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Pennsylvania voters register disgust with Harrisburg antics in poll

Tom Fontaine
| Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf

Nine months ago, Pennsylvania's registered voters felt more optimistic about the state's future than they had in five years.

Now, according to a poll released Thursday, they are more discouraged about the state's direction than they have been in at least six years. More than four out of five voters think state government needs to be reformed, starting with the Legislature, the latest Franklin & Marshall College Poll shows.

“Scandal and dysfunction have touched every branch of our government,” said pollster G. Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall's Center for Politics and Public Affairs.

State legislators and Gov. Tom Wolf are seven months overdue in finishing a budget. Attorney General Kathleen Kane's law license is suspended as she faces perjury and other charges, while former Treasurer Rob McCord awaits sentencing on extortion charges. Over the past two years, one Supreme Court justice went to prison and two others became embroiled in email scandals.

“We're just stuck in a broken system with cronyism and good-old-boyism. People make jokes about how corrupt our government is, but we just accept it,” said Ken Sines, 41, a Republican from Shaler who works as an education administrator.

The Franklin & Marshall poll says that two-thirds of Pennsylvanians think the state is on the wrong track, the highest share since January 2010. Thirty-eight percent of voters deem state government and politicians as the No. 1 problem facing Pennsylvania.

Madonna said such discontent sat at 17 percent in June, before the budget impasse. Back then, people were more concerned about education and unemployment, with each issue being identified by 18 percent of voters as the state's No. 1 problem.

With the budget impasse now at seven months, 52 percent of voters think the Legislature is most responsible for the holdup, while 32 percent blame the governor, the poll shows. One-third of voters think Wolf is doing a good job, but just 15 percent think the Legislature is.

“The stalemate in Harrisburg is not doing anything to help Pennsylvania, and unfortunately, I don't see this getting any better. Republicans and Democrats can't agree on anything and are just fighting each other all the time. It's so ridiculous,” said Deborah Lorenz, 61, a retired secretary from Spring Hill.

Lorenz, a Democrat, thinks imposing term limits on elected officials would help.

Beyond the Harrisburg fatigue, the Franklin & Marshall poll shows that many voters remain undecided on key national races. Pennsylvania's primary will be held in less than three months.

About 61 percent of registered Democrats remain undecided on who should challenge U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, the poll shows.

Joe Sestak, a former congressman who began campaigning nearly a year ago, is supported by 17 percent of Democrats. Pennsylvania's former Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty has been stuck at 13 percent since August, and 6 percent of voters back Braddock Mayor John Fetterman. He launched his campaign four months ago.

Sestak's campaign declined to comment on the poll.

Madonna said the three candidates remain widely unknown to Democrats statewide, and none of them is advertising heavily on television — a key medium for candidates to introduce themselves to unfamiliar voters across the large state. Madonna said Wolf was a relatively unknown commodity statewide, polling at 2 percent among Democrats in a late November 2013 poll, before launching a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign in early 2014. His Jeep Wrangler played a starring role in helping to propel him to the top of the field.

“He never looked back after that,” Madonna said.

Madonna described Pennsylvania's Senate race as one of the five most important in the country and predicted that a lot of money will be poured into it from outside sources. Madonna expects much of it to go to McGinty, the favorite among establishment Democrats. Madonna said Sestak drew ire from the party in 2010 after launching a renegade bid for the Democratic nomination against former Sen. Arlen Specter, a convert to the party.

In presidential politics, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds a commanding 17 percentage-point lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the Democratic race, but that's down from 34 percentage points in October. Sixteen percent of Democrats remain undecided, the poll shows.

Billionaire Donald Trump widened his lead in the Republican race with 24 percent of Republicans supporting him. He leads Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas by 10 percentage points and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida by 13 points. In October, Trump held a narrow 1-point lead over neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose support has plummeted to 5 percent.

The statewide poll surveyed 732 voters — 361 Democrats, 276 Republicans and 95 independents. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or

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