Pennsylvania Sen. Casey (D) Moved from Safe to Favored

October 19, 2012 · 2:00 PM EDT

Is Sen. Bob Casey (D) this year’s October surprise?

The Pennsylvania Democrat’s re-election race was largely ignored for most of the cycle until recently when multiple public polls showed him in a surprisingly tight contest with wealthy businessman Tom Smith.

In the last 10 days, five polls have been released that show a close contest but all with the senator leading within the margin of error: Quinnipiac Univ. (+3 points), Muhlenberg College (+2), McLaughlin & Assoc. for Smith’s campaign (+2), and two IVR polls, Rasmussen Reports (+4) and Pulse Opinion Research (+3) for an outside Republican group. That flurry of surveys created the buzz surrounding Casey’s vulnerability.

A newly-released IVR poll, from Harrisburg-based Susquehanna Polling and Research (R), conducted October 11-13 (about a week ago) for the state Republican Party is likely to add to the frenzy. It found Republican Smith leading by two points, 48 percent to 46 percent, and Mitt Romney leading President Barack Obama in the state, 49 percent to 45 percent.

But other polling paints a fundamentally different picture of the race. A bipartisan poll conducted by Global Strategy Group (D) and National Research (R) showed Casey with a 10-point advantage (48 percent to 38 percent). A Public Policy Polling (D) (IVR) survey had Casey with a similar 51 percent to 39 percent edge. And on Friday, the Casey campaign released its internal poll, conducted by Garin Hart Yang, that confirmed the senator’s double-digit lead.

Both parties agree that there has been movement in the race -- nobody believes that Casey leads by 18 points, as he did in a July Quinnipiac survey for CBS News and the New York Times -- but that doesn’t mean that Casey is on the brink of political retirement.

Casey started the race with a large lead over an unknown candidate who had never run for office before. Through the course of the Republican primary, into the general election, and through the end of the summer, Smith used his own personal money (at least $16 million so far) to blanket Pennsylvania televisions with ads. That spending advantage helped Smith gain ground, but he likely was getting him up to the “normal” Republican vote in the state.

What is important in projecting forward is where the race stands at this point and how it is likely to develop between now and November 6.

Now, Casey is advertising heavily on television, and spending between the two candidates is much closer to even.

As for where the two Senate candidates currently stand on the ballot test, we do not believe that this is a two-point race. Instead, we have greater confidence in those surveys, public and private, that show the race to be in the 6 to 10 point range.

The last three Republican presidential nominees in the state have drawn 44 percent, 48 percent and 46 percent. It’s unlikely that Romney will win the state -- which undermines our confidence in state surveys that show him leading there now -- but it is also difficult to imagine the president, who won the state with 54.5 percent four years ago, carrying the state with much more than 52 percent or 53 percent of the vote.

Given the polarization nationally and in the state, it wouldn’t be surprising for Smith to approach the Romney vote. But Casey isn’t Obama, and the senator’s Northeast Pennsylvania roots, family name and blue collar appeal, even in Western Pennsylvania, should allow him to outperform Obama statewide by at least a few points.

So, if you believe that the president is likely to win the Keystone State, even if it is with “only” 52 or 53 percent, it is difficult to believe that Smith will overtake Casey. Of course, Smith could still get 45 percent or 46 percent of the vote (maybe even a couple of points higher), but we remain deeply skeptical that a number of the public surveys in the state have much predictive value.

Still, we cannot totally discount all of the surveys showing a tightening race, and 2012 has already been such a surprising election – with contradictory polling – that we can’t simply leave the Pennsylvania Senate race in our “Safe Democrat” category. We are therefore moving it to “Democrat Favored” to reflect at least some uncertainty where the race is.

Our “Democrat Favored” category is the least competitive of our competitive categories, and readers (and the Smith campaign) should not read the move as a fundamental change in our assessment of the race. Casey remains a solid favorite in the race.