Pennsylvanians say they are worse off now than they were a year ago and believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to the results of a Franklin & Marshall College poll released Thursday. Those views helped knock President Joe Biden’s approval rating to a new low in the poll and signals problems for Democrats as the 2022 midterm election approaches.

More than one-in-three Pennsylvania voters (35%) said they are “worse off” financially than they were a year ago, the poll found, and 30% of respondents said they expect to be “worse off” financially a year from now.

Voters’ outlook on their personal finances hasn’t been this low since 2010, right before Democrats lost control of Congress in that year’s midterm elections, said Berwood Yost, the executive director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll.

The college’s Center for Opinion Research surveyed 490 registered voters in Pennsylvania from Feb. 21 through Feb. 27, including 223 Democrats, 200 Republicans and 67 independents (reflecting the voter registration edge still enjoyed by Democrats in the state). Participants completed the survey by phone or online, depending on their preference. The poll has a sample error of 6.1 percentage points.

Biden lost significant ground among self-identified Democrats, independents and moderates. The president’s approval rating dropped 20 percentage points, from 78% to 58%, among Democrats, and by 12 points among moderates (dropping from 50% to 38%), according to the poll. Support among independents declined by 13 points, from 38% to 25%.

Biden will need to regain support from those groups if Democrats have any hope of avoiding a Republican wave in November, Yost said.

“Voters aren’t wild about the president’s performance, and that has consequences,” Yost added.

Biden’s overall approval rating (30%) reflects a significant drop from what the last Franklin & Marshall College poll results showed last summer. In August, Biden had 41% overall approval, and three months earlier he had 44% approval.

The decline can be mostly attributed to inflation in the economy and ongoing concerns about its economic outlook, Yost said. But the president’s approval rating is similar to where former President Donald Trump’s was after his first year as president, according to the results of past F&M polls.

The poll showed Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf with low support as he enters the last 10 months of his term. Thirty-seven percent of voters said Wolf was doing a “good” or “excellent” job, down from 42% in October and 52% in July 2020. Sixty-percent of voters said Wolf was doing a “poor” or “fair” job in the most recent survey.

U.S. Senate race ‘wide open’

The poll shows the Democratic and Republican primary races for the U.S. Senate remain “wide open,” Yost said. Approximately 53% of Republicans still don’t know who they’ll support, and 44% of Democrats are still unsure, according to the poll.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, is retiring at the end of this year after two terms in office.

Voter support for the primary candidates, at this point in the race, is largely influenced by whether the voters recognize a candidate or have heard the candidate’s name, Yost said.

On the GOP side, that reality favors former daytime TV host Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick. While both men have been in the Republican primary race for just a few months, they and the political action committees supporting them have spent millions of dollars on TV commercials over the past month.

As a result, the poll showed McCormick leading the pack with 13% of Republican voters saying they’d support him, followed by former U.S. ambassador Carla Sands and Oz, with 11% and 10% support, respectively

Conversations with local voters show the GOP nomination remains up for grabs. Before a McCormick campaign event in Lancaster city on Monday, Jim and Jennifer Lewis said they were still unsure who they’ll support and were still trying to learn where the candidates stand on the issues. Similarly, Chris and Carl Kowalski said they didn’t know who they’ll be supporting in May.

But both couples – the Lewises of Landisville, and the Kowalskis of East Petersburg – said they had only heard that Oz and McCormick are in the GOP race, thanks to the two candidates’ domination in television advertising.

“It’s becoming increasingly more important to know who you’re voting for,” Jim Lewis said. “It’s critical we select the right leaders at this time.”

On the Democratic side, the poll showed Lt. Gov. John Fetterman with a strong, but not decisive lead. Twenty-eight percent of Democratic voters said they’d support Fetterman if the election was held tomorrow, while U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb of Allegheny County received 15% support, and 2% said they’d support state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia.

Approximately 23% of Republican voters and 13% of Democrats said their decision on which candidate to support will be based on the state of the U.S. economy, specifically the issues of inflation and employment, according to the poll.

The poll’s generic question about congressional races found Republican U.S. House candidates holding a four-point advantage over their Democrats, with 42% of voters saying they’d vote for the GOP candidate for House if the election were held tomorrow, opposed to 38% who said they’d vote for the Democrat.

Pollsters at F&M did not ask about the campaign to succeed Gov. Wolf. While Attorney General Josh Shapiro is unchallenged on the Democratic side, there are still more than a dozen GOP candidates competing in the primary.

Yost said in an email that there were still “too many candidates to do it well,” and that his team intends to survey voters about the governors race once it’s certain who will appear on the May ballot.

Other polls have shown state Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County, businessman Dave White of Delaware County, and former U.S. attorney Bill McSwain of Philadelphia leading the crowded field.

Frustrations clear

For the first time, Franklin & Marshall asked respondents about whether the state constitution should be changed as a way of resolving standoffs between the state Legislature and governor. The Republican Legislature took this route last year when it came to Gov. Wolf’s COVID-19 policies, sending an amendment to the voters to limit the governor’s emergency powers. Voters approved the measure in May, requiring governors to go to the Legislature to approve an extension of any emergency declaration.

More than half of Pennsylvania voters said they favor such use of constitutional amendments when legislators and the governor can’t agree on a policy change.

That support for constitutional amendments – plus the fact that 19% of voters said government and politicians are the “most important problem” facing Pennsylvania right now – are clear signs that Pennsylvanians are frustrated with the way the government is run, Yost said.

“We have to have a debate about the way we govern,” Yost said. “Nobody’s fully happy with it. People are looking for some changes. Whenever we talk about changes to government or reforms, whether it’s redistricting reform or reforming the operations of the state House and Senate, there’s always a majority in favor of those things.”

Abortion

With a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade expected by the end of June, the poll showed a slim majority of Pennsylvanians (53%) believe abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, and 31% said it should be legal under any circumstances, the poll found. Just 13% of voters said abortions should be illegal under all circumstances.

Guns

Pennsylvanians are split on the issue of gun control, the poll showed. Fifty-percent of respondents said they “strongly” or “somewhat” favor laws regulating gun ownership, while 47% said they opposed them “somewhat” or “strongly.”

Liquor stores

According to the poll, one governmental change that has a narrow majority of support from voters (52%) is privatizing Pennsylvania’s state-owned liquor stores. Yost noted a slight majority of voters has consistently supported privatization for the past decade.

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