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One Month Out, Who Has the Momentum in Pennsylvania?

In a reversal of fortune, today’s Suffolk University poll shows Shapiro surging as Fetterman stagnates.
October 5, 2022
One Month Out, Who Has the Momentum in Pennsylvania?
Dr. Mehmet Oz, Republican Nominee for U.S. Senate, speaks during a fall campaign kick off rally with U.S. Senator John Kennedy in Newtown, Pennsylvania on September 10, 2022. (Photo by Hannah Beier for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In just the past week, there have been at least seven high-quality surveys of the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races in Pennsylvania—and all of the polls seem to tell a somewhat different story. Pick your fighter, as they say.

Polls are snapshots rather than instruments for predicting what happens next, but the new USA Today/Suffolk University poll of likely voters—conducted on Sep. 27-30 and published yesterday—gives us a chance to do an apples-to-apples comparison with a similar survey by the same pollster from June. As the trajectories of Democrats Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman have in many ways flipped since June, it’s worth delving into the possible reasons as we head into the home stretch.

First, the top-line. In the gubernatorial race, Shapiro has nearly tripled his lead over his opponent Doug Mastriano from 4 to 11 percent (he currently leads Mastriano 48 to 37 percent compared to 44 to 40 percent in June). Over the same period Fetterman’s lead over Mehmet Oz has dropped a third, from 9 to 6 percent (he currently leads Dr. Oz 46 to 40 percent). Essentially, the two Democrats have experienced a reversal of fortune that seems chiefly to be the product of Pennsylvania voters coming into contact with some of the more eccentric views of Doug Mastriano and the withering Oz air attack on the progressive Fetterman who has been hit hard on crime, the economy, and doubts about his health.

In the Suffolk polls, Shapiro has seen his support among men go from a 7 percent deficit to a 6 percent lead, a 13 percent swing. Among white voters, a 3-point Shapiro deficit is now a 6-point lead. Shapiro’s margin in the Philadelphia region has continued to zoom upward from 62 percent of the vote to 71 percent. He’s also remedied his relative weakness in the Pittsburgh area, where his lead over Mastriano has grown from 21 to 37 percent and also broken out in the northeast of the state where his lead has climbed from 2 points to 13. It is only in the northwest where the GOP has “come home” to Mastriano and he now leads Shapiro by 15 points compared to a more modest 4 percent in June. Regardless, the Pennsylvania governor’s race looks almost baked.

While neither of the GOP candidates is good, Oz has turned out to be significantly less bad, and the rhetorically wobbly Fetterman less good, than I originally thought. Like Mastriano, Oz has gained significant ground with the GOP base in the northwest and central regions of Pennsylvania where his leads over Fetterman have nearly doubled. In June, Fetterman was up by 7 percent in the northwest and down 6 percent in central Pennsylvania; today he trails in those regions by 17 points and 11 points, respectively.

For Fetterman, the swoon in more rural areas was to be expected. His bigger problem right now is his relative weakness in key demographics and other regions of the state as well as lingering questions about his health. Fetterman’s 23 percent lead among women in June has declined to 13 percent. Among white voters Fetterman is up 4 points since June but Oz is also up by 3. Regionally, Fetterman’s lead has continued to grow around Pittsburgh where he’s currently ahead of Oz by 31 points. He also continues to dominate in in the Philadelphia region, although his 64 percent (to Oz’s 21 percent) is well below Shapiro’s 71 percent. Fetterman’s standing in Philadelphia cannot be helped by the fact that his support among black voters has declined from 71 percent to 56 percent since June.

Fetterman’s health issues following his May stroke aren’t helping his situation. While the Suffolk University poll didn’t ask about voter worries on this topic, other polls have. A Fox News poll published last week found 34 percent of voters concerned that Fetterman might not be up to serving as senator, an 11 point increase since July. These concerns haven’t been eased by Fetterman’s dodging of debates with Oz or stump gaffes that show not minor verbal slipups but something much closer to incoherence. You can’t be concerned about Herschel Walker’s cognitive processing and simply brush off Fetterman’s challenges.

The good news for Fetterman is that while his approval rating is now just barely above water, Dr. Oz continues to plumb the depths. In June, 45 percent of poll respondents approved of Fetterman, a number that has held steady. Unfortunately, his unfavorable score rose from 27 to 44 percent. Meanwhile, Oz, who was at 50 percent unfavorable in June remains stuck at 51 percent unfavorable now, with 34 percent approving of him compared to 28 percent in June. This suggests voters are currently caught between one candidate they still mostly dislike and another about whom they have growing questions and doubts.

The bottom line is that Fetterman, while still ahead, is stalled. He’ll need to do more than attack Oz for his alleged mistreatment of dogs to regain momentum.

Brent Orrell

Brent Orrell is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he researches workforce development and criminal justice issues.