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How the Pennsylvania Senate race got so close

The state of the Oz-Fetterman Senate race, explained by three Pennsylvania pollsters.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the state’s Democratic candidate for US Senate, takes part in a campaign event in York, Pennsylvania, on October 8.
Matt Rourke/AP
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

This past summer, polling had Lt. Gov.John Fetterman up by as much as 12 points in the Pennsylvania Senate race, a sizable lead in a swing state that’s typically pretty close.

Fetterman’s support raised Democrats’ hopes of flipping the seat, particularly since President Joe Biden won there in the last cycle. Since then, however, the race has tightened considerably, a byproduct of Republican voters “coming home” to candidate Mehmet Oz, and GOP investments in attack ads going after Fetterman’s record on crime. Fetterman now leads Oz by six points, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling roundup.

“I think [the crime messaging] is what has changed the trajectory of the race so far,” says Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall College. In a sign of how close the race has become, Cook Political Report also shifted its rating from Lean Democrat to Toss Up.

These changes come as Republicans have spent millions criticizing Fetterman on the decisions he made as the Chair of the state’s Board of Pardons, including an increase in commutations and pardons. Republicans have argued that Fetterman is “soft on crime” and releasing dangerous criminals, while the Fetterman notes that he’s focused on those who were wrongly convicted and nonviolent offenders.

“The spending by the Oz campaign ... has helped get that race closer to where we expected it to be,” said Yost.

Vox talked with Yost and two other Pennsylvania pollsters to get a sense of how the race has shifted in the last few months, how it could still change, and which voters remain persuadable. Their answers were edited for length and clarity.

What is your reaction to the polls tightening in the Pennsylvania Senate race? How much of that is expected and how much of it has been surprising to you?

Berwood Yost, Director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin and Marshall College: First, Senate races in Pennsylvania, traditionally are tight. So it’s not unusual. You go back to 2000, I think the average margin in the Senate races is about three points.

And then on top of that, we knew that there was going to be a lot of money spent given what’s at stake. The spending by the Oz campaign really, I think, has been effective in the last month and has helped get that race closer to where we expected it to be. Frankly, there wasn’t much being done over the summer, which allowed the race to probably be more one-sided.

There was [also] a very divisive [Republican] primary. Oz won the primary with the smallest share of the statewide vote in 100 years for one of these elections. There were a lot of candidates, and it would take some time to bring Republicans home, so to speak, because of that. But what he started doing since really the end of summer is effectively spending his money primarily talking about crime issues.

Jim Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling and Research (a firm that includes Republicans as clients): We’ve never believed the polling that shows that this was a double-digit race for Fetterman. So our last poll, we had Fetterman up by five.

He had done a really good job of solidifying his base. I mean, he was getting almost 90 percent of the Democratic vote in our mid-August poll, whereas Oz was underperforming with Republicans because he had such a brutal primary.

What’s changed is, if you’re watching the ads here, it’s all about Fetterman’s record as Chairman of the Board of Pardons.

Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion: Oz certainly maintains his high unfavorables. But Fetterman’s unfavorables have risen, making for a number of voters a choice between two unfavorable candidates, and when that happens ... sometimes it’s the out party that does best in those situations because it’s a vote for a different direction.

How effective have you seen the attacks on crime be against Fetterman, and have you seen him provide a decisive response?

Berwood Yost: I think it’s what has changed the trajectory of the race so far. There were a number of early ideas, and maybe some attacks and nothing really resonated.

The constant drumbeat of the crime messaging, I think, does a lot of things for the Oz campaign. It helps define Fetterman in a way that he hadn’t been defined before. So it isn’t just that they’re talking about him and his time on the Pardons Board. But it opens up a broader range of issues that maybe Fetterman is too liberal for the state as a whole. So crime is sort of the entree to that discussion, but it makes people think about what else is going on.

Last week, Fetterman issued a rebuttal that I thought was pretty good, where he has a police officer talking about the kinds of people he wants to let out of jail, and how that’s going to not harm public safety, and in fact, save taxpayer money. So, I think that was an effective ad, and he needs to get out more of that messaging.

Jim Lee: We’ve seen constantly in all of our polling and all the states we’ve been serving [that] crime, inflation, abortion, and gas prices are really the top issues that voters most care about right now. And three of those four, with the exception of abortion, seem to be ones that Republicans are better positioned on. So I think that that’s going to be a very, very consequential issue.

In terms of the ads, [Fetterman] had an ad running. And it’s people in uniform, like law enforcement, saying that Oz is lying, and that he only is letting people out who are nonviolent, who have minor drug offenses, and that he’s not soft on crime.

Chris Borick: People, especially older voters in key areas like Southeastern Pennsylvania, are concerned about crime and feel that it’s a growing problem. And so you target the issue and create a frame that paints the worst possible picture of your opponent, and that’s what Oz has done and I would argue fairly successfully over the last month.

What about Republicans’ attempts to go after his health and fitness after he had a stroke earlier this year?

Berwood Yost: I’m sure that for some people, that line of attack works. But, frankly, that line of attack was something we were hearing all summer long. And it didn’t seem to change much.

I mean, the race really seemed to change when the discussion was centered around Fetterman’s crime policies and crime positions. That’s when it seemed to me that things changed. I mean, everybody knew he had a stroke. Everyone knew about his health. I mean, our polls indicate that 80 percent of voters know about that. So I didn’t think it made a big difference. I think it was the crime messaging that really sort of changed things.

With that in mind: Could it still make a difference? Of course it could. Because if we get to the debate, and voters see Fetterman perhaps not performing well to the point they don’t think he can represent their interests, well, then it becomes an issue. But I think at this point, it’s sort of been secondary.

Jim Lee: To me, it’s the crime message that is really probably resonating and helping to solidify Oz’s support and winning back some of those swing voters.

Mehmet Oz (second from right), Pennsylvania’s Republican candidate for US Senate, takes part in a community discussion on safer streets in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, US, on September 30.
Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Chris Borick: I don’t think it has been effective [so far]. I think actually when more of the attention from the Oz campaign was focused on Fetterman’s work in criminal justice areas and positions on a variety of positions related to crime and incarceration, I think those attacks have been much more impactful than some of the attacks that were coming about Fetterman’s health.

I think the [NBC News] interview will only focus more attention on Fetterman’s health concerns and elevate the importance of the debate later this month. There is a modest pool of voters that have not locked in yet with either Oz or Fetterman, and the health issue is a factor that may creep into their final decision.

Conversely, what attacks have stuck with Oz?

Berwood Yost: I still think that he’s susceptible to the question about his recent move to Pennsylvania.

I think, in a state like Pennsylvania where people do take pride in their local communities, I think that’s still an avenue that could be a problem for him.

Jim Lee: I think that really, the ads that I’ve seen that paint him as an extremist because he’s pro-life will be a very, very effective message. And that’s why I think the Philly suburbs will be so important because when they look at Oz from a resume standpoint, he is one of them. And Oz, to me, never came off screaming right on abortion, like the way [GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug] Mastriano does. [Attacks on this issue still have] the potential to really hurt him with women and suburban voters.

Chris Borick: This continues to be the hurdle for Oz to get over, the attacks that have been throughout the year, actually, starting last January, December, about him being this TV doctor, with homes in Jersey and California and Turkey, trying to claim that he can represent Pennsylvania.

And then you layer in that it’s all smoke and mirrors, right? That ultimately, Oz is a charlatan in the sense that he doesn’t really connect to Pennsylvania and he uses his medical status to fool people and … he’s not to be trusted.

Who are the persuadable voters at this point?

Berwood Yost: You’ve got a sizable share of independent voters, which in Pennsylvania is about 13 or so percent of our registered voters. I think when we talk about candidates in this race, both of them probably have to make some appeals to independent and moderate voters. And at the moment, I think Fetterman has the advantage among those groups. So that’s why he’s leading, but there’s still ground to be made up.

I think the other thing that I’m looking at closely is the vote in Philadelphia and the suburbs, and seeing which candidate really can draw voters out of those suburban counties, out of Montgomery, Delaware, Chester, and Bucks County ... and engage and encourage urban voters to come out.

Jim Lee: Latino [voters] are not a big constituency in Pennsylvania, they only represent 6 or 8 percent of the state’s total votes on Election Day, but they just don’t seem as reliable anymore for the Democratic Party. So I see them as being approachable.

I think in the suburbs, you’re gonna see Oz probably overperform because, not necessarily suburban women, but suburban voters, particularly in the collar counties around Philadelphia, these are more highly educated, more affluent areas. He’s almost a prototypical suburban Philly candidate, like perfect for the Philly suburbs. He’s not your red-rock Republican kind of guy. He’s your country club Republican.

Chris Borick: There are voters that split tickets in Pennsylvania. And I think that’s a group that I’m really fascinated with this cycle. For example, is there a group of Oz-Shapiro voters in the Philly suburbs?

How are you accounting for the differences between the gubernatorial and Senate races? Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro is leading Doug Mastriano by a much larger margin compared to Fetterman and Oz in the Senate race.

Berwood Yost: I think, actually, you can go back to 2016 and see the way that Trump won the state versus the way Pat Toomey won the state to see that you can put together slightly different electoral coalitions. (Editor’s note: Trump won by roughly 0.7 percentage points that year, while Toomey won by 1.5 percentage points.) And so I think that it’s possible for Oz to appeal to more suburban voters than Mastriano will, but perhaps underperform among the rural voters. So that’s where we’ll see this split ticket come in.

There’s a lot of issues [on which] your traditional Republican might [think Mastriano is] going too far.

Jim Lee: This state does not have a history of electing extreme far-right candidates.

And Shapiro, let’s face it, he’s done just a hell of a job building an image in the state as a likable guy.

Chris Borick: [There’s a] group that you’re looking at that might be able to say, well, I can never support Doug Mastriano. He’s of the Trump ilk. But Oz, well, he got Trump’s support, but he seems not to be all-MAGA all the time.

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