Democratic candidate John Fetterman’s rocky debate performance last week doesn’t appear to have significantly recast Pennsylvania’s potentially decisive Senate race — though it remains possible that perceptions of Fetterman’s health could matter, mostly if the race winds up being very tight.
Wednesday brought several new polls in that race — and perhaps the biggest takeaway is that the highest-profile, nonpartisan polls showed very little change from last month.
A Monmouth University poll showed 48 percent said they would at least “probably” vote for Fetterman and 44 percent said they would probably vote for Mehmet Oz — virtually the same as the 48 percent and 43 percent clips in early October. A Fox News poll showed the race moving from Fetterman 45-41 to Fetterman 45-42 since late September.
Fox’s write-up of the poll, though, focused on another aspect of the survey: the percentage of voters who said the debate mattered, which was 51 percent.
It’s very easy to oversell that. While 51 percent said that the debate mattered, that includes those who said it was a “minor factor,” which isn’t exactly a significant leap given that this was the only debate in the race. What’s more, those who say the debate mattered a lot skewed heavily toward Republicans — i.e., people who were probably not voting for Fetterman anyway. While 4 in 10 Republicans said the debate was at least “one of several important factors,” just 17 percent of Democrats said the same. (It’s also possible those Democrats thought the debate mattered a lot for reasons besides Fetterman’s performance — such as Oz’s abortion answer.)
Just 4 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of independents said the debate was the “single most important factor” in their votes.
The picture is similar when it comes to Fox’s explicit question about Fetterman’s health. It asked whether people were concerned that Fetterman’s health meant he wouldn’t be able to carry out his duties, and 4 in 10 voters said they were at least “very” concerned. But that group again skewed heavily Republican. While 7 in 10 Donald Trump 2020 voters chose one of those options, just 9 percent of Biden 2020 voters said they were at least very concerned.
This echoes the Monmouth poll: That pollster asked whether the debate caused people to reconsider whom they might support. A measly 3 percent said it did.
And again, those who said the debate mattered skewed heavily Republican. Adding up those who said the debate caused them to reconsider their support with those who said it gave them “serious concerns” but hadn’t changed their minds, two-thirds who chose either option were voters who already leaned toward the GOP; 28 percent leaned Democratic. And again, many of those Democrats might have expressed serious concerns for other reasons.
At the same time, even fine margins could make a difference in a race in which the FiveThirtyEight polling average currently favors Fetterman by less than a point — and in which polling has shown the gap closing. If, for example, the debate just deepened concerns about Fetterman’s health for even a small percentage of independents, or depressed Democrats’ enthusiasm, it could matter.
As for the argument that it might? Both polls show virtually no change in Fetterman’s image rating and perhaps a slight improvement for Oz — though Oz remains significantly more unpopular.
But the Monmouth poll does show fewer voters say Fetterman is capable of effectively serving a full six-year term (48 percent) than said the same of Oz (59 percent).
In addition, the Fox poll shows a continued decline in enthusiasm for Fetterman. While 68 percent of his supporters said they were enthusiastically backing him in July, that number dropped to 61 percent in September and 57 percent today. That’s still much higher than the unpopular Oz’s 37 percent enthusiastic support, but it does suggest Fetterman’s voters might be a little harder to turn out than before — for whatever reason.
The other thing to remember is that it’s not like Oz is without his own liabilities. He remains more unpopular than Fetterman in virtually every poll. And the Fox poll shows about as many voters say they’re at least “very” concerned about Oz’s lack of familiarity with the state — he has lived in New Jersey for decades before registering a Pennsylvania address in 2020 — as express that level of concern about Fetterman’s health. More independents are actually very concerned about Oz’s residency issue (40 percent) than Fetterman’s health (30 percent).
Indeed, if Oz is able to pull it out, it will probably owe more to Republican-leaning voters closing ranks for the party — something they had already been moving toward in the weeks before the debate — than sudden debate-related concerns about Fetterman’s health.
That’s where the shifts in the polling have been, including in a poll released Wednesday that did show a slight shift toward Oz, from Muhlenberg College and the Allentown Morning Call. The biggest shift it showed was Republicans moving from 81 percent support of Oz to 87 percent support.
The race is so tight that virtually everything could matter — and could, by extension, determine who holds the Senate majority come January. But for now, the race’s pre-debate trajectory appears largely unaltered.