The Plank

On Pennsylvania Being "in Play"


Tonight on MSNBC with David Shuster, I referred to Pennsylvania as
being "in play". I've also implied similar things in the polling
threads over the past couple of days. Since we are showing John McCain
as having only about a 2 percent chance to win Pennsylvania, I've had a couple
of readers write in to ask whether I'm contradicting myself. Certainly
we would not ordinarily refer to a state as "in play" when one of the
candidates trails by 6 to 10 points, and there but a few days to go
until the election.What I want to make clear is that whenever I
refer to Pennsylvania as being "in play", you should imagine those
little quotation marks around my words. You should also imagine that
I'm speaking in the conditional tense. Were the national race to
tighten by 5 points or so, then Pennsylvania might actually be in play,
rather than being "in play". (Actually, that might have been the
subjunctive rather than the conditional, but never mind). We're very
focused on those scenarios wherein the national race does in fact
tighten substantially, because those are the only scenarios wherein John McCain can win.What
Pennsylvania isn't going to do--at least I don't think--is move 5
or 6 or 7 points to the McCain side while everything else stays put.
It's a pretty middle-of-the-road state, with its share of big cities
and small towns and rural areas and everything in between (this is why
it's a swing state in the first place). An idiosyncratic state like
West Virgina or New Mexico might occasionally come completely
untethered from the national trends, but Pennsylvania is not very
likely to. Nor is it the sort of state that's likely to catch anybody
surprise (unless Obama supporters are dumb enough to become
complacent). It's a big, Democratic machine state, and one where Obama
has 78 field offices open, many of which have been open since the primary in April.Pennsylvania
has at various times this year ranged from about 2 points behind
Obama's national numbers to 5 points ahead of them. If Obama is at
about a +7 nationally, I'd expect him so be somewhere between a +5 and
a +12 in PA ... that's about the range permissible by its demographics.
Anything outside of that range, and I'd tend to think that the poll in
question is an outlier.

--Nate Silver 

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