November provided few major surprises in Pennsylvania’s top-ticket races this year.
For governor, Democrat Josh Shapiro expanded his mid-summer lead comfortably into the fall before winning, as predicted by most polling, a double-digit victory. The U.S. Senate race was more tumultuous: Late-stage surveys indicating that Democrat John Fetterman may have lost his advantage over Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz were ultimately off-track, as Fetterman ultimately won by 4 percentage points.
“I would say the primary was the most difficult part in Pennsylvania,” said Spencer Kimball, executive director of Emerson College Polling in Boston. “Overall it kind of told the story that there were going to be some close races and they generally broke for Democrats and helped them take the Senate.”
The final outcomes were, however, defined by a few nuances.
Gen Z voters
Dana Brown, a political science professor at Chatham University, said one challenge for pollsters is to get an accurate read on what Generation Z is thinking. Gen Z represents those born between 1996-2015.
According to Brown, young people can be harder for pollsters to reach by phone and don’t have an extensive voting history, giving pollsters fewer clues about their future behavior.
Polls that didn’t fully account for these voters were probably skewed, she said, since Gen-Zers did show up largely in support of Democratic candidates. This could help explain why Fetterman’s support was slightly underestimated in some surveys.
After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year, Pennsylvania saw a flood of new voter registrations — particularly among younger women.
Polling close to Election Day suggested that concerns about inflation and the economy had surpassed abortion as a top voting issue, and political observers said this shift could benefit Republicans in tight national races. But exit polls painted a different picture, showing that a plurality of voters cited abortion as the issue that mattered most to them when casting their ballot.
People who ranked reproductive rights as their top priority overwhelmingly supported Democrats in the Pennsylvania midterms.
During the past two presidential elections, pollsters saw criticism for underestimating Donald Trump’s support.
A New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll gave Democrat Hillary Clinton a 7-point lead over Trump in Pennsylvania just weeks before the 2016 election. Trump won that race.
Similarly, a Franklin & Marshall College poll conducted a month before the 2020 presidential election showed Trump as a 6-point underdog to Democrat Joe Biden before Trump lost by just a point in Pennsylvania.
But the backing of Trump-endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano was, if anything, overestimated this cycle. Polling aggregative FiveThirtyEight showed Shapiro with a 10-point lead, but he ended winning by 14 points.
David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston and a partner with USA TODAY polling, said “new kids on the block” emerged in the polling world in the aftermath of former Trump’s 2016 victory, which took many by surprise and prompted a re-examination of national polling methods.
According to Paleologos, some of the up-and-comers have been factored into survey averages on prominent sites such as FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics. He believes a flood of these right-leaning polls may skew the overall picture.
“There’s such a demand for polling that these polling aggregators are gonna pick up the polls … and give them the same kind of visibility, maybe not credibility, but visibility as those of us who have been doing this for a lot longer,” Paleologos said. “When you have so many right-leaning polling organizations, then you’re going to get what you get.”
This year and in all election cycles, Kimball said, polling is tweaked and evolves. Though he characterized live operator polls as the gold standard, he added that cellphone texting has proven increasingly valuable.
In the weeks leading up to the midterms, the Pennsylvania governorship was deemed “Likely Democrat” by Cook Political Report. Shapiro went on to win by approximately 800,000 votes.
Likewise, the “Toss Up” between Fetterman and Oz was a much closer outcome.
“Fetterman was able to ride Shapiro’s coattails to some extent,” Kimball said.
To Paleologos, independent women were a key demographic in that race. He noted that while Republican men and women stuck to their party’s candidates, and that Democrats did the same, unaffiliated women went for candidates who supported abortion rights.
“It was only in the category of independent women where the sexes broke. And there was a fork in the road, and men went one way; they were voting the economy and thumbs-down on Biden. And women were voting on abortion rights,” he said.
“Independent women took this 2022 midterm election in their own hands and defined history.”
Bruce Siwy and Bethany Rodgers are reporters for the USA TODAY Network’s Pennsylvania state capital bureau. They can be reached, respectively, at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.