A new Quinnipiac poll is out that is widely reported by the media as showing would-be Democratic Senate candidate Bob Casey, Jr. holding a 15-point lead over Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race.

For those not familiar with this race, Bob Casey Jr. is the candidate the Democratic Establishment has anointed as its chosen candidate to oppose Santorum this fall. Most of the other potential candidates were muscled into withdrawing from a primary race to make way for Casey, though Chuck Pennacchio, a progressive running an insurgent campaign, remains in the race and is building an impressive grass-roots organization determined to capture the nomination for their candidate. Bob Casey Jr. is the state’s Auditor General and son of Bob Casey Sr., former Pennsylvania Governor. The Democratic Party hierarchy believes that Casey, a Conservative, is the best candidate to beat Santorum both because of his name recognition, and because they perceive of Pennsylvania as “blue” Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with “red” Alabama in-between. The problem is that it is often difficult to tell Santorum and Casey apart, much to the consternation of Progressive Pennsylvania Democrats. Casey is anti-choice and supports over-turning Roe v Wade. He opposes stem-cell research; supported Congressional intervention in the Terri Schiavo case; endorsed the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito; supports capital punishment (Santorum actually comes down on the opposite side of this issue); supported going to war in Iraq and opposes an exit strategy with a timetable; supports prayer in schools; supports the Patriot Act; opposes gun control et al. Many of the same large corporate PACs have contributed to both the Santorum and Casey campaigns.

Still, the Quinnipiac Poll suggests that dissatisfaction with Santorum is propelling Casey toward a Senate seat in Washington. Or does it? My reading of the actual poll suggests very different conclusions to me. (More beneath the fold. Take the poll).

What the Quinnipiac Poll says to me is that Pennsylvanians are not at all happy with Santorum, (or with George W. Bush), and that Casey is currently the choice of many voters simply because he is not Santorum. But the poll also indicates that the voters are largely ignorant of Casey’s stand on the major issues, and that both Casey and Santorum are at odds with the majority of Pennsylvanians on many of those issues. The implication is that much of Casey’s current support may well melt away as the voters become aware of how similar he is to Santorum on so many core issues. Currently Casey is said to be causing considerable consternation, even among his strong supporters, for running a largely “invisible” campaign. Chuck Pennacchio points out that the Democrats lost when they ran a social conservative against Santorum in 2000. “An anti-choice Democrat cannot beat an anti-choice Republican in a high-profile race,” says Pennacchio.

Now, to the meat of the Quinnipiac Poll:

Rick Santorum gets relatively low grades from Pennsylvania voters:

  • 43% of respondents approve “of the way Rick Santorum is handling his job as
    United States Senator” compared with 42% who disapprove. A surprisingly high 21% of Republicans disapprove.

  • 31% have a favorable opinion of Rick Santorum versus 29 % who have an unfavorable opinion of him.
  • 57% rate Santorum only “so-so” or “bad” as a senator. 37% rate him “great” or “good.” 20% rate him “bad” versus only 6% who rate him “great.”
  • By a margin of 44% to 41% Pennsylvanians feel Santorum does not deserve to be re-elected.

George W. Bush fares much worse than Santorum:

  • A whopping 59% of Pennsylvanians disapprove “of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as
    President” versus only 37% who approve. 24% of Republicans, 88% of Democrats, 59% of Independents, 56% of men and 61% of women disapprove of Bush’s handling of his job.

  • Perhaps more significant, the disapprovals exceed the approvals in every one of the seven sub-geographies within the state, contrary to the popular perception that except for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a “red” state. Supposedly conservative Northwest Pa. gives Bush 48% disapproval versus 46% approval; Likewise Southwest Pa. registers 49% approval versus 47% disapproval. Those “red” Central Pennsylvanians disapprove of Bush by 51% versus 46% approval.

Pennsylvanians on the Abortion:

Unlike Santorum and Casey, Pennsylvanians support abortion rights:

  • 53% think abortion “should be legal in all or most cases” versus 41% who think it should be “illegal in most cases or all cases.”

    37% of Republicans, 64% of Democrats, 60% of Independents, 51% of men, and 53% of women support abortion rights.

Five of the seven geographies support abortion rights and those that do not are fairly evenly split on the issue, another refutation of the Philadelphia/Pittsburgh/Alabama analogy:

  • Allegheny County (Pittsburgh): 49% support; 42% oppose.
  • Philadelphia: 58% support; 37% oppose.
  • Northeast Pa.: 48% support; 45% oppose.
  • Southeast Pa.: 70% support; 25% oppose.
  • Northwest Pa.: 47% support; 45% oppose.
  • Southwest Pa.: 41% support; 49% oppose.
  • Central Pa.: 47% support; 48% oppose.

Pennsylvanians do not support the war in Iraq:

  • 60% of Pennsylvanians disapprove “of the way George W. Bush is handling the situation with Iraq.”

    27% of Republicans, 87% of Democrats, 62% of Independents, 57% of men, and 62% of women disapprove of Bush’s handling of the war.

  • Five of seven geographies disapprove of the handling of the war. Northwest Pa. narrowly supports Bush’s handling of the war by 46% versus 45% who disapprove. Southwest Pa. also narrowly supports the president’s handling of the war 48% to 47%.
  • Unlike both Casey and Santorum, 55% of Pennsylvanians now believe going to war in Iraq was the “wrong thing for the United States to do” versus only 40% who believe it was the “right thing.”
  • There was majority disapproval of the decision to go to war in five of the seven geographies excluding only Northwest and Southwest Pa. Even in those geographies a sizeable minority of 42% and 43% respectively feel going to war in Iraq was a mistake.

Asked “if the 2006 election for Senator were being held today, and the candidates were Bob Casey Jr. the Democrat and Rick Santorum the Republican for whom would you vote?” Casey is favored by 51% to Santorum’s 36% — a seemingly comfortable 15-point edge. But dig deeper and the numbers suggest many of those who say they will vote for Casey are simply expressing a deep dissatisfaction with Santorum while not knowing a whole lot about Casey:

  • Only 34% have a favorable opinion of Bob Casey, Jr., barely ahead of Santorum who has a 31% approval rating.
  • Only 6% have an unfavorable opinion of Casey versus 29% who have an unfavorable opinion of Santorum.
  • 22% have a mixed opinion of both Casey and Santorum.
  • A whopping 38% say they “haven’t you heard enough about” Casey to register an opinion. Only 17% say that of Santorum.

Note that While 51% say they would vote for Casey if the election were held today only 34% have a favorable opinion of him. 66% either view him unfavorably, have a mixed opinion, or do not know enough about him to express an opinion. Those statistics could prove enormously troublesome for Casey as more and more voters currently leaning toward him learn that his positions on major issues are more in sync with the views of Rick Santorum than they are with the views of most Pennsylvania voters.

The poll indicates that 34% of respondents regard Santorum’s views on issues as “extreme.” Only 10% regard Casey’s views as “extreme” despite the fact that he and Santorum agree on so many core issues. This would seem to suggest that the voters know much more about Santorum’s positions than they know about Casey’s.

Doubts are beginning to make their way into the media as well. Associate Editor and liberal columnist Gil Smart writes in the Lancaster Sunday News:

… Bob Casey Jr. is running for Rick Santorum’s U.S. Senate seat, and polls show him way ahead. But I don’t know a single Democrat/liberal/ progressive/whatever who is actually excited about the Casey candidacy. They might hold their nose and vote for him come November — most would vote for Mephistopheles himself over Santorum — but they won’t be giving money, and they won’t be working on Casey’s behalf.

Because their perception, and I think it’s correct, is that the Democratic establishment wants Casey because they think he can win. How is he going to change things? It doesn’t matter.

Except that some people think it does.

That’s why there’s such a groundswell of support for Chuck Pennacchio, Casey’s opponent in the Democratic primary.

Pennacchio may not be as telegenic as Casey, and he doesn’t have the name recognition, but he does have core beliefs that weren’t crafted via focus group. He is authentic. And that’s something you simply can’t say about Casey…

And John Nichols writes in The Nation:

On the day Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats unanimously rejected the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel Alito, their anointed candidate for what is seen as the country’s most vulnerable Republican-held Senate seat [Bob Casey Jr.] announced his support for the President’s pick…

For activists like Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the move confirmed concerns about Casey. “As a Pennsylvanian, I am particularly appalled that local and national Democrats would hand our Senate nomination to someone who openly supports giving Roe an Alito-induced death,” said Michelman…

It’s no secret that prominent Democrats–including Hillary Clinton… are backing a candidate critics call “Santorum Lite” because they think Casey… is known and seemingly popular. He consistently leads Santorum in the polls, and if his lead holds through November, Democrats will be one seat closer to retaking the Senate. But Casey’s lead has been dwindling as Santorum’s camp takes shots at him from the right while pro-choice and pro-gay rights moderates and liberals grumble about the Democrat’s conservative stances on social issues.

The Casey controversy illustrates the perils of early intervention by Washington Democrats in the process of selecting Senate candidates at the state level; in their drive to find a strong contender, DC power brokers often bet on candidates who are more conservative than the grassroots activists who form the party’s base…

…in Pennsylvania… Chuck Pennacchio, a college professor and former Congressional aide, has positioned himself as the progressive alternative to Casey on issues ranging from abortion rights to the Iraq War… “Democrats will have a choice between a watered-down version of Rick Santorum and a strong Democrat who will consistently stand with them on the issues they care about,” argues Pennacchio…

Pennacchio may be right. When a contender like Casey splits with the base, it raises worries about whether that candidate offers enough of an alternative to generate the high turnout needed from liberal partisans, let alone to attract the votes of those prochoice independents and Republicans whose defections could tip Pennsylvania and the Senate to the Democrats. A late-January Zogby poll actually showed that when voters are informed about Pennacchio and his positions, he beats Santorum by a slightly wider margin than would Casey. Unfortunately for Pennacchio, he’s still struggling to get his message out. He trails far behind Casey in the primary polls and won’t be getting any help from DC Democrats. But his grassroots campaign will be raising alarm bells between now and the May 16 primary, warning Democrats who care to listen that they run the risk of nominating a candidate who can’t win in November.

The Democratic establishment may be betting that Santorum-haters will vote for Casey simply because he is not Rick Santorum. I for one am working for Chuck Pennacchio. I will vote for Chuck Pennacchio in the May primary. I will not vote for Bob Casey Jr. this fall if he is the Democratic nominee, and if the progressive circles I travel in are any indication, there are a lot of Pennsylvanians who, while wanting desparately to send Rick Santorum packing, aren’t desparate enough to vote for a candidate like Casey, who many of us consider to be Santorum’s Democratic counter-part. How ironic if it ends up that head-in-the-sand Democrats end up re-electing an unpopular Rick Santorum to the United States Senate.

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