I take issue with some of the "wide lead" talk concerning Arlen Specter's position in the Democratic primary polling relative to Joe Sestak. This isn't a new development: that I have an issue or that the media is talking up the numbers without digging terribly deeply into them. And for the record, Political Wire is technically right. It is a wide lead.
But is that what we should be focused on at this point in the race?
The margin isn't what matters. At this point, Specter's position in the polls relative to the 50% mark is what's important. And the Republican-turned-Democrat is hovering just over that point currently. The other thing to eye is the fluctuation in the level of undecideds in this race. That number is important because of a few things that are likely to keep the number higher [than they would be minus these factors]. First, this race involves a Republican-turned-Democrat. Secondly, Sestak has not "officially" entered the race. And finally, it is very early in the process.
So early in fact, that polling wasn't conducted nearly so soon in the cycle the last time an incumbent Pennsylvania senator was challenged in a primary. And for that information you have to stretch all the way back to 2004 when a political unknown, Arlen Specter, was challenged in the Republican primary by Pat Toomey. What pattern can we glean from that data?
First of all, polling on the Specter/Toomey race did not begin until the fall of 2003 before the April 2004 primary. Polling in May and June of 2009, then, precedes that point in the senate electoral cycle. The starting point is largely the same for the candidates in the polls, though. You can see the trendline here (see "Matchup Poll Graph" on the right side). But what OurCampaign provides is the polling without verification of the sources and without that undecided number. So let's look at the polling data and a better graphic of the trends from the fall of 2003 through primary day in Pennsylvania in late April of 2004.
The thing is that Specter jumped above the 50% mark in a few polls but for the most part was stuck just under 50% throughout. All the movement, not to mention momentum, was with Toomey across the five months of polling in the campaign. The more undecideds decided, the more Toomey gained on Specter among likely (Republican) voters in the closed Pennsylvania primary.
If we contrast that with the average Pollster has for the six polls conducted in the last month and a half on this hypothetical Democratic primary race, we see that Sestak has already cut further into Specter's advantage without having even formally announced his intention to run. The 17 point advantage Specter now holds is more than half of what it was in the week after his switch to the Democratic party and all the Sestak talk began (The average of the three polls conducted during the first week in May had Specter up by 41 points.). The kicker is that that is with less than ten points having been cut off the undecideds value (The average undecided mark in those same three polls mentioned above was 21 points with the latest Rasmussen poll showing 13% undecided). In other words, Sestak is taking away from Specter more than he's picking up undecideds.
And it's still early (for polling in this race and for the levelling of wide lead charges).
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