'Uphill climb' for GOP: Wolf, Casey dominate new poll
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Gov. Tom Wolf led their likely Republican opponents by wide margins in the first major independent poll of their election races this year.
Casey, a Democrat, had the support of 43 percent of voters compared to 25 percent for Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, Hazleton, according to the Franklin & Marshall College poll released Wednesday.
Wolf, also a Democrat, topped each of the three major Republican governor candidates by at least 17 percentage points, with state Sen. Scott Wagner showing best in a head-to-head matchup against the governor.
Wolf led Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, by 38 percent to 21 percent; retired health care consultant Paul Mango, of Allegheny County, 49 percent to 22 percent; and lawyer Laura Ellsworth, of Allegheny County, 51 percent to 22 percent.
The poll surveyed 423 voters between March 19 and Monday. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 6.8 percentage points, meaning each number could be off by that much.
So far, Casey and Wolf seem poised to benefit from a wave of Democratic support expected in the Nov. 6 election, said G. Terry Madonna, the poll director.
“They (the Republicans) have a huge uphill climb in part because there’s a Democratic wave coming, the size of which we don’t know, so this looks like a pretty good year for Democrats,” Madonna said.
Wolf’s struggles over budgets with the Republican-led General Assembly and his early support of higher income and sales taxes haven’t hurt him, Madonna said. Two of the Republican governor candidates, Wagner and Mango, have begun engaging in “a bare-knuckled brawl,” attacking each other in television commercials, a move Madonna said doesn’t help either man.
“There’s no major controversy that I can think of (that hurts Wolf),” Madonna said. “People cite the budget imbroglios … but not a single state service was curtailed. … There are no big negatives that voters seem to cite when we talk about Wolf and Casey.”
The two Democrats start off with other advantages. More voters viewed Wolf and Casey favorably than unfavorably – 50 percent favorable and 32 percent unfavorable for Wolf and 43 percent and 25 percent for Casey.
For Barletta, it was 14 percent favorable and 13 percent unfavorable, but his bigger problem remains that 69 percent of voters don’t know enough about him to have an opinion.
The poll did not ask how favorably voters view the Republican governor candidates, who are generally less well-known than Barletta. The poll also did not test for the other Republican Senate candidates, Rep. Jim Christiana, R-15, Beaver County, and Joseph Vodvarka, of Allegheny County.
More voters, 42 percent, also prefer Democratic congressional candidates to Republican candidates, 35 percent, a question whose responses often signal underlying voter sentiment.
Another potential warning sign for Republicans: for the first time since 2009, more voters said the state is headed in the right direction, 46 percent, than said it is off on the wrong track, 40 percent.
“If the economy gets better, doesn’t that help incumbents (such as Casey and Wolf)?” Madonna asked.
A potential danger sign for Wolf and Casey: their job approval ratings.
Fewer voters, 43 percent, said Wolf is doing a good or excellent job, than said he is doing a fair or poor job, 49 percent.
For Casey, 37 percent of voters gave him an excellent or good rating compared to 43 percent fair or poor.
Madonna cautioned that voters’ “fair” rating doesn’t always break badly for a candidate. In fact, just before his 2012 re-election win, Casey’s job approval also stood at 37 percent excellent or good and 51 percent fair or poor.
Madonna said F&M polls over time have shown job approval ratings below 50 percent often don’t translate into election losses.
Barletta might have another problem: state voters’ favorable views of President Donald Trump have declined since the last F&M poll in September.
Back then, 43 percent viewed Trump strongly or somewhat favorably with 45 percent viewing him somewhat or strongly unfavorably. In the latest poll, Trump was down to 36 percent favorable and 60 percent unfavorable, but those numbers almost exactly matched the view of voters in October 2016, just before the president won Pennsylvania and the election.
Trump’s job approval among state voters remains well below that of Casey and Wolf, with 30 percent saying he’s doing an excellent or good job and 70 percent saying he’s doing a fair (16 percent) or poor (54 percent) job. By comparison, only 16 percent of voters think Wolf is doing a poor job and only 11 percent think that of Casey.
Barletta supported Trump early on in 2016, often introduced him at campaign rallies, sat on the president’s transition team and was considered for two Cabinet posts.
Barletta, Mango and Wagner continue to avidly support the president, Madonna said.
“Barletta was the first one to say ‘I was Trump before Trump.’ Folks have been describing him that way because of immigration,” he said. “Casey-Barletta is going to be a referendum on Trump, and Trump only won our state by 44,000 votes and his job performance remains weak.”
Casey has frequently criticized Trump but agreed with the president’s imposition of tariffs on trade with China and his rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“Casey has kept in touch with the working-class voters who elected Trump,” Madonna said. “That’s going to be helpful to him.”