The Swing States: Undecided Pennsylvania Voters Could be Key for Barack Obama and John McCain

Polls show Obama lead in the state after the first presidential debate.

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MEDIA, Pa.—Kate Urban is this political season’s electoral gold: an undecided voter in a state that, with western neighbor Ohio and the 41 electoral votes between them, could very well decide who will occupy the White House on January 20.

And here in Philadelphia's western suburbs, a traditionally Republican area that's now one of the Keystone State's most crucial swing areas, the party nominees have been mining that gold. On this day, Republican John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, would attract thousands to the steps of the Delaware County Courthouse, including Urban, 71, and her sister, Loretta Ross, 63, both drawn by curiosity about the Palin phenomenon. A few days earlier, Democratic nominee Barack Obama's running mate, Joseph Biden, a Scranton native, had been campaigning just up the road.

The candidates' quarry? Ambivalent voters like Urban, a longtime Republican from nearby Darby who says she reluctantly supported George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 but switched parties this year so she could vote for Hillary Clinton in her winning effort in the state's Democratic primary. But when the former first lady conceded the nomination to Obama, Urban was left without a candidate and uncertain about whether she'd return to the GOP. "I'm not leaning either way; I want to feel something," says Urban, who, along with her sister, an Obama-leaning Democrat, was taking advantage of the afternoon sun on a park bench before the GOP rally. "I want to pick the right one," she says.

Though McCain and Obama had been locked in a too-close-to-call contest (most pollsters had been rating the state a toss-up), the ground in recent weeks has been shifting. A new Franklin and Marshall College poll taken in the midst of Congress's economic bailout turmoil and in the days before and after the candidates' recent debate shows that Obama has gained ground on McCain in the state, or, more precisely, McCain's support has eroded. And even more disturbing for the McCain camp was last week's Quinnipiac University Swing State Poll that showed that Obama surged to a 54-39 percent lead in Pennsylvania after the September 26 presidential debate, a dramatic improvement over his 49-43 percent edge before the square-off. "The fundamentals are moving in Obama's favor," says G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall poll. Obama not only bumped up his lead over McCain, but more than 60 percent of registered voters in the state now say the Democrat "best understands the concerns of ordinary Americans," up from 55 percent in August. McCain dropped from 32 percent to 28 percent in that category. Obama was preferred by 45 percent of registered voters polled by Madonna's group, and McCain by 38 percent. A month earlier, Obama led McCain 44 percent to 36 percent.

McCain's decline has come despite the boost he got after he named Palin as his running mate. "Governor Palin had a profound influence here on [lb]the base of the Republican Party," Madonna says. "McCain had been running six to seven points behind Obama in Pennsylvania before he named her, and that was cut to about three points, and Palin was the difference." Though she remains a huge draw at Republican rallies, her influence on the top-of-the-ticket race has clearly waned. Obama has increased his lead in the state among women, picked up support among veterans, and now dominates McCain 52 percent to 24 percent among independents.

In this tumultuous economic time, however, the number of voters who have yet to make up their minds suggests that McCain could still scramble the field. The Franklin and Marshall poll found that 20 percent of independent voters said they were undecided, up from 14 percent in August. Thirteen percent of both Republicans and Democrats remain undecided. And political observers expect that Republicans learned some lessons from Hillary Clinton, who appealed to working-class voters by portraying Obama as an elitist and questioning whether his values meshed with blue-collar voters she won in places like Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. (Madonna predicts that Biden's presence on the Democratic ticket will ultimately have little effect on the contest's outcome.)[etk]