Before Election Day, the outcome is unknown, while the possibilities are numerous. Post-election, we know exactly what happened. The problem is to make some sense of it.
Here are six succinct takeaways that try to make some sense of what happened to Pennsylvania Democrats in their May 20 primary, while suggesting what it may mean for the November general election:
• Early money matters, but early money used well matters most. The Wolf campaign struck early and often with effective advertising and shrewd time buys that put his better known opponents on the defensive — a position from which they never recovered. Wolf was not the first gubernatorial candidate to use this early-and-often strategy. Milton Shapp pioneered it back in 1970 with similar results. In 1994, Republican Tom Ridge followed a similar path. Underestimating any opponent, especially a well-funded one, is always dangerous and frequently fatal. Three former candidates for governor now know that.
• The May 20 Democratic contest might be called an “all of the above” race. Certainly, disparate parts of the party structure favored and supported various candidates. But none of the candidates was unacceptable as the nominee. Energetic opposition by any significant wing of the party to any of the candidates was absent. Fractious primaries often lead to divided parties that lose in the fall. If Democrats lose in the fall, it won’t have anything to do with the primary. Instead, the passion to defeat Tom Corbett in November was palpable and paramount throughout the campaign, producing a race virtually guaranteed to put a united party behind the ultimate winner.
• Now trite, but still true, a good “air war” beats a good “ground war” every time. Tom Wolf’s early and excellent media advertising was some of the best Pennsylvania has seen. But Wolf didn’t have the major endorsements or field organization enjoyed by his opponents. These were shared mainly between Allyson Schwartz and Rob McCord, both of whom could have potentially benefited from well-run Election Day organizations. But phone banks, doorbell ringing and even social media can’t compete with a well-planned and expertly executed statewide presence on TV. However, in the end, media beats foot leather. It has for a long time.
• Rookies don’t win in Pennsylvania — except when they do. Wolf is an amateur politician by any standard, and most rookies running statewide in Pennsylvania are like the proverbial “nice guy.” They finish last. Except Wolf never got the memo. Instead, he ran a flawless campaign going through the rigors of the contest without a major misstep. The essence of equanimity, Wolf, even when attacked, remained unfailingly polite. It is true he had an impressive campaign team supporting him, a large amount of money available to him and a well-thought-out strategy that served him well. But it’s fair to say that Wolf is a different candidate than usually seen in Pennsylvania. It is far too early to fully evaluate him — but not too early to predict he will continue to surprise.
• Negative advertising is not always effective. One of the myths of modern campaigning is that negative advertising is usually necessary to win and always effective. It wasn’t here. The barrage of negative ads aimed at Wolf, toward the end of the campaign, caused minimal damage to him and possibly hurt his opponents more than him. That’s largely because negative advertising works best when it addresses something voters care about, it is perceived as being fair and it is considered credible. Most of the negative ads aimed at Wolf failed one or all of these criteria. Voters didn’t care about them, didn’t like them, and didn’t believe them. But Wolf’s campaign also demonstrated that it isn’t necessary for a candidate under attack to answer with their own negative ads. Wolf ran a virtually 100 percent positive campaign and he won. That will be remembered — and it should be.
• Women running for governor still appear to be a hard sell to the Pennsylvania electorate. Allyson Schwartz is just the latest casualty of what the New York Times has described as a possible “glass ceiling” limiting women candidates in Pennsylvania and several other Northeastern states. Both parties have now offered qualified women for governor, and both have failed, either in primaries or in the general election. It is unclear when or what will shatter the glass ceiling. What is clear is the reality that women aspiring to high office in Pennsylvania confront formidable barriers.
What do these results mean for November?
Wolf has impressively passed his first test but another, perhaps greater, one lies ahead. Corbett may be unpopular, but he has amply demonstrated his intention to wage an aggressive re-election campaign — something he has the resources to do.
Nevertheless, Corbett has signaled his concern about running against Wolf. He has taken the virtually unprecedented step of running negative ads against Wolf during the Democratic primary.
What’s certain is that Pennsylvanians are going to experience an exciting, hard-fought race to select their next governor. The Democrats new nominee rejects politics as usual, which the 2014 gubernatorial race isn’t likely to be.