The race for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district is close.
So close that not even Punxsutawney Phil would wager a guess.
And yes, we checked.
But plenty of human experts are willing to offer their very qualified and very cautious advice on the possible outcome of Tuesday’s balloting — balloting that will be closely scrutinized by political parties and pundits certain of the broader implications.
We reached out to a number of those experts, all of them political science or public affairs professors at Pennsylvania colleges, and assembled their predictions below. Most hedged. Some balked. All said this race is about as close as they’ve seen.
But despite their clear reluctance to take a definitive stance with the frontrunners, Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone, still neck-and-neck in the polls and a number of variables — weather, turnout, swing votes, Lamb’s cross-over appeal — still in play, there was one clear take away: If Democrats manage to keep it close in such a reliably red district, even a loss could be a win.
As always, though, it all comes down to who shows up.
When a loss is a win — and vice versa
Sandi DiMola, associate professor of political science and chair of the Business Management & Justice Studies departments at Carlow University:
“If turnout is not low and voters were not swayed by the steel tariffs move, then I think Lamb will win. But my better prediction is that it really doesn’t matter if Saccone wins. He has to win by a large margin for the Republicans to be satisfied that the seat will remain theirs. The Republicans have spent so much money and ‘face-time’ with Trump and Pence stumping for Saccone that he really has to win by a significant margin; otherwise I think the Democrats can take the seat in the May primary — and it will be a different district by then and generally more favorable to the Dems.”
(Depending on just how close it is, Libertarian District 18 candidate Drew Miller could also emerge as a spoiler.)
Joseph DiSarro, professor of political science at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa.:
“I think it’s a function of turnout, and I predict the turnout will be under 25 percent — somewhere in the range of 22 or 23 percent — and I think that will favor the Republican candidate, Rick Saccone. […] If turnout goes over 30 percent, then I think Conor Lamb will win. But I think turnout will stay low given the weather is supposed to be rather nasty tomorrow…”
As for the looming spectre of President Donald Trump, who campaigned for Saccone in Moon Township on Saturday and who lent his support via Twitter on Monday, DiSarro said: “I don’t believe this is a referendum on the president, but if it is, maybe you can get more people voting. We’ll find out tomorrow. But I really don’t see it. Generally speaking, politics is local. This is a local election and the voters in the 18th are gonna vote their interests, and they’re smart, they know their interests and they’re not gonna be swayed by all the hoopla around this election.”
DiSarro said that while Lamb’s much-touted labor union support in the 18th could swing things, the 18th district’s economy is doing well and that’s almost certain to benefit Saccone.
“Members of labor unions have got to be motivated to vote and they might be motivated to keep things as they are this time,” DiSarro added, meaning in Republican hands.
DiSarro also questions how motivated voters will be to get out and vote in a special election to fill congressman Tim Murphy’s seat for the remainder of Murphy’s term, just 8-and-a-half months. By then, DiSarro added, Pennsylvania’s congressional map as we know it could be history.
More on the map…
Kristen Allen, assistant professor at Duquesne University’s Department of Political Science:
“It is most important to remember that this district will not exist in its current state if the revised Congressional maps are upheld for the General Election in the fall. If Lamb loses this special election but has a decent showing (high 40s), he should be in great shape to run in the new 17th district, which looks to be more Democratic-leaning.
“So… prediction? If Democratic turnout is activated, and Lamb’s field operation has been successful in the last week, Lamb stands a good chance of winning by a point or two. If not, we get to do this all over again in 8 months!”
Will Lamb’s centrist approach resonate?
Roni Kay O’Dell, assistant professor and coordinator of the Political Science Department at Seton Hill University:
“I think Lamb has an unexpectedly decent shot and even if he doesn’t win, I think we’ll see more Democratic votes than anybody imagined previously. […] Even though there are more registered Democrats in the 18th, most people there vote Republican. But Conor is in between being not far-right and not far-left. He sits right in the middle. That means there’s a lot of support for his candidacy and part of that relates also to the fact that he’s said he’s anti-abortion and not heavily in support of gun laws.” (On the abortion issue, Lamb has said, “I come from a Catholic background, (but) choice is the law of the land.”)
Sen. Bob Casey, who also campaigned as a pro-gun and pro-life Democrat, won the area that is the 18th district by 11 points in 2006, according to FiveThirtyEight. But that was lifetimes ago in the scheme of American politics.
O’Dell added, “In the end it’s hard to say. I kind of think that Lamb has a good chance, and if anything the Dems will have a lead beyond anything they expected here. And even if Lamb doesn’t win, if the Dems are able to take quite a bit of the margin, which I think they will, they will throw candidates not just in the 18th, but candidates across the state of Pennsylvania into question.”
Who’s in play?
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.:
“Union support is very important for Lamb. Union households or ancestor-of-union households are about 20/25 percent of voters. But also 40 percent of the vote will come from Allegheny County, so look out for white, college-educated, women Republican voters. They are a crucial demographic. Saccone can only hope the Trump visit helps; the momentum is still with Lamb since Democratic voters are more energetic.”
Asked for his prediction, Madonna demurred: “I can’t. I’ve been saying it’s a toss up, but it’s not good for the Republicans if Saccone wins narrowly and even worse if they lose.”