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Checking in on the campaigns in Pennsylvania and the fall legislative session

Even though the campaigns in Pennsylvania have been at it for a year plus, the focus sharpens after Labor Day. Add in a few days or legislative session in Harrisburg, and there is a lot to track in the Commonwealth. Here are some quick thoughts on the state of play in Pennsylvania.

The Fetterman Team is Really Good at Political Campaigns

The Fetterman campaign has been very impressive. They’ve made two strategic decisions that have put their team on offense. One is a twist on a time-proven strategy, and the other is a smart pivot for a common problem for campaigns in a challenging electoral environment.

Using Facts and Messaging to Frame Oz

I don’t think many observers or pundits are used to seeing platforms like Twitter used the way the Fetterman campaign uses them. A lot of political content is very staid and does not match how the most engaged users interact on the platform. Typical user content looks much more aggressive to a political observer than to a regular user. The campaign's use of the medium has generated significant conversation and attention.

What is being left out of the discussion is how time-proven and simple his strategy of tying Dr.Oz to New Jersey is.

Charles R. Hunt, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Boise State University, has researched carpetbagging and political campaigns. He's found that voters respond negatively to candidates without ties to their district. Hunt developed a "Local Roots Index" that measures connectedness for each modern member of the House of Representatives. He found that "members of Congress with higher Local Roots Index scores perform far better in their elections than their more "carpetbagging" colleagues without local roots in their districts."

If you're running against a candidate without strong local roots, telling voters about your opponent's transience is fertile ground. I've been on campaigns that took this tact more traditionally. In New Mexico, we labeled an opponent a "Texas truck parts dealer" in television ads. Hunt cites similar television and earned media campaigns in Montana, West Virginia, and Maine.

Observers shouldn't get lost in the aggressiveness and platform and instead look to the research. The Fetterman team is doing a good job framing Oz. Based on some available research, I think it will help the Fetterman campaign overcome some strong headwinds this year.

The Pennsylvania Campaign With Biden

When a party’s sitting President is unpopular, it creates challenges for down-ballot campaigns. One of the most frequent questions these campaigns handle is, “Will you campaign with President so and so.” It was an issue in 2010 with President Obama, 2014 with President Obama, 2018 with President Trump, and now in 2022 with President Biden. I personally think that campaigns tie themselves in knots trying to separate themselves when there is little upside in doing so. The opposing campaign is going to tie you to the President no matter what, you might as well get the upside of rallying their supporters. Distancing yourself from members of your own party also creates a feedback loop that makes it difficult for the leaders and party to recover support and get out of a negative approval hole. You need the up-ballot/leaders of your party to be popular, you should probably stop contributing to their disapproval by reinforcing attacks on them.

With President Biden in Pennsylvania earlier this month, the Fetterman campaign handled the issue deftly. It turned it into a positive for the campaign. Before President Biden arrived in the state, the Fetterman campaign launched an earned and social push saying that Fetterman would appear with Biden and push him to decriminalize marijuana. The move answered the appearance question and allowed the campaign to pivot to safe ground on a 60-70 percent favorable issue in Pennsylvania.

I Would Curl Up and Die

Mehmet Oz, the celebrity surgeon and Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, suggested Tuesday that voters should only listen to him — and not what his campaign has to say. (Chris Brennan, Clout)

This is not the sign of a winning campaign! I’ve served as a campaign spokesperson, and I’ve overseen campaign spokespeople. Needless to say, this is going to absolutely destroy morale and make it really difficult for these staff to do their jobs with any semblance of credibility.

Can Anything Get Done in Harrisburg? Now is the time to throw everything against the wall.

The legislature is back in session in September and October with a limited number of session days. Some of these days could fall off, but it leaves open the window for some things to get done in the fall. In similar years, there’s been progress to help incumbent Republicans on key campaign issues like gun violence and child sex abuse. In 2018, legislation on both issues moved as Republicans faced campaign attacks for failing to act. Are there similar issues that can shake loose this year? Advocacy campaigns need to look at the paid and earned communications in key legislative races to see if their issues are at the forefront so they can take action.


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