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 strategy. Milton Shapp pioneered it in 1970. In 1994, Republican Tom Ridge followed a similar path.
- 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 paramount throughout the campaign.
- Trite, but still true, a good “air war” beats a good “ground war” every time. 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. But phone banks, doorbell ringing and even social media can’t compete with a well-planned and expertly executed statewide presence on TV.
- n 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. But 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 that he had an impressive campaign team supporting him, a large amount of money available to him, and a well-planned strategy. But it’s fair to say that Wolf is a different candidate than usually seen in Pennsylvania.
- n Negative advertising is not 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. Voters didn’t care about them, didn’t like them and didn’t believe them.
- n Women running for governor still appear to be a hard sell to the Pennsylvania electorate. 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. The reality is 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 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 Democrat’s new nominee rejects politics as usual, which the 2014 gubernatorial race isn’t likely to be.
Madonna is professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Young is a former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State University.