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Series II: Why Issues Matter In 2002

February 12, 2002

Each open seat campaign for governor has its own nuances, but each and every one is essentially about three elements: issues, leadership and experience, and personalities. Campaigns often involve all of these elements, and they often work synergistically, but in the end one of these elements becomes the predominant feature of the campaign.   And in 2002, at the moment, it looks like issues will be most important, but events in the days ahead will likely shift the focus to the other elements of vote choice.

In 1986, discussion about leadership and experience dominated Bob Caseys campaign.  Casey questioned Bill Scranton's leadership abilities by telling voters that Scrantons judgment was poor and that they could not trust him with the power of the governorship. The infamous transcendental meditation commercial used by the Casey campaign was the ultimate manifestation of the leadership question.

In 1978 and 1994, issues were the central focus of the campaigns. In 1978, Dick Thornburgh used a series of recessions and the indictments of officials in the Shapp administration effectively to win the governorship. In 1994, crime and jobs monopolized the rhetoric. Tom Ridge put the election away when a crime related event, the controversial pardon of Reginald McFadden, put his opponent, Mark Singel, who as chair of the Pardons Board had voted to grant the pardon, on the defensive for the latter weeks of the campaign.

In 2002, the campaign for governor is coming into sharp relief--thanks in part to a survey of Pennsylvania citizens completed by Millersvilles Center for Opinion Research for The Pennsylvania Economy League. The study has identified some of the major components of this years election, especially the issue and leadership dimensions of the campaign.

The Issues

The perennial concern of state residents, the economy, after playing second fiddle to education for the past several years, now utterly dominates Pennsylvanians' list of concerns, with one in three residents saying it is their top state priority. The recession is here, and residents are acutely aware of it.

The threat of terrorism has slipped from view; only two percent say its a state concern. Last fall, it was the second most identified problem confronting the state.

Education is now a distant second (17%), but regional concern for education in Philadelphia and its suburbsBucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Countiesoutpaces the economy, undoubtedly because of the tremendous media exposure given the state takeover of the Philadelphia schools.

At the other end of the state, taxes (24%) in Allegheny County run a close second (30%) to the economy, largely because of an unpopular county property reassessment enacted there.  The rest of the west is completely focused on the economy.

The various campaigns in 2002 will have to deal with some unique features related to the economy. The states citizens expect the next governor to attract new business and industries, help existing business grow and expand, and prepare workers for 21st century jobs. Pennsylvanians believe that the state's economic performance lags well behind the other states it must compete with to attract business and fuel economic growth.  Pennsylvanians also express alarm at the out migration of young people, more often referred to as the brain drain, and see it as a consequence of the poor economy.

Pennsylvanians expect the candidates to lay before them an action plan that deals with these fundamental economic problems, and the candidate who does this successfully will have a big advantage in the elections ahead. But they also want the candidates to present an education program. They especially want the performance of public schools improved and the unequal funding of public school districts addressed.  However, unlike the economy, Pennsylvanians believe the education system, despite its problems, is performing as well as the education systems in other states.

Then there are taxes.  Anyone seeking the governorship must be wary of taxes. Almost one in five respondents want to hear the candidates discuss taxes, a subject always fraught with danger for statewide candidates (why?). Citizens believe taxes are the main reason the state loses business to other states. On a personal level, they believe taxes are a more important problem than education. While the subject must be addressed, how a candidate handles taxes is another indicator of likely electoral success.

Few state residents mention abortion, guns, roads, management of growth, or environmental matters as pressing state concerns. At the moment, the state of the economy, education, and taxes are what the voters want the candidates to talk about as the campaign progresses.  Of course, these other concerns could define the vote choice of a small, but important subset of voters.

Vision

Just as in past campaigns, voters will be looking at more than their issue priorities. Leadership comes into play. Somewhat surprising, integrity and honesty are not on the minds of voters at the moment, nor is electing a candidate with a charismatic personality or business experience. Perhaps, because voters concerns are deeply related to pocketbook matters, education, and taxes, and because they are deeply rooted and relate to problems not easily resolved, voters want the next governor to have a vision for the states future--a discussion that is more than the sum of the issue parts. Almost 40% of respondents say vision is essential, followed by knowledge and experience (30%) in government, as the most important characteristic they will look for in the next governor.

The complete results of the Pennsylvania Economy League survey are available at http://www.issuespa.net/.  The analysis provided herein is based on the results of the survey: it does, however, contain some subjective interpretation of the data.  Log on and examine the survey yourself. Send in your interpretation, and your views may be shared with the mailing list of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs, as long as they display decorum and good taste.  Just hit your reply button and your response will be on its way.