Apr 18, 2024 - News

Focus groups: Swing voters don't know PA Senate candidates

Photo illustration of Bob Casey and Dave McCormick.

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photos: Anna Moneymaker and Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Bob Casey and David McCormick will face off in one of the nation's most expensive and competitive Senate races — and yet few Pennsylvania swing voters know who they are, according to our latest Engagious/Sago focus groups.

Why it matters: Political observers were split over the significance of that dynamic, telling Axios that swing voters are sometimes low-information voters who'll tune into the race as the election approaches.

  • They agreed that Casey, a three-term Democratic incumbent, benefits more from the relative lack of awareness of the candidates.

Driving the news: Four of 11 swing voters in two online focus groups conducted last week recognized Casey without being prompted, though some knew him when they were given his name.

  • Three voters knew McCormick, the runner-up who lost to TV personality Mehmet Oz in the 2022 Senate Republican primary.
  • Some focus group members didn't know Casey was a U.S. senator, misidentifying him as the "speaker of the state" or someone who works in "in the government in Pennsylvania."

Of note: The two recent Engagious/Sago focus groups, which Axios attended, involved Pennsylvanians who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020.

  • Four identified as Democrats, three as Republicans, and four as independents.
  • While a focus group is not a statistically significant sample like a poll, the responses show how some voters think and talk about current events.

Zoom in: The candidates are competing to outraise each other as Casey, who touts his record while projecting a low-key persona once compared to oatmeal, faces what many political observers believe is the toughest reelection of his career.

  • McCormick, a rich, former CEO of Bridgewater Associates who lives part-time in Connecticut, ran expensive television ads early in the campaign touting his high school wrestling career in Pennsylvania as a way to parry attacks from Casey that he's a carpetbagger.
  • Both candidates are embarking on tours across the state to raise their profiles and better familiarize themselves with the needs of voters.

What they're saying: Rich Thau, president of Engagious who moderated the focus groups, called the results a reality check for the candidates.

  • "Judging from their lack of familiarity with both candidates, including their own third-term U.S. senator, Trump-to-Biden voters who are barely paying attention to the Senate race right now are likely to determine its outcome," he tells Axios.

The intrigue: Despite not knowing much about the candidates, more than 60% of swing voters said they'd take Casey over McCormick in a head-to-head contest.

🧠 Be smart: Matthew Kerbel, a political science professor at Villanova University, tells Axios the Senate race has largely been a low-key affair up to this point.

  • Pundits expect the race will heat up — and voters will be better educated about the candidates — as it gets closer to November.
  • "You've got a lot of people who have tuned out of politics because of the roiling atmosphere and the partisanship," St. Joe's professor emeritus and political commentator Randall Miller tells Axios.
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