It's His Answer and He's Sticking To It

05/04/2009 11:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mark Blumenthal Mark Blumenthal is the Head of Election Polling at SurveyMonkey.

Newly Democratic Senator Arlen Specter was a guest of NBC's Meet the Press yesterday and once again cited internal polling as a reason for switching parties. David Gregory asked Specter what had changed since he said last month that he was trying to "bring back voters to the Republican party" because "we need balance" and "we need a second party." Here is Specter's response:   

SEN. SPECTER: Well, well, since that time I undertook a very thorough survey of Republicans in Pennsylvania with polling and a lot of personal contacts, and it became apparent to me that my chances to be elected on the Republican ticket were, were bleak. And I'm simply not going to subject my 29-year record in the United States Senate to that Republican primary electorate.

An article in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer also dug deeper into the the numbers behind Specter's defection and got even more comment on that final internal poll (via Smith):

Specter, 79, said his decision to switch was sealed after final survey results from his own campaign pollster, Glen Bolger, came in April 24.

"The most important number was the approval rating - it dropped from the 60s to 31" percent just in the last few months, Specter said.

Not that long ago, Specter drew standing ovations from mostly conservative crowds around the state as he stumped with Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

But the stimulus vote was a "watershed," Specter said. "It all turned on that. The pollsters had never seen that kind of precipitous drop. It was stark."

The survey found Specter trailing Toomey among Republicans by 15 percentage points in a three-way matchup with antiabortion candidate Peg Luksik, according to sources familiar with the findings. More important, a large majority of those listed as undecided described themselves as "conservative" or "very conservative," meaning that "the pool was such we couldn't overcome" the deficit, one source said.

"The numbers reflected the exodus of moderates from the party in the eastern part of the state," said the source, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the results.

As noted here last week, it is not at all unusual for a U.S. Senator or member of Congress to conduct an internal poll to assess their standing and their chances for reelection. It is not at all surprising for those results to influence their decision about whether to run for reelection, retire, or seek higher office. What is unusual, however, is to hear an elected official speak so candidly about the role polling played in such a big decision.

And that gets to the nub of the issue with Specter. He is being candid -- not a trait typically associated with a politician -- yet his candor illustrates what many see as opportunism. One striking aspect of last year's presidential election was the extent to which those who succeeded, even temporarily (Obama, McCain, Huckabee and Palin), were more likely to be perceived as authentic and a departure from typical politics, while those they defeated (Clinton, Edwards and Romney) were more often seen as more political and packaged.

So how will Pennsylvania voters perceive a politician who is, as the LA Times' Doyle McManus put it (via Kurtz), "cheerfully open about the cynicism of his move?" 

It is probably too early to tell from the new Quinnipiac poll, released this morning.  Yes, it was fielded since Specter's announcement last week, but it lacks any questions aimed specifically at Specter's perceived motives or authenticity.  That said, the initial reactions appear to work to Specter's advantage, as both his favorable rating (up from 45% to 52%) and the percentage who say he deserves reelection (up from 38% to 49%) have increased since late March. 

Not surprisingly, much of the immediate improvement measured by the Quinnipiac poll comes from Democrats (and is somewhat offset by further declines among Republicans), but it also includes significant positive movement from political independents: In late March, note quite a third of independents (32%) said that Specter deserves to be reelected, while nearly half (49%) said he did not deserve reelection. Now, independents are evenly divided (44% to 44%) on whether Specter should be returned to office.

For the moment at least, Specter's switch may helped him with Pennsylvania's moderates.  Only time will tell.