Whether you like the old codger or not, Arlen Specter knows how to win elections. At least that’s what he and his surrogates have been telling Pennsylvania voters—over and over again—in his dead-heat senatorial primary race with Joe Sestak. “People recognize that I am the only guy who can beat” GOP challenger Pat Toomey, Specter told CNN on Sunday. Sestak “can’t do it.” Meanwhile the state Democratic chairman, T.J. Rooney, has been drumming up similar visions of apocalypse, remarking to Politico that a Sestak primary win would be “cataclysmic” for Democrats’ chances to keep the seat blue in the fall.
Recent poll numbers don’t exactly bear this out—the May 13 Quinnipiac poll actually shows Sestak performing better than Specter in a matchup against Toomey, while Franklin & Marshall has both Democrats polling virtually the same. Still, it’s an argument that’s not entirely without merit. Specter’s got over 30 years of experience winning statewide elections in Pennsylvania, and he’s acquired a cadre of deep-pocketed campaign donors in the process. State-level officials on both sides of the political aisle generally know and respect the rascally senator, and he’s maintained the backing of Biden and Obama to boot.
More than the facts, however, it’s the perception that Arlen Specter is unbeatable that seems to be keeping his faltering campaign afloat. He constantly invokes his narrow win over Pat Toomey in a heated 2004 Republican primary as evidence that he’s got the guy’s number, and Democrats are buying it. The same Quinnipiac survey that showed Sestak outpolling Specter in a fall matchup against Toomey also found that 54 percent of Democrats nonetheless figured Specter was more likely to beat Toomey, with only 29 percent placing their confidence in Sestak. Specter, in other words, has been successful in convincing voters that he’s the practical choice. The only problem is it’s probably not true.
Signs that Specter isn’t a sure bet in November have been around for months, long before Sestak’s recent 20-point surge in the polls. First, there’s the matter of Specter’s favorability numbers, which have steadily declined since he switched parties last year. At the end of April 2009, 52 percent of Pennsylvania voters had a favorable impression of him, while 34 percent had an unfavorable one; now, he’s at 36 percent favorable and 50 percent unfavorable, according to Quinnipiac (other polls follow the same trend.) Indeed, Specter’s unfavorable ratings have hovered in the 45 percent range since last November—high negatives that reveal a dangerously low ceiling to his support.
That there are consistently fewer undecided voters in Specter’s hypothetical matchups with Toomey than in Sestak’s underscores the same point: that Pennsylvanians have already made up their minds about the 30-year incumbent—and that they’re not thrilled. Sestak, on the other hand, possesses a much less-defined public persona and therefore has room to grow, especially against Toomey, who coasted through the Republican primary, but who has some ultra right-wing views that could prove troublesome in the general.
Specter’s party flip has also left him without a natural political base. Sestak’s devastating ad campaign linking Specter to George W. Bush has planted plenty of distrust among the left, while moderate Republicans have flocked to Toomey out of a sense of betrayal. “I would say the most honest candidate is Sestak,” one disgruntled Toomey supporter told me in Philadelphia. “The deceiver is Specter.” And what about independents—Specter’s fabled bread and butter? They put his unfavorable rating at 58 percent, according to Quinnipiac.
A lot can happen between a primary and a general election, but it seems increasingly unlikely the Specter will be able to redeem himself in the eyes of Pennsylvania voters. Add to that an anti-incumbent fervor sweeping the nation, and one thing is pretty much clear: no matter what he says, Arlen Specter is very far from a sure thing in November.
Jesse Zwick is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.