The bread-and-butter issues that traditionally steer election outcomes remain bleak for Democrats heading into the final months of the 2022 midterm election campaign, according to the latest poll of Pennsylvania voters conducted by Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Opinion Research.

Registered voters’ low opinions of Joe Biden’s performance as president, the state of the economy and their own personal financial situations are largely unchanged since F&M released its last poll in May.

Just 34% of voters rank Biden’s job performance as “excellent” or “good,” the same level of support found in May. And only 12% said their personal financial situation was better than a year ago, three points lower than the 15% who said so in May.

Still, this midterm election year looks slightly different for the party out of power than the last one in 2018, according to Berwood Yost, the head of the F&M Center for Opinion Research. 

“The data in 2018 was probably stronger for the Democrats than the current circumstances for the Republicans,” Yost said. “Trump’s approval rating was similar to Biden’s, but the generic ballot had Democrats ahead by 9 points in congressional races,” he said, noting that the GOP edge in the same measure this year is just 2 points.

“While Republicans have an edge,” he added, “it doesn’t seem to be as strong as the last midterm.”

But pocketbook issues could boost GOP candidates up and down the ballot. The “right/wrong direction” results of the new F&M survey showed just 27% of voters said “things in Pennsylvania are generally headed in the right direction,” compared with 61% who say it’s on the wrong track.

Both numbers are slightly better – by 2 points in each case – than they were in May. But at this point in 2018, 46% of registered voters thought things in the state were on the right track, compared with 36% who said it was on the wrong track.

“Understanding how people feel about the economy and their personal finances helps us understand that this should be a good year for Republican candidates,” Yost said. “There’s a clear path here if Republicans are able to nationalize the race and tie Democrats to the president and to talk more about jobs.”

Dems ahead in statewide races

The new poll’s results show that Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman, the Democrats’ candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, respectively, continue to lead their Republican opponents by sizable amounts. 

And both Democrats are more popular with their own party’s voters and command more support from independents than either Doug Mastriano or Mehmet Oz, the GOP nominees for governor and U.S. Senate.

In a head-to-head matchup, the poll showed Shapiro leading Mastriano 44% to 33%, with 19% undecided. Among Democrats, just 6% said they were planning to vote for Mastriano, compared with 10% of Republicans who said they plan to vote for Shapiro. Twenty-one percent of Republican voters said they were still undecided in the governor’s race, compared with just 14% of Democrats.

Among independents, Shapiro leads with 40% to Mastriano’s 24%, with 27% undecided.

The matchups in the Senate race show Fetterman leading Oz 43% to 30%, with 20% undecided. Nine percent of Democrats said they plan to vote for Oz or a third-party candidate, while 16% of Republicans said they were either planning to vote for Fetterman or a third-party choice.  

For senator, more Republicans said they were undecided – 22% – than Democrats, 15%. Fetterman leads among independents, 34% to 17% for Oz, but fully 34% of independents say they are undecided.

Abortion wildcard

The U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade in June appears to have boosted support among Pennsylvania voters for abortion rights. The last F&M poll, in May, showed 85% of registered voters believed abortion should be legal in all or some circumstances. The August survey showed that number climbing to 89%. 

While 14% of respondents said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances in May, that number was just 11% in the August survey. 

Yost said it’s hard to pinpoint abortion as the issue that’s lifting Democrats’ fortunes. Gas prices have declined every week since May, and Biden has had some legislative success, passing a high-tech job creation package and a larger budget and tax plan that includes subsidies for health care and incentives for green jobs.

“Something has changed since May,” Yost said. “We see more Democrats interested in the election now than told us they were then. In our May poll, 50% of Democrats said they were very interested in the election, while Republicans were at 58-59%. This time, it was more than 60% for Democrats and about the same for Republicans.”

Yost said the current climate is “confusing, because normally the midterms are about the president. But the Dobbs decision (overturning Roe), and maybe the gun decision (invalidating local gun control efforts), changed the narrative,” Yost said.

The weakness of Mastriano and Oz, so far, “says to me that with this additional interest (in abortion), Democrats can win these races.”

He added: “We’ve just never had an election when what is perceived as a fundamental right has been taken away. There’s no exact historical parallel.”

How the poll was conducted

F&M’s Center for Opinion Research interviewed 522 registered Pennsylvania voters between Aug. 15 and Sunday.  Voters were contacted in advance by mail, and interviews were conducted by phone or online. 

The sample included 234 Democrats, 214 Republicans and 74 independents – proportions matching Pennsylvania’s statewide mix of registered voters. The respondents were also asked to self identify their party preference, which showed that 229 identified as Republicans, 212 as Democrats, 52 as independents “and the balance not offering a response.” The survey’s margin of error is 5.3 percentage points.

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