In this newsletter I discuss primary turnout and how the support for the primary candidates differed by population density and proximity to the state’s urban centers. I also discuss how the issues voters will be thinking about on Election Day in November may differ from those they were thinking about in the May Primary.
Thank you for reading,
Primary election turnout in Pennsylvania tends to be low, averaging 28 percent of registered Republicans and 29 percent of registered Democrats in even numbered years between 2000 and 2018. In the May primary, the Republican turnout was 39% and the Democratic turnout was 32%. It was the highest mid-term primary turnout for Democrats since 2002 and was the highest for Republicans since 1994.
Unfortunately, a review of recent mid-term election data suggests that the primary results do not necessarily predict turnout or the winners in the upcoming general election (Table 1).
A critical dividing line in state politics emerges from the state’s urban-suburban-rural divisions, with residents of each community expressing starkly different ideological and electoral preferences. These differences carry over into party primaries.
A useful way of looking at this divide is by organizing the state’s counties according to their population density and proximity to major urban centers (click here for a description of how we organized the state's counties by population density). Organizing the data by density shows how the Oz and Mastriano constituencies differ. Senator Mastriano’s support mirrors President Trump's support during his 2016 primary win in Pennsylvania: underperforming in the state’s large central and fringe metros and overperforming in the state’s less dense rural communities. Mr. Oz’s support is different: he overperformed in the large central and fringe metros, while underperforming in the less dense communities of the state. Senator Mastriano won in every community type while Mr. Oz trailed Mr. McCormick in the large central metros and the micropolitan and non-core communities.
The Democratic candidates for US Senate also performed differently in these communities. Notably, Lieutenant Governor Fetterman’s support among Democrats was much stronger in smaller, less densely populated communities than in the large central and fringe metros where Conor Lamb did a bit better. Still, he won convincingly in each community type.
These patterns hint at the ideological opportunities, and threats, each candidate needs to consider as he campaigns, but getting to the right messaging may be a bit more complicated than it was in May.
The primary election polling found that the state’s voters were dissatisfied with their economic circumstances, with the direction of the state and nation, and with President Biden’s performance. It is safe to say that the mid-term elections were shaping up to be, as usual, a referendum on the President’s party that would be largely based on views about the economy. That was, of course, before the US Supreme Court decisions drew renewed attention to abortion rights and gun control.
It is worth recognizing how inconsequential these two issues were to primary voters in May 2022. Only two percent of Democratic voters and four percent of Republicans said that abortion policy was driving their choice in the US Senate races. Less than one percent of Democrats and five percent of Republicans said that gun control policy was driving their choice.
The most important immediate result of these decisions, from a political standpoint, is that they give Democratic candidates something to talk about other than the economy and the President's performance in office. The change in subject may help Democrats motivate their base voters and perhaps remind those with weak party attachments about what the consequences of their choice, or failure to choose, might be.
Turning the electoral conversation from the economy to these divisive issues would force Republicans to defend policies that are somewhat unpopular in the fringe and medium metro areas where state elections are won or lost (see Table 2). The messaging around gun control policy is less clear in the medium metros than in the fringe metros, but the real problem for Republican candidates in these areas is the strong support for abortion rights.
Republican candidates will need to be careful talking about abortion rights in these communities and get the subject back to the economy if they can. This is probably more important for Mr. Oz than Senator Mastriano if the support each received in their primaries is any guide—Mr. Oz needs to attract these suburbanites since he is less popular in the smaller, denser areas of the state. Senator Mastriano will need some of these voters, of course, but he has a strong base of support in rural communities that will allow him to carry a smaller share of the suburban vote.
Can Lt. Governor Fetterman benefit from this change? He is popular in the less densely populated areas of the state, but there is concern about his ability to connect with urban voters. The Supreme Court decisions give these voters a reason to turn out, but Fetterman’s emphasis on economic issues in the primary was a big part of his messaging. Can he effectively incorporate both economic and social issue messaging? In fact, can anybody? And how much will these candidates need to do it?
The 2022 Pennsylvania primary election was historic because the rare, dual open seat races for US Senate and Governor produced a significant number of candidates and a lot of campaign spending that helped boost primary turnout. Despite having a set field of candidates, the issues that the campaigns will emphasize, or at least the mix of messages they will present, will continue to evolve into the fall.
Republicans are well positioned for the fall races because voters’ assessments that both President Biden and the economy are doing poorly probably won’t change. Democrats hope that a Supreme Court decision changing fifty years of established law will motivate their base and draw in others who view the change as too radical.
Whatever else happens, this mid-term will provide a true test of the conventional wisdom about mid-terms being mostly about the incumbent president’s performance. The conventional wisdom tells us that the President is too unpopular for the Supreme Court decisions about guns and abortion to make much of a difference in the mid-term outcomes, but we should also acknowledge that there is no direct historical analogy for us to use as a comparison.
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