Can Pat Toomey beat a national trend?

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey's re-election is up in the air.

Pat Toomey, in terms of a national voting trend, is in a bad place at a bad time.

The place is Pennsylvania. The time is now.

The reason it's bad for the first-term Senator is a dramatic drop in ticket-splitting all across the nation.

The trend is perhaps more problematic for Toomey than his dancing around Donald Trump (of whom he's critical but not dismissive), or dealing with Democrat Katie McGinty, who's vying to become the state's first woman senator in a year the nation could well elect its first woman president.

It's a trend, documented by pollsters and political scientists, reflecting polarization, resulting in straight-party voting in record-breaking percentages.

In Toomey's case, it hinders his reelection because he's a Republican in a Democratic-majority state.

And, yes, Republicans get elected here. They control the Legislature and hold a majority in the state's congressional delegation.

But the state votes Democratic for president. It's done so since 1992; and Hillary Clinton's lead here is 6.6 points in an average of Real Clear Politics polls; 8 points in a Muhlenberg College poll released last weekend.

(The same poll shows McGinty leading Toomey by 5 points, which is within the margin of error.)

Emory University poli-sci professor Alan Abramowitz, who spent a decade studying consequences of polarization, tells me, "Especially since 2000, voters are much less willing to cross party lines, and it's harder to hold a seat if you're in a minority party in a state."

Pennsylvania Democrats hold a 936,000 registration edge over Republicans.

Using data from the American National Election Studies, jointly run by Stanford University and the University of Michigan, Abramowitz focused specifically on ticket-splitting in Senate races in presidential years.

He found the percentage of voters backing one party for president and the other for Senate dropped from 23 percent in the 1980's to 10 percent in 2012.

He says, "It almost doesn't matter who the candidates are."

The trend fuels Democratic hopes of a Senate takeover, which could happen with four wins against incumbent GOP Senators and a Clinton victory.

Four top targets are first-term Republicans running in reliable Democratic presidential states: Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin and New Hampshire.

New Hampshire voted Democratic for president five of the last six elections; the other three states went Democratic six times in a row.

Pennsylvania in the past has split tickets. Over 40 years it did so four out of the seven times a senator was on the ballot in a presidential race.

The last time was 12 years ago when then-Republican Arlen Specter won reelection as the state went for John Kerry over George W. Bush.

"I've always said the hardest thing to do in Pennsylvania is for a Republican to win reelection in a presidential year," says GOP consultant Christopher Nicholas, who ran Specter's 2004 reelection campaign.

Toomey won his seat in a non-presidential cycle, winning narrowly in a GOP year. So can he beat the no-ticket-splitting trend?

Insiders say yes, if Clinton's state margin is less than 5 points; or if Trump wins the state; or if Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein draw a combined percentage high enough to favor Trump.

Many analysts believe third-party votes help Trump. The recent Muhlenberg poll has Johnson at 14, Stein at 5.

Also, a CBS News poll earlier this month found 72 percent of state voters say Toomey is "a different kind of Republican" than Trump.

While every statewide election is different this one could hinge on the presidential race and maybe, more than usual, third-party candidates.

And, of course, on who votes -- and whether they split their tickets.


baerj@phillynews.com

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