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Polls, Intangibles Favor Sestak

Of the six organizations to have released polling in the past 10 days or so, one shows tomorrow’s Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary tied; the others show Joe Sestak ahead of Arlen Specter by margins of 1, 2, 2, 5 and 9 points. That averages out to a lead of about 3 points for Sestak, which would be fairly dispositive in a general election context, but is less so in a primary where the margins of error are much higher. Looking at the polling in a vacuum, we’d probably make Sestak something like a 2:1 or perhaps a 7:3 favorite.

However, we can also look at the intangible factors in the race, which to my mind make Sestak’s position more robust. In particular, we’ll run this race through our series of 15 clarifying questions, an admittedly subjective exercise that we sometimes use to break ties in close elections.

The ground rules are that one or the other candidate can be awarded up to 3 points in each of the 15 categories. The points have no intrinsic meaning, other than as a mechanism to keep score.

1. Which candidate’s supporters are more enthusiastic?

Although it’s not exactly the same thing as enthusiasm, Quinnipiac’s poll shows that a higher fraction of Sestak’s voters are firmly committed to their candidate — 78 percent rather than 70 percent — and that has some fairly tangible value. Sestak +2 points.

2. Which candidate is liable to have the better turnout operation?

Ordinarily, in a Democratic machine state, you’d point toward the Democratic incumbent, Specter, but he’s never run a race with the Blue Team before. Who knows how robust his voter lists, etc. are, and how enthusiastic his volunteers might be? Still, Specter has the endorsements of the mayors of both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and that has to be worth something. Specter +2 points.

3. Is one of the candidates a challenger to an incumbent, who might benefit from the ‘incumbent rule’?

Why, as a matter of fact … Sestak +2 points.

4. Do the demographics of the undecided vote, or the weakly-attached third-party vote, favor either of the candidates?

The demographic cross-tabs in these polls are generally fairly spotty. Research 2000 (whose crosstabs are often weird) says that a large percentage of the undecideds are African-American — although they also show the black vote about evenly-divided between the two candidats, whereas most others have it going heavily to Specter. Franklin & Marshall thinks that women, Philadelphians, and college-educatd voters are more likely to be undecided, but their sample sizes are so tiny that nothing much can be concluded.

What’s less ambiguous is that Specter has considerably higher unfavorables than Sestak, which calls into question how many of the undecideds could vote for him without holding their nose, or might imply that they’ll only need the thinnest excuse to gravitate toward Specter. So we’re going to call this Sestak +1.

5. Which candidate got the more favorable coverage in the morning newspaper, or on the local evening news, on the Sunday before the election?

The headlines at local news websites are all fairly neutral. No points awarded.

6. Which candidate has the better ‘elevator pitch’, particularly as encapsulated by the commercials they’re running in the 48 hours before the election?

I don’t know what mix of positive and negative commercials Sestak is running at present, but his negative ads are quite devastating and sort of write themselves. Arlen Specter has Barack Obama in his (advertising) corner, but otherwise his messaging in this campaign has been defensive and haphazard. Sestak +2

7. Which candidate has a headwind at their back from the national political environment, or has a message that squares better with the national political mood? Which candidate’s party is liable to have the better Election Night nationwide?

Clearly, the anti-incumbent mood favors Sestak. Sestak +3

8. Does either candidate begin with a built-in lead from early or absentee voting?

Pennsylvania is very conservative about letting voters cast ballots early, so this isn’t really a factor here.

9. Which candidate, if any, stands to benefit from upballot or downballot races?

There’s a gubernatorial primary on the ballot, but it hasn’t been terribly competitive and is unlikely to have much impact upon the Senate race.

10. Which candidate stands to benefit from cellphone-only voters, or other voters who may not be represented in the polls?

To award points in this category requires a fairly elaborate understanding of the demographic breakdowns, which I don’t really know that we have. Pass.

11. Has the polling in previous elections in the state, or in similar elections in similar states, tended systematically to underestimate the performance of either candidate’s party?

There aren’t a lot of good parallels here. I wouldn’t, for instance, want to infer anything about Arlen Specter’s standing in a Demoratic primary from how he had previously fared as a Republican.

In 2006, FWIW, Ned Lamont had a 6-10 point lead over Joe Lieberman in Democratic primary polling and in fact won by just 4 points in Connecticut. But I’m not going to award credit based on just one data point.

12. Which candidate drew more people to their campaign appearances in the state over the last two weeks of the campaign?

There are no particularly reliable-seeming estimates of crowd sizes.

13. Which candidate got more contributions from voters within the state over the last six weeks of the campaign?

This data is slightly out of date, but in the 1Q filing period, Joe Sestak got $200,287 in itemized donations from 382 Pennsylvanians, and Arlen Specter got $310,691 from 465. That’s quite close as fundraising goes, but we’ll go Specter +1.

14. Which candidate has run the more positive, optimistic campaign, and will leave voters feeling better about themselves as they exit the polling place?

The campaign has turned fairly nasty all-around, as primary challenges often do. No points awarded here.

15. Which candidate’s party controls the state’s electoral and judicial apparatus, in the event of a recount or otherwise disputed election?

It’s very tenuous to apply this criterion in a primary, but we’ll give Specter +1 point as he’s more closely-connected with the machine.

Final score: Sestak 10, Specter 4.

The intangibles seem to favor Sestak, which is why I’d peg him as probably a 3:1 favorite — a somewhat more aggressive line than can probably be justified based on the polling alone. If Specter wins, it may be a story of African-American turnout. On the other hand, fundamentally, I’m not sure how much Specter can rely on getting voters to get up off the couch and vote for him, when they’re not used to punching his ticket and when he hasn’t run an especially good campaign. If his turnout lags, the margin could creep into the double digits.

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