It’s a simple question, really.

Do state Republicans, constantly thrashing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf over his handling of COVID-19, pump up President Donald Trump’s Pennsylvania base?

And, if so, does that push the state off it’s “Leans Dem” designation (reflected in views of prognosticators from the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato to the Cook Report to Inside Elections) and put it into the “Toss-up” group?

Instinctively, you’d think, nah.

Polling and most punditry suggest the structure of the state race is set, in favor of native-son Joe Biden. His VP pick of Kamala Harris further helps in that it’s likely to boost turnout among minority voters, especially women. Besides, since when do state issues sway presidential races?

Ah, but can the coronavirus, a global issue impacting every aspect of our lives, shove political “structure” off kilter? And can partisanship around the issue affect the state vote in a presidential election?

Consider: Trump’s base is mostly outside cities. The loudest complaints about Wolf center on one-size-fits-all restrictions. Often, less populous Republican areas with few virus cases are treated the same as Democratic population centers with lots of cases. That riles Republicans.

GOP voter registration, through June, is running much higher than Democratic registration. So far, it’s cut the state Democratic edge down to 801,000. It was 916,000 in November 2016, when Trump won the state by 44,000 votes.

Meanwhile, Republicans paint Wolf an out-of-touch elitist who exaggerates health risks while favoring government control over personal freedoms.

Wolf’s hit for ordering or advising curbs on business, booze, golf, bars, churches, restaurants and high school sports. He’s at the center of mask/no mask wars. He takes heat for not working with the Republican legislature.

Franklin County GOP Sen. Doug Mastriano, a harsh critic who’s on social media (hourly, it seems) busting on the Guv, wrote in a recent op-ed piece that Wolf, “Enjoys being a fearmonger.” Senate Republican Leader Jake Corman and others label Wolf’s decisions “unilateral, ill-considered.”

Facebook, Twitter and conservative talk radio (KDKA Pittsburgh personality Wendy Bell comes to mind) hound Wolf repeatedly.

Does it, over time, build on Trump’s base?

I don’t know. I asked around.

Robin Kolodny chairs Temple University’s political science department: “What we know from 50 years of political science data is that presidential approval and economic prosperity/hardship are the two things that propel turnout.

“I don’t see anything at the state level that could change that dramatically…also, how are those new coal and steel jobs working out where (pro-Trump/anti-Wolf) protestors live?”

Philip Harold, poli-sci prof at Robert Morris University in Allegheny County: “There’s a lot of anger and frustration out there…Wolf’s position on high school sports is politically dangerous in this regard. Without a reversal, and if Democrats are seen as the shutdown party, Pennsylvania should definitely be ranked as a toss-up state.”

Elizabethtown College poli-sci prof Fletcher McClellan: “It’s definitely a base turnout strategy and would be effective if we were talking strictly state politics in 2022…(but) at the presidential level, I think both D and R bases are highly motivated regardless of what state politicians do…I think Pa. is a toss-up, mainly because of the mess over mail-in voting, which includes pending lawsuits, Russian hacking, Trumpian tricks and the politicization of USPS.”

Penn State poli-sci associate prof Robert Speel: “While national politics often affect how people vote in state elections, the reverse is rarely true…(So) my guess is probably not, unless Gov. Wolf does something within a week or two before the November election that upsets rural and exurban voters…and even that may be too late if most voters have voted by mail.”

Berwood Yost, director, Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Opinion Research: “I’m not sure talking about Wolf will drive voting in the presidential race. Generally, Wolf is more popular that the President in this state…Trump’s vote will turn out no matter what, and he will win most counties…the keys are whether voters see Biden as a reasonable alternative who they turn out to support, and whether Biden can cut into Trump’s margins in counties Biden doesn’t win.”

So, there’s a case with historical precedent suggesting GOP squabbles with Wolf don’t much play to Trump’s advantage. But, due to COVID, there is no historical precedent for the atmosphere and politics of 2020.

Question then is what factors (COVID, economy, mail-in voting, debate performance, etc.), and reaction to them, most move votes and how?

And that’s not so simple to answer.

John Baer may be reached at baer.columnist@gmail.com

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