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Experts: Too soon to call presidential election

| Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
A combination photo shows Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
REUTERS
A combination photo shows Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Labor Day weekend marks the traditional moment presidential campaigns intensify their efforts.

“Voters certainly have been tuning in to the broad themes of the 2016 campaign, but as the fall creeps in and the debates occur, attention will become more focused,” said Chris Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College.

Since the party conventions in July, polls have consistently shown Republican Donald Trump trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton nationally and in the key battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, which have more impact because of their electoral votes, size and tendency to be close.

Keystone College political science professor Jeff Brauer cautions that it is too soon to call this race for Clinton. “Not by a long shot. Two months is several lifetimes in politics,” he said.

Although early voting will begin soon in certain parts of the country, much can, and often does, change in that period, Brauer said. “Certainly, Clinton's current lead in the polls is not insurmountable,” he said.

“I think Pennsylvania remains a place where Trump can find some reasons for optimism, but ultimately winning the state remains an uphill battle for him,” Brauer said.

“I think Trump will succeed in bringing out some new voters among the white working class and can switch some Democrats and working-class voters over to his side. But his weaknesses in the voter-rich Philadelphia suburbs and among the state's nonwhite voters are very daunting and lower his chances at reversing a quarter century of Democratic dominance in presidential races here,” he said.

Hiding in plain sight

Take a 15-minute drive in any direction outside the major cities of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Erie and Harrisburg, and the Trump signs proliferate.

“If I did not follow the polls the way I obsessively do, I would swear Trump was winning by a landslide,” said Paul Sracic, political science professor at Youngstown State University.

But it's going to take a larger rural and suburban turnout than Mitt Romney got in 2012 for Trump to win, he said.

What counties are the experts keeping their eyes on?

“I always look at places such as Bucks and Northampton counties in the southeast because of their bellwether records,” Borick said.

In 2012, Romney was edged out by President Obama by 3,900 votes in Bucks, and 6,000 votes in Northampton. Those wins for Obama marked a steep drop in support from his wins in the same counties in 2008, when he beat John McCain by nearly 9,000 votes in Bucks and by nearly 17,000 votes in Northampton.

“I can't see Trump winning statewide if he loses those counties,” Borick said.

He also has his eyes on Lackawanna County with its deep Democratic roots and ties to Clinton, but the big question will be what happens in Philadelphia.

Trump is likely to lose, as did Romney and McCain, but will the turnout be as high as it was for Obama?

“If turnout does drop off, the big boost that Democrats have in winning the state is reduced, and maybe a crack opens for Trump,” Borick said.

What have we learned?

Sracic cautions that political scientists would wade into dodgy territory if they attempt to predict the outcome of this election using traditional modeling.

“Every rule has been broken in this cycle, beginning with the rise of the populism within the Republican primary voters and their rebellion against the party system. Don't forget Democrats did that as well with Bernie Sanders,” he said.

The primary election process should have taught us this year is unlike any other in modern American politics, he said.

“What this election has taught me is how little the parties are in control of presidential politics anymore,” said Bruce Haynes, a GOP media strategist at Purple Strategies in Washington. “It used to be that there actually was a political elite that controlled the nominating process.”

Haynes said, “Analytics and social media have come along like dynamite and blown (the old system) to shreds.”

For better or worse, that is how Trump virtually monopolized media coverage during the GOP primaries, Haynes said. “While the party establishment crowed about what great candidates that Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio were, voters could not get enough of Trump, and the press saw this every day in their ratings,” he said.

“The parties and their establishments now have to recalibrate how they shape and influence the process in the world of big data,” Haynes said.

This election has taught us constantly to question our assumptions, said Kyle Kondik, manager of the University of Virginia's Crystal Ball,

“Donald Trump did not seem to meet the regular requirements for a plausible presidential nominee,” Kondik said. “He had no establishment party support, he did not build a traditional campaign, and he also said and did a lot of things that polite society disapproved of. He won the nomination anyway.”

Salena Zito is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. She can be reached at szito@tribweb.com.

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