WHEN A NEW statewide poll showing President Obama clinging to a 6-percentage-point lead over GOP rival Mitt Romney comes out on the same day that a judge upholds Pennsylvania's controversial voter-ID law, it raises as many questions for November as it answers.
Is the Democratic incumbent's summer lead among registered voters - 44 percent to 38 percent, according to the new Franklin & Marshall College Poll - enough to overcome predicted voting problems that could hit the hardest among some groups with which Obama has a large advantage, such as minorities and the young?
Or will anger among liberals and urban activists over the new voting law - upheld on Wednesday by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. even after a top GOP state lawmaker predicted the measure would put Romney over the top in Pennsylvania - motivate get-out-the-vote efforts and actually help Democrats?
"I think you'll see a lot of effort in places like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to get people qualified to vote," said G. Terry Madonna, the political scientist who heads the F&M poll. Madonna - who noted that he'd written an op-ed piece opposing the ID measure - said that a large-scale mobilization may counteract the problem of voters either lacking valid identification or scared away by long lines on Election Day.
The poll of 681 Pennsylvania voters - sponsored by the Daily News and seven other news organizations - was conducted by the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall from Tuesday through Sunday of last week. Its main finding that Obama holds a single-digit lead here is very much in line with other statewide polls released this summer.
The numbers reflect the broad state of the race with the election fewer than 11 weeks away. Voters give a solid edge to Obama - who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden and the end of the Iraq War - on foreign policy, but a slight advantage for economic matters to Romney, with joblessness still at 8.3 percent.
So why is the incumbent winning, considering that 57 percent of those surveyed believe that things in Pennsylvania are headed in the wrong direction? The most likely factor is that, gosh darn it, people just seem to like the president better. Obama's favorability rating in the poll is 46 percent, while Romney - the subject of withering attack ads portraying him as an out-of-touch millionaire vulture capitalist - is at just 32 percent.
"He comes across as distant, aloof," Madonna said of Romney, who was trounced by Obama, 57-30, when voters were asked specifically "who best understands the concerns of average Americans." Still, the race tightened slightly to a 47-42 Obama lead when voters were asked if they leaned toward a candidate. Madonna said just 7 percent of Pennsylvania voters are still undecided - a sliver that will be targeted with millions of dollars of ads between now and November.
The pollster said he believes the race here would have to tighten before the voter-ID law - assuming it's upheld on appeal - would become a factor. The irony, he noted, is that if the race is seen as neck-and-neck in the fall, more voters will be more highly motivated to make sure their identification is valid.
"The reality is it [voter ID] will not have much effect - if anything it will boomerang" against the Republicans, agreed Larry Ceisler, the veteran Philadelphia-based political analyst. He speculated that it might affect some local races, which could be decided by a handful of votes.
One non-presidential race in Pennsylvania that is not as close right now is the contest for U.S. Senate. The F&M poll found that incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr. leads his GOP rival, Tom Smith, 35-23. But the large number of undecided voters - 24 percent - gives the deep-pocketed Smith a chance to gain ground.