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On Pennsylvania Being “In Play”

Tonight on MSNBC with David Shuster, I referred to Pennsylvania as being “in play”. I’ve also implied similar things in the polling threads over the past couple of days. Since we are showing John McCain as having only about a 2% chance to win Pennsylvania, I’ve had a couple of readers write in to ask whether I’m contradicting myself. Certainly we would not ordinarily refer to a state as “in play” when one of the candidates trails by 6 to 10 points, and there but a few days to go until the election.

What I want to make clear is that whenever I refer to Pennsylvania as being “in play”, you should imagine those little quotation marks around my words. You should also imagine that I’m speaking in the conditional tense. Were the national race to tighten by 5 points or so, then Pennsylvania might actually be in play, rather than being “in play”. (Actually, that might have been the subjunctive rather than the conditional, but never mind). We’re very focused on those scenarios wherein the national race does in fact tighten substantially, because those are the only scenarios wherein John McCain can win.

What Pennsylvania isn’t going to do — at least I don’t think — is move 5 or 6 or 7 points to the McCain side while everything else stays put. It’s a pretty middle-of-the-road state, with its share of big cities and small towns and rural areas and everything in between (this is why it’s a swing state in the first place). An idiosyncratic state like West Virgina or New Mexico might occasionally come completely untethered from the national trends, but Pennsylvania is not very likely to. Nor is it the sort of state that’s likely to catch anybody surprise (unless Obama supporters are dumb enough to become complacent). It’s a big, Democratic machine state, and one where Obama has 78 field offices open, many of which have been open since the primary in April.

Pennsylvania has at various times this year ranged from about 2 points behind Obama’s national numbers to 5 points ahead of them. If Obama is at about a +7 nationally, I’d expect him so be somewhere between a +5 and a +12 in PA … that’s about the range permissible by its demographics. Anything outside of that range, and I’d tend to think that the poll in question is an outlier.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.