The Specter Myth

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

"He can win a General Election."

"Independents and Democrats love him."

"No other Republican can win the General Election."

These are the common argument s advanced by Republican Party officials and political pundits alike when defending Arlen Specter just before his imminent primary rematch with former Congressman Pat Toomey.

With this battle royal about commence many pundits and GOP activists are concerned that if Arlen Specter were to lose in a primary Republicans could lose the Senate seat. They cite electability as the main reason for not dumping Arlen in the primary in favor of a more principled candidate.

However, what they don’t realize is that Arlen Specter’s general election numbers are at an all time low. In fact, he is 15 points lower than Rick Santorum was at this point leading up to his 2006 drubbing. Consider these facts: in late February of 2005, Rick Santorum had a "deserves re-election " number of 53% according to the Quinnipiac Poll taken that time and a 30 % "does not deserve re-elect." Despite his relatively positive reelect numbers, Santorum was losing a prospective matchup to then Treasurer Bob Casey according to that same poll.

Specter’s numbers are much more dismal. Specter, in March of 2009, had a "deserves re-elect" of 38% and 41% "does not deserve" re-elect. Fifteen points lower that Santorum and dangerously low numbers for a 30 year incumbent. If we scratch the surface even further, we will see why these numbers spell doom for Specter and furthermore, why they won’t likely improve his chances for renomination next May or re-election in November of 2010.
In the past, Senator Specter has won re-election by garnering virtually all Republicans, a majority of Independents and a healthy slice of Democrat crossover voters. This fragile coalition is crumbling underneath his feet as you read this.

First, if Specter were to survive his 2010 GOP primary, which is a BIG IF, he still would have a record low approval rating (currently 25%- 30% approval) among Republican voters and could face a mass defection of these voters in general election to a conservative third party candidate. Unlike in 2004, where Specter received 84% of the Republican vote in the general election, he is likely to only attract only 55- 60% of GOP voters this time around given his tarnished standing among the GOP ranks. This leaves the remaining share of votes to likely go to Libertarian/Constitutional candidates and the Democrat to be named later.

The recent polls also suggest that the other leg of Specter’s fragile coalition is disintegrating rapidly, that being his support with independents. In the past, independents were a cornerstone of his successful re-election bids but his standing among independents is at an all-time low and yes, worse than Rick Santorum’s at this time during his campaign. Santorum had a 44% to 35% in favor of "deserves re-elect" while Specter has 49% to 32% "does not deserve re-elect" among independent voters.

While Arlen Specter does seem to poll well among Democrats and he is likely to get his traditional 25% of Democrats supporting him the other two legs of this electoral coalition are crumbling. The large scale erosion of support for Specter among Republicans and independents is what truly jeopardizes his re-election prospects in November of 2010.

Now, people might say "well they can improve" in a year’s time, but that is also unlikely for two reasons. For Republicans, his deciding vote for Obama’s "Stimulus Bill" was the last straw. He has done irreparable damage within that segment, which already greatly distrusts him and assuming he survives his primary, his disapproval will be at a record high among the GOP faithful.

With the independents, Specter faces something that many career Pennsylvania politicians eventually face if they stay in office too long: Specter fatigue. Pennsylvania has a history of throwing out career politicians with decent approval ratings (Dick Thornburgh). Adding to that sentiment is an ailing economy; Specter’s steadfast support of every bailout to come down the pike; his addiction to earmarks and his unyielding support for the business-as-usual culture all of which independent voters despise. Specter’s number among independents are only to get worse.

Assuming Specter gets out of a primary election and he runs as a Republican, there is very good chance he doesn’t survive. There is talk that Specter might run as an independent and that might be his only path to victory. Conventional wisdom among pollsters seems to think that without the GOP label, Specter could cobble together a 40 -45% coalition of voters including many who would have never voted for him solely because he always had a R next to his name. And yes, there are plenty of those types of voters out there.

Could this happen? Would this be plausible? It is too early to tell. But one thing for sure is that Specter would face a tougher challenge than ANY other Republican candidate running for the U.S. Senate because of his current dismal standing among key segments of the electorate. It is an electorate that is hostile to the status quo, careerist politicians and one that is seeking a new face who is a break from the past. The Republicans might have a chance of saving that seat if they put up any candidate but Arlen Specter.

(Ryan Shafik is the Communications Director for the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His e-mail address is [email protected])

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