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Series 1: The Governor's Race Begins

The Democrats At The Starting Gate, November 29, 2001

Pre-election polls can be very useful for identifying the key issues in a campaign and the strengths and weaknesses of candidates. As such, they are of fundamental importance to campaigns as they plan their electoral strategies. Although we are not privy to the candidates' polls, we do have our own data (the October 2001 Keystone Poll) that can provide some important clues about the nature of next year's governor's election. Indulge us for a moment as we play campaign strategists.

At the moment, Auditor General Robert Casey holds an edge in both name recognition and in a head-to-head match up with former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell in the Democratic primary. Of course, regardless of these early numbers, everyone expects this race to be a nail biter. More important than the candidates' aggregate support is how that support breaks down, and no breakdown may be more important for this primary than geography.

At the moment, Ed Rendell is a regional candidate. His strength comes mostly from the southeastern part of the state--Montgomery, Chester, Delaware, Bucks, and Philadelphia counties. Rendell is the choice of about four out of every five Democratic voters there, but he does less well almost everywhere else in the state. For Rendell to win, he must hold onto his base in the southeast and expand his support elsewhere. His best prospect is to capture the small third class cities and the suburbs around them, putting together an urban/liberal coalition. We think this is Rendell's best strategy, because he is more appealing than Casey to liberals, African-Americans, abortion rights supporters, gun control advocates, and unmarried voters.

On the other hand, Bob Casey is a genuine statewide candidate. He has won two statewide elections as Auditor General and in 2000 was the Democrat's top vote getter, drawing more popular votes than Al Gore. Not surprisingly, our polling finds that Casey is well known throughout the Commonwealth, and he currently leads in every region of the state but the southeast. Casey's electoral strength comes from moderate and conservative Democrats, including many Catholics, military veterans, gun owners, those cautious or opposed to abortion rights, and those who live in less economically prosperous areas. Casey's support is also quite strong among labor households.

Clearly, the types of people inclined to support both candidates suggests some regional divisions. But regional support is essential for another reason--recent trends in voter turnout in Democratic primaries. Turnout in Democratic primary elections in southeastern Pennsylvania is well below what one would expect, given voter registration. For example, in the 1992 Presidential election, the five southeastern counties represented one-third (32%) of the Democratic registration in the state, but only represented 28 percent of the actual votes cast. Table 1 shows how consistent this pattern has been throughout the 1990s. In no major election between 1992 and 2000 did the turnout in the southeast come close to matching its registration. This table also shows how western Pennsylvania has become an important (and large) source of Democratic primary votes.

Table 1. Registration and Turnout for Democratic Primaries, Southeast and Western Pennsylvania as a Proportion of Statewide Figures

  1992 1994 1996 1998 2000
Registration          
Southeast 32.2% 32.3% 32.5% 32.9% 33.6%
West 29.1% 28.9% 28.6% 28.1% 27.7%
Turnout          
Southeast 28.4% 29.4% 25.1% 21.2% 26.6%
West 33.8% 32.9% 37.0% 42.4% 37.6%
           
Southeast Voter Deficit (Actual Votes Cast) 69,220 37,839 86,140 109,440 80,308

Southeast region is Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia

West region is Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Lawrence, Washington, and Westmoreland

The races used to determine turnout were: 1992 President, 1994 Governor, 1996 Auditor General, 1998 Governor, 2000 US Senate

Given the turnout issue, no part of the Rendell strategy can be more important than expanding his base beyond southeastern Pennsylvania. He would normally be expected to gain more support in the Lehigh Valley, largely because it is located within the Philadelphia media market. Of course, the other part of his strategy must be to encourage those voters who live in the southeast to actually vote--it is difficult to imagine a Rendell primary victory, if the turnout trend evidenced during the last decade continues. Casey's challenge is to prevent Rendell from eating away at his strong vote in western Pennsylvania, while trying to halt a runaway Rendell victory in the southeast. Casey must also hope that past turnout woes in the southeast persist, and that turnout in the southwest continues to run ahead of its share of registration.

How issue and leadership play into the campaign strategy of each will be the subject of future analysis pieces.