In a probing and preliminary survey conducted by Harper in February 2013, a mere 1% of likely Democratic primary voters declared their preference for Tom Wolf, who had yet to officially announce his candidacy for governor of the Keystone State. A Quinnipiac poll a month later found that a full 85% of Pennsylvanians had not heard enough of Tom Wolf to determine whether they viewed him favorably or unfavorably. The York-based businessman, once he did formally enter the race in April 2013, sometimes opened get-to-know-me stump speeches by half-jokingly distinguishing himself from novelist Tom Wolfe. This candidate, he would flatly add, spells his name without the “e.”
Yet within the span of a single year, Wolf made the surprising transition from near-anonymity to frontrunner status in the state’s primary race, and last week, on May 20, he won 58% of the vote in Pennsylvania’s closed Democratic primary – a full 40 percentage points ahead of second-place Allyson Schwartz.
How, to put it simply, did that happen? In pursuing the answer to this question, one obvious answer – and general questions about the nature of contemporary electoral American politics – emerge.
First, it is important to introduce the Democratic contenders, which, in the final months, narrowed to four candidates. Katie McGinty served as the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection under Governor Ed Rendell; Rob McCord, the state’s current Treasurer, laid out aggressive plans for how to remedy the state’s financial woes, especially in education; Allyson Schwartz, a former state senator turned member of Congress representing the state’s 13th district, invoked her decades in state and federal legislatures as evidence of her political prowess. Then there was Tom Wolf, boasting a unique resume – a mosaic of volunteer work (he spent two years in India with the Peace Corps), entrepreneurship, and public service as the state’s former Secretary of Revenue.
All four vied for their party’s nomination and the opportunity to challenge incumbent Republican Governor Corbett, whose popularity is in sharp decline and whose administration and agenda has been sharply rebuked in the courts. This January, a state court invalidated the state’s 2012 Voter ID law. Last December, the State Supreme Court rejected part of Act 13 – the law regulating the oil and gas industry – for its unconstitutional mandate that state zoning regulations preempt those of individual municipalities, and just last week, Governor Corbett announced that he would not appeal the U.S. District Court’s ruling against Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage.
All four candidates were eager to contrast their views with those of the governor. For instance, each supported the expansion of Medicaid to cover Pennsylvania’s uninsured rather than endorse Corbett’s “Healthy Pennsylvania” plan, which uses federal funding to subsidize premiums for private insurance.
On nearly every issue, the daylight between each candidate’s position was so slim that, to the casual observer, their names seemed like their sole distinguishable features. During a primary debate in January 2014, a frustrated moderator – the veteran Pennsylvania journalist John Baer – huffed, “Can’t I find something one of you disagrees on?”
Indeed, their disagreements mostly concerned degree, quantity, and tone. All four advocated raising the minimum wage to above $10 in the near future, for instance, though the specific amounts and timeframes varied slightly. Also, each candidate criticized the governor for refusing to sufficiently tax the oil and gas industries, which have descended upon the state in recent years to frack the vast resources embedded in the massive, state-sprawling Marcellus Shale.
Moreover, they vowed to repeal the current “impact fee” that is leveled upon the drillers (and used primarily to reimburse communities sustaining a sudden burden on their infrastructure) and to replace it with a severance tax. Katie McGinty, for instance, proposed a 4.5% tax. Tom Wolf and Allyson Schwartz proposed a 5% tax, and Rob McCord championed a full 10% severance tax. With this added revenue – amounting to billions of dollars over the next decade – they planned to increase investment in the state’s public education system that has seen reduced funding since the evaporation of federal assistance from the 2009 stimulus package.
The candidates also expressed their support for same-sex marriage, advocated reform of current drug policy – including the permissibility of possessing small amounts of marijuana, and rejected the necessity or legality of Voter ID laws.
Why, then, amid such thick consensus, did Wolf win so decisively?
The answer, in a word: advertisements.
Beginning in January, when the gubernatorial primary had not yet entered the public’s consciousness, Tom Wolf introduced himself to Pennsylvanians with lighthearted, scarcely political ads. Between wide shots of laborers briskly working on the floor of in his cabinetry business, warm testimonials from family, workers, and colleagues, and shots of Wolf driving around in his 2006 Jeep Wrangler, Pennsylvanians learned about Wolf long before being introduced to the other candidates.
Wolf spent an average of $2.5 million per month on advertisements from January to April 2014, and not just any advertisements. He recruited the media and consulting firm Shorr Johnson Magnus to his campaign, which has produced ads for high-profile Democratic candidates, including Terry McAuliffe for his 2013 gubernatorial campaign in Virginia, and even then-candidate Obama in 2008.
The first ads certainly made an impression on Democratic voters. Gregg J. Potter, president of the Lehigh Valley Labor Council, called his wife into the room so that he could replay one ad for her on TV.
“That’s one of the best political ads I’ve seen ever. … This defines a person in a phenomenal fashion,” he enthused for the York Daily Record. “How can you not like that?”
The investment paid off, and starting in January, Wolf immediately surged ahead in the polls, passing Allyson Schwartz. By the spring, while the other candidates were just beginning to broadcast their messages, Wolf secured a double-digit lead and never looked back.
So while the answer to why Wolf won is rather straightforward, this answer invites several questions, ones which are especially applicable to independent voters.
On the one hand, it raises the perennial question about the role of money in politics. Wolf spent roughly $13 million on his campaign, $10 million of which he financed on his own, raising most of the remainder from loyal York-based donors. (For a comparative perspective, Schwartz and McCord spent between $7 million and $8 million, and McGinty significantly less).
However, since this was a state-level primary contest, the usual, post-Citizens United finger-pointing to SuperPACs does not apply, as they played no detectable role in the contest. And while one can decry the rather sizable $10 million loan that Wolf took out for his campaign (McCord accused Wolf of participating in an auction rather than an election), as Philadelphia pundit Dick Polman observed his post-mortem analysis, Wolf’s self-funding strategy was quite an expensive gambit, since, according to one study of self-funded candidates between 2000 and 2009, only 11% won their races.
Nevertheless, citizens need to seriously consider the influence of advertisements (and the money that pays for them) and the way they sway voters to base their decisions on emotion rather than the issues. (One Lancaster voter was particularly wooed by his voice: “It’s pleasant, so pleasant,” she cooed to the York Dispatch. “When we have to listen to a governor for so many years, that’s important.”)
On the other hand, one might sympathize with the voters’ collective decision-making here, which, on the surface, seems largely to have been a result of Wolf’s careful image management rather than the substance of his positions, which, we have seen, were nearly indiscernible from those of his opponents. However, especially for independent-minded voters, style might be just as important – if not more important – than strict adherence to a fixed platform.
For example, some voters applauded Wolf’s refusal to issue attack ads or otherwise “go-negative” during the campaign or in the debates, unlike Schwartz and McCord, who impugned his business management and his affiliation with a former racist mayor of York, Charlie Robertson, respectively. Wolf’s tactfulness will be an important asset if he wins the governorship and has to work with a Republican-controlled legislature in Harrisburg – one notorious for its partisanship, inertia, bloat, and corruption.
Or, put another way, perhaps his style is one with his substance. He is, after all, bilingual, an avid reader, a wonk with a Ph.D. from M.I.T., and largely without a history of partisan baggage – positive signs of intellectual curiosity and political independence. For instance, he has been deliberately unclear regarding his positions on several pressing matters, including gun control and pension reform.
These questions – the role of money in electoral politics, and the relative importance of substance and style – are ones that independents specifically and voters generally will have to consider and debate, in Pennsylvania and nationwide.