While this is an improvement for Specter from his position in the Republican primary, and while being ahead is better than being behind, this is still a pretty tenuous position for the 29-year incumbent. The campaign is likely to become a dead-heat before long, and the final results are highly likely to be within single-digits.
Sestak already ahead among people who know both candidates: The only reason Specter is ahead at all right now is name recognition. According to the GQR poll on the campaign, Sestak is already ahead, 52%-44%, among the 20-30% of the electorate that is aware of both candidates. Given that this campaign will receive a lot of attention, it is virtually assured that all Democratic voters in Pennsylvania will know who Joe Sestak is by the end of the campaign.
Sestak much closer than other little-known Senate primary challenger. Sestak starts the campaign noticeably closer than did three other recent, major Senate primary challengers. Here is a quick comparison:
In 2004, Specter led Pat Toomey 52%-20% across the three polls taken on the campaign between November 2003 and February 2004. Specter went on to win, by only by 2%.
In 2006, five months ahead of the Republican primary in Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee led Steve Laffey 56%-28%. Laffey eventually pulled into a dead heat, before narrowly losing the primary by 4,000 votes.
Also in 2006, Ned Lamont trailed Joe Lieberman by 46% only three months before the primary. Lamont went on to win the primary by about 3.5%.
The pattern in other recent major Senate primary challenges suggests that Sestak will be able to quickly make up ground on Sestak once he becomes better known.
Sestak does well among key groups: If Sestak is ahead among Pennsylvania Democrats who know both candidates, then it stands to reason that Sestak leads among the Pennsylvania Democrats who pay the most attention to political news. These news junkies are who many family and friends rely upon to receive political information, and Sestak is doing well among them.
Further, Sestak actually does better among many key Democratic groups that would be perceived as Specter's best constituencies. Specifically, Sestak does best among conservative Democrats and registered Democrats who self-identify as either Independent or Republicans.
Overall, this puts Specter in the awkward position of having the left-wing and less politically engaged segments of his newfound party as his starting base. This is problematic, because he is going to be challenged from the left and because left-wing media will largely be anti-Specter.
Overall, the potential for the rapid evaporation of Specter's lead is clear. I should note, of course, that none of this guarantees Sestak will win, just that Specter will not win by a large amount. Previous campaigns have shown that once challengers are well known, then it becomes possible for incumbents to reverse their polling slide. Chafee and Lieberman both gained ground on their challenges in the final week before their respective primaries, for example.
Given that Specter will have a heavy endorsement and financial advantage, it seems equally unlikely that Sestak will be able to post a large victory himself. The campaign should be pretty close, and might be decided by whether voters think Specter became a Democrat to keep his seat, or whether he became a Democrat because he agreed with the party on most issues. Since Specter has himself said that his polling deficit in the Republican primary was a main reason for his switch, and since the best long-term vote tracking data shows that Specter moved to the right in every session of Congress since he was first elected, the facts strongly suggest that he switched primarily to save his seat.