The Inquirer poll shows Pennsylvania to be Obama's by 8 points, well outside the margin of error. Even that one, however, shows the race tightening. The previous Inquirer poll had Obama ahead by 11. And on Thursday, the well-regarded political website RealClearPolitics.com moved Pennsylvania from "Leaning Obama" to "Tossup."
Many observers assume the Romney campaign's internal polls must contain their own statistical basis for encouragement, because the former Massachusetts governor recently returned to campaign in Pennsylvania. At one event, The Inquirer reported, he said it would be "a shock" if he won Pennsylvania, and the context shows he meant it would be a shock not to him but to the broader political establishment. Later the same day, he erased any ambiguity by declaring confidently that he would win Pennsylvania.
Can Romney really win the state? Pennsylvania hasn't gone to a Republican presidential candidate since 1988. I don't think the answer lies in the fine points that separate the polls. All show Romney slightly behind, but well within striking distance and closing ground. I think the answer lies in how carefully the Romney campaign studies our state, and whether it capitalizes on four areas of vulnerability for Obama in Pennsylvania in 2012 that were not present to anything near the same degree in 2008. They are four of what Republicans call "Obama's Wars."
The War on Religious Freedom. That's the way pro-life voters, especially Catholics, characterize the Obama administration's mandate that all employers must provide coverage for sterilization and abortifacients, in addition to contraceptives. The relevance to Pennsylvania is that Roman Catholics compose up to 36 percent of voter turnout, one of the highest in the nation, and Catholic bishops are fully engaged in opposing this intrusion of the federal government into matters of faith. Even though the majority of Catholics are habitual Democrats, it's likely the church's opposition to Obama's abortion and gay-marriage agendas will move some of them to the Romney-Ryan ticket. Vice President Biden's snarky disdain for fellow Catholic Paul Ryan in Thursday's debate may also move some Catholic swing votes to the Republican ticket.
The War on Coal. Obama's famous line in the 2008 campaign that he would create policies that would "shut down coal plants" is remembered and, if anything, taken more seriously in 2012 than it was then. In Pennsylvania's coal country, one of the most popular political items this year is an independently produced yard sign that reads "Stop the War on Coal - Fire Obama." In September, the U.S. House of Representatives put a national spotlight on the issue with its passage of the "Stop the War on Coal Act." Especially in the context of today's prolonged economic woes, the Obama hostility to coal may be politically toxic in the areas of Pennsylvania in which coal is still king.
The War on Fracking. Despite Obama's occasional positive comments about hydraulic fracturing offering the promise of abundant domestic energy, most of those in the industry are bracing themselves for the Interior Department's long-awaited release of restrictive guidelines on the practice, now postponed until year's end - conveniently after the election. The 70,000 or more Pennsylvanians now working as a direct result of hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus Shale, and the 200,000 or so indirectly employed as a result of that industry, are much more enthusiastic about Romney's energy policies than Obama's.
The War on Guns. Many gun owners are convinced one political motivation of the Fast and Furious gun-running program was to shock Americans into thinking the trafficking of U.S. guns into Mexico was a serious problem jeopardizing public safety, and thus build public support for gun control. The president's half-hearted support for guns used for hunting and target shooting betrays either an ignorance of or an outright hostility to the real purpose of the Second Amendment. That amendment is not about hunting; it's about self-protection and the ability of the citizenry to resist an oppressive government. Very few political observers outside our state recognize how potent the pro-gun forces are in Pennsylvania. One simple statistic should prove the point: Pennsylvania leads the nation in National Rifle Association memberships.
Each of these "wars" could cost the president 1 to 2 points of his 2008 support in Pennsylvania. Will the Romney campaign devote the time and resources necessary to make these arguments? It will if it wants to win the election, because, if Romney wins Pennsylvania, there is almost no plausible way for Obama to win reelection.
E-mail Colin Hanna at firstname.lastname@example.org.