civil War, circa 1863. As Gen. Robert E. Lee surveyed the scene, he saw that the Confederates had lost the western front and were losing the South. He decided to counter with a bold offensive move into the heart of the North. Into Pennsylvania.

His goal was to scare the bejabbers out of Northerners who, in turn, might elect a peace candidate in the 1864 presidential election who would be willing to negotiate an end to the war. Lee did accomplish goal one. His defeat at Gettysburg ruined goal two. Abraham Lincoln was re-elected.

Political campaigns are like hexahedral crystals that cast differing light depending on how you approach them.

Seen from one angle (the side Romney is pushing) the Republican candidate is in the middle of a surge that began after the first debate and is going to peak on Election Day and carry him to victory.  Under this scenario, Pennsylvania is a manifestation of that surge -- not in play in the summer, very much in play today.

Seen from another angle (the side the Obama camp prefers), Romney tried his best to dislodge Obama as the leader in many states, and he fell short.  Obama is holding onto leads in these key states; the election is clearly tilting his way. Romney's move into Pennsylvania, then, is born out of the fact he is losing elsewhere.  His plan for victory is coming apart. Forgive the analogy again, but it is like Pickett's second charge at Gettysburg -- an act of desperation that failed to breach Union lines.

For a look at some of the broader trends that favor Obama and the Democrats in the state, see our recent Backgrounder on voting trends in Pennsylvania.

What factors could change this equation for Gen. Pickett -- excuse me -- Gov. Romney?

Well, it's a good thing for Obama that the voter ID law is not in place.  When it originally passed, I thought the new law would cost Obama about three points -- roughly 180,000 votes.  When he had a nine-point lead he could afford those points.  Today, he needs them.

Now, there is the Sandy factor.  The storm hit hardest in Obama country in southeastern Pennsylvania.  Hundreds of thousands of voters are still without power or are clearing fallen trees and pumping water out of basements.

These troubles make voting seem much less important to these voters and could depress turnout. Will it be enough for Romney to make up his four- to seven-point deficit? I think not.  Deeply Democratic Philadelphia escaped the worst of the storm.  In the suburbs, it's a different story, but the rain fell on Democrats and Republicans alike and a slump in turnout may do equal harm to each camp.

So, how is this all going to play out on Election Day on Tuesday? That's why we hold elections -- to find out. Stayed turned for the exciting conclusion.

-- Tom Ferrick


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