HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Republican Gov. Tom Corbett had not even been in office for two months when a Franklin and Marshall College poll delivered what now looks like a prophecy. Corbett's job performance rating of 31 percent was well below the ratings his first-term predecessors, Democrat Ed Rendell and Republican Tom Ridge, had received at that early point in their gubernatorial tenures.
Corbett's performance in the college's latest poll is even lower now that Democrat Tom Wolf is trying to break a four-decade tradition of governors winning a second term. And, with just under four weeks left before the Nov. 4 election, pollsters say they cannot find an example of a candidate in modern Pennsylvania history who, in just four weeks, overcame the kind of polling deficit Corbett now faces.
"The question is, 'can he get a lot of voters to change their minds and do it in a relatively short period of time?'" said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of political science and Franklin and Marshall College's pollster. "History is not on his side."
Said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, "It becomes very hard to move people who have established a view and that's the challenge facing Gov. Corbett. How do you do that?"
The latest independent poll, by Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University, showed Corbett trailing Wolf by 17 percentage points among likely voters surveyed in the first week of October. Quinnipiac's polling director, Douglas Schwartz, also could not recall an example where a gubernatorial candidate overcame such a deficit in such a short period of time.
For Corbett, unfortunately, the election is about him and not Wolf, say pollsters.
Wolf, a first-time candidate who was little-known before February, won the May 20 Democratic primary election in a landslide, beating three other opponents who, despite having far more experience in politics and government, also had relatively low statewide name recognition.
The trick was a 60-second TV ad that began running Jan. 30 and was widely praised as effective — featuring his take on key issues, his family and his employees while bringing Wolf to life in a folksy, apolitical way that seemed to resonate with registered Democrats. It helped that Wolf, independently wealthy, contributed $10 million to underwrite his robust air campaign.
Now, Wolf only has to be nothing more than an acceptable alternative to Corbett, pollsters say.
"This is 85 to 90 percent about Corbett," Madonna said.
On Thursday, at a rally in the Philadelphia suburb of Wayne, Corbett gave what is now his ready answer to a reporter's questions about the grim polls: He said he still expects to win, after pulling out victories despite being down in the polls in every race he's run before.
Supporters who came to see the governor acknowledged that the governor had taken his lumps.
Asked what had hurt Corbett the most, supporters brought up criticism of his budget-balancing cuts to public school aid — amid rising public pension costs and the expiration of the federal government's recessionary budget aid to states — and his handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Oscar Mestre, a financial planning consultant from Berwyn, said any voter's decision to punish Corbett for the fallout from the Sandusky scandal was irrational, and he defended Corbett's education policy as demanding more from schools for the money.
"Money can fix a lot of things, but it doesn't fix a broken system," Mestre said.
His supporters also know Corbett is doing poorly in the polls. Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, asked about it after the rally he headlined for Corbett on Thursday, acknowledged it.
"They are what they are," he said with a shrug, before insisting that enough time remains to close the gap.
Told that a Corbett comeback would be unprecedented, Harry DiPilla listened soberly. Still, the 68-year-old retired bus driver from Philadelphia said he planned to vote, and he insisted that the power of incumbency will carry Corbett to victory.
"He'll get back in there," DiPilla said.
Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/timelywriter.
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