Presidential candidates typically spend big money to compete in Pennsylvania. For Mitt Romney, all it took was one standout debate.
The Republican presidential nominee has seen a surge in the polls there since the Oct. 3 debate in Denver, suggesting that Pennsylvania may no longer be a lock for President Obama. Romney's rise comes despite reports showing that his campaign hasn't spent a dime on advertising in the Keystone State and may have dispatched staffers from there to states that looked more competitive before the debate.
On Monday, a poll from Muhlenberg College showed Romney trailing by just 4 percent among likely Pennsylvania voters. That's a shift from September, when Muhlenberg found Romney down 7. Then on Tuesday, a poll from Quinnipiac University also showed Romney trailing by 4, up from a 12-point deficit in September. Obama's lead there has dropped to roughly 4 points in the PollTracker Average.
"I think they're making a mistake by not playing here. I think they're missing something," Pennsylvania pollster Jim Lee told TPM. He said the polling from his GOP-leaning firm, Susquehanna Polling and Research, has shown the race competitive for some time and he thinks Romney should start pumping money into the state to put the campaign over the top.
"I'm sure they have their own internal polling, but I believe in what our polling is showing," Lee said. "I'm sure money will dictate where they can play. But based on what I'm seeing, a modest TV buy could be the difference."
Still, Pennsylvania has been something of a white whale for Republicans in recent elections. The GOP hasn't carried the state since 1988, but it has consistently been among the most heavily targeted on the map. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and his affiliated groups spent $29 million on ads there in 2008 and he still lost it to Obama 54 percent to 44 percent.
The 2012 campaign has snapped that trend, with neither campaign committing significant resources to capture the state's 20 electoral votes. The National Journal shows the Romney campaign has spent nothing on ads there this cycle while the Obama team has dropped a little less than $5 million.
On top of that, The Daily Beast reported on Monday that top Romney staffers have been pulled out of Pennsylvania and deployed to prized states such as Ohio and Virginia. Pro-Romney super PACs had already abandoned the state by early last month.
G. Terry Madonna, director of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said when it comes to evaluating the state of play in Pennsylvania, the dearth of campaign spending is just as telling as the polls.
"If the Republicans thought they could win this state, and if Obama thought he could lose it ... then show me the money," Madonna told TPM. "Not a single ad is airing in the state. Some people might question the polls these days, fine. So show me the money."
The Romney team seems to have made an early decision to take a different path than McCain, who Madonna said made a "tactical mistake" by devoting so much time and money there.
"If you want to reach the swing voters, you really have to go into the Philly television market," Madonna said. As the fourth largest television market in the country, advertising there doesn't come cheap.
Madonna said Romney still has an "uphill climb" in the state, contending that Obama claims advantages in population centers such as the Philadelphia suburbs and the Lehigh Valley.
Doug Usher, managing director of Purple Strategies and a pollster for John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, said Democrats can generally expect to perform slightly better in Pennsylvania than they do nationally. For example, Obama won Pennsylvania by 10 points four years ago while winning by 7 nationwide.
"The best way to look at the race in Pennsylvania is to see how the polls line up with the national average," Usher told TPM. "This isn't rocket science. Just as Obama's national lead has closed, you'd expect the same thing in swing states."