WASHINGTON — Republicans are positioned to take Senate seats away from Democrats in three battleground states in widely different regions of the country, according to new McClatchy-Marist polls in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
In Colorado, Republican Ken Buck leads incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet by 50 percent to 42 percent among likely voters.
In Pennsylvania, Republican Pat Toomey leads Democrat Joe Sestak by 51 percent to 42 percent.
In Wisconsin, Republican Ron Johnson leads Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold by 52 percent to 45 percent.
In each state, Republicans are benefitting from an enthusiasm gap, where their supporters are much more eager to turn out and vote on Nov. 2. In Colorado, for example, the Democrat leads 41 percent to 40 percent among registered voters. However, the contest flips among those most likely to vote, who give the Republican an 8-point lead.
"We define likely voters as registered voters who report they have an excellent or good chance of voting in November and express a high to moderate degree of interest in the elections," said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which conducted the polls.
Among the factors driving these results: Voters are either split over prospects for the economy or downright pessimistic, and they don't approve of President Barack Obama. In Pennsylvania, for example, 41 percent of likely voters approve of Obama's job performance; 54 percent disapprove.
Obama won all three states in 2008, each by 9 points or more.
The three states are critical to Republicans' chances of gaining the 10 seats they need to seize control of the Senate, where Democrats currently command a 59-41 majority. "They are all leaning Republican right now," Miringoff said.
Democrats might cut the enthusiasm gap, he said, if they could generate more excitement among their voters or dampen the energy on the Republican side.
"The Republicans haven't closed the sale. But there's not many shopping days left for the Democrats," Miringoff said.
In Colorado, likely voters are in a sour mood.
They think the worst is yet to come for the economy by a margin of 49 percent to 41 percent. That anxiety is worst among those making less than $50,000 a year, a group that usually favors Democrats.
Just 39 percent of likely voters approve of Obama's job performance, while 56 percent disapprove, his worst margin in the three states. While that score is tilted a bit by 93 percent disapproval among Republicans, even 54 percent of the state's independents, a key voting bloc, disapprove of the president.
Combined, those forces help explain why 56 percent of conservatives are very enthusiastic about voting, while 36 percent of liberals and 35 percent of moderates say they're very enthusiastic.
The most enthusiastic bloc in the state: tea party supporters. Two out of three are eager to vote, and they support Buck, the Republican, by a margin of 85 percent to 8 percent.
One bright spot for Democrats in Colorado: The poll found Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper leading the three-way race for governor, with 48 percent of the vote. Tom Tancredo, a former Republican running as a third-party candidate, had 29 percent, and Republican Dan Maes had 19 percent.
Pennsylvanians are divided and lukewarm about the economy's prospects. However, likely voters are less divided Obama, giving his job performance a clear thumbs down. That's hurting the Democrats' hopes of holding the seat now held by Sen. Arlen Specter, who became a Democrat last year after decades as a Republican.
Likely voters in the Keystone State split evenly on the economic outlook, with 46 percent saying the worst is yet to come and 46 percent saying the worst is over.
On Obama they aren't as split: 41 percent approve of his performance in office and 54 percent disapprove. Among those making less than $50,000, 46 percent approve and 47 percent disapprove.
The enthusiasm gap appears here, too, as 49 percent of conservatives say they're very enthusiastic to vote, a 14-point edge over liberals and 16 points over moderates.
Enthusiasm is key to voter turnout, which is key to winning. Among registered voters, Toomey, the Republican, has a 2-point edge over Democrat Sestak. Among likely voters, however, his edge swells to 9 points.
For Pennsylvania governor, Republican Tom Corbett leads Democrat Dan Onorato by 53 percent to 41 percent.
Likely voters in Wisconsin aren't overly pessimistic, nor are they as negative about as Obama as voters are in the other states.
A plurality, 48 percent, say the worst of the economy is behind us, while 43 percent think the worst is yet come.
At the same time, 46 percent approve of Obama and 50 percent disapprove.
Most of the energy is on the conservative side, where 58 percent of likely voters are very enthusiastic about voting. That's a 26-point advantage over liberals, and a 17-point edge over moderates.
Feingold, a leading liberal in the Senate, is close among registered voters, trailing Johnson by 45 percent to 43 percent. Among likely voters, though, he trails by 52 percent to 45 percent.
The polls surveyed 822 registered voters in Colorado, 817 registered voters in Pennsylvania, and 806 registered voters in Wisconsin from Sept. 26-28.
The polls included surveys of 537 likely voters in Colorado, 468 in Pennsylvania, and 503 in Wisconsin.
Registered voters were interviewed by telephone in proportion to the voter turnout in statewide elections in each county. Telephone numbers were selected based upon a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the state. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. In an effort to increase coverage, this land-line sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cell phone numbers. The land-line and cell phone samples were then combined. Results are statistically significant within 3.5 percentage points. The results for likely voters are statistically significant within 4.5 percentage points. The error margin increases for cross-tabulations.
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