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Thomas Becker fills out his ballot at the Wisdom's Table at St Peter's UCC on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden continues to lead President Donald J. Trump in Pennsylvania among registered voters, according to a Franklin & Marshall College Poll released Thursday.

Biden leads the president by 9 percentage points (49% to 40%), with about 10% of the state’s registered voters undecided or supporting a third-party candidate. The survey carries a 6.5% margin of error, meaning the race could be much closer with Trump narrowly leading or Biden commanding even larger support.

The standings in the presidential contest have remained largely unchanged over the past two months, with the F&M poll showing Biden leading the president 49%-42% in August and 50%-41% in July.

The F&M poll surveyed 625 registered Pennsylvania voters between Sept. 14-20. Of the respondents, 296 were registered Democrats, 250 were registered Republicans, and 79 were independents. That breakdown matches the makeup of Pennsylvania’s registered voters, where Democrats make up a plurality (47%) of the electorate.

The F&M polling in 2016 at this point in the race showed Democrat Hillary Clinton leading Trump 43% to 39%. Berwood Yost, the director of F&M’s Center for Opinion Research, said the big difference between this year and 2016  is the portion of voters who say they are undecided. Twenty percent of voters at this point in 2016 said they were voting for a third-party candidate or were undecided, and many of those voters shifted to Trump in the final week of the race. This year, that percentage is half that size, at just 11%, meaning there are fewer voters available for either candidate to pick up.

Another difference, Yost said, is that this year Trump is running as the incumbent. “The conventional wisdom,” he said, “is that most undecideds won’t vote for the incumbent.”

Beyond the head-to-head matchup between the president and his Democratic opponent, the poll found 40% of voters have a strong or somewhat favorable opinion about Trump, with 80% of Republicans giving the president excellent or good marks. Ninety-four percent of Democrats rated the president’s job performance as fair or poor.

When asked their opinion about which candidate is better able to deal with specific issues, Biden leads by large margins on most, including “best understands the concerns of ordinary Americans” (53% Biden, 36% Trump) and “most honest and trustworthy” (52% Biden, 28% Trump).

The candidates were more closely ranked on who is “most prepared to handle the economy” (48% Trump, 46% Biden) and “will change government policies in a way that makes your life better” (46% Biden, 40% Trump).

Yost noted that in 2012, then-President Barack Obama was successful in raising his job approval numbers in the final months of the campaign, winding up above 50% by Election Day. But Trump isn’t following that same strategy, he said, focusing instead on mobilizing and energizing his core supporters. 

“The fact that Pennsylvania voters still believe he [Trump] has the advantage on economic matters” gives the president a possible edge, especially when coupled with a Trump strategy of getting every one of his supporters to the polls, Yost said.

High enthusiasm among Republicans is indicated by GOP gains in voter registration over the past four years, Yost said. While Democrats maintain a 560,000 voter lead in registration, that number is far down from where it stood even four years ago.

On the flip side, Yost said, an incumbent president who is not popular and has a low job approval rating “is quite vulnerable.”

As was the case in 2016, the F&M survey found that the state’s voters are highly engaged in the campaign. Ninety-seven percent of respondents said they are “certain to vote” in the election. Among registered Republicans, 92% said they are “absolutely certain” to vote to reelect President Trump, while 97% of registered Democrats said the same about Joe Biden.

A majority of voters (60%) said they plan to vote in-person on Nov. 3, with 37% saying they will vote using a mail-in or absentee ballot. Overall, most voters (58%) said they strongly or somewhat favor the use of mail-in ballots, while just 38% oppose them. Similarly, 59% of voters said they are very or somewhat confident the state’s voter results will be accurate if mail-in voting is widely used, compared with 40% saying they are somewhat or not at all confident.

Republican voters were more likely to express no confidence (66%) in the accurate tabulation of mail-in ballots, but Democrats were overwhelmingly confident (83%) on this point. Among independents, that sentiment was evenly split (51% confident, 49% not confident).

Among all registered voters, 25% said the most important challenge facing Pennsylvania is the COVID-19 epidemic. The virus’ impact on the economy is reflected in the poll results as well, as 14% of respondents said unemployment or personal finances was the biggest challenge facing the state, and 10% said it was the economy overall.