The May 2022 Pennsylvania Primary Election has been a topic of conversation for more than a year, but most of that attention has focused on the political consequences of these races and the candidates who are running. This month’s newsletter, co-written with Stephen Medvic, the Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government at Franklin & Marshall College, looks at some rarely discussed features of the state's primary elections that might help tilt the scales toward one candidate or another.
Thank you for reading,
There have been surprisingly few public polls conducted for the May 2022 Pennsylvania primary races, but the polling data that is available shows that the Republican races are still too close to call and that the Democratic Senate race seems to be favoring John Fetterman even though many voters say they are still considering their choice. Since the polling is limited, and we know that primary polls have historically not been as accurate as general election polling, what else is there to think about that could help us know what to expect? There are three features of state primaries that people don’t always think about that are likely to play at least some role in determining winners and losers in a close primary race: 1) regional turnout, 2) a candidate's county of residence, and 3) a candidate's ballot position.
Primary election turnout in Pennsylvania is normally low, averaging 28 percent of registered Republicans and 29 percent of registered Democrats in even numbered years since 2000. Figure 1 shows the primary election turnout among registered voters in both parties. Higher voter turnout is typically associated with more competitive primaries, so the competitive races in 2022 are likely to produce higher than normal turnout next week. Turnout above 40 percent of registered voters in each party seems possible, given the interest in the election expressed in the most recent F&M Poll, with higher turnout likely for Republicans than Democrats.
Besides the effect that competition has on voter turnout for both parties, partisan turnout has a decided geographic component (see Figure 2). For Democratic primaries, we can expect about half of those casting a ballot to come from southeast Pennsylvania, while we can expect the majority of Republican voters to come from the less densely populated areas of the state that fall mostly outside the larger urban and suburban counties. This means that a larger share of Democratic voters will be progressive, and that a larger share of Republican voters will be conservative, within each respective primary.
County of Residence
Voters often use information shortcuts to make decisions. Of course, the most important shortcut, party identification, is unavailable to voters in primary elections since all the candidates on a given voter’s ballot share the same party. Instead, some Pennsylvania voters will likely rely on a unique feature of the state’s ballot, namely, the candidate's county of residence that appears beside each candidate's name. The results of recent primary elections in the state shows that primary candidates receive about half of the vote share in their home county, although that declines if there is more than one candidate in the race from the same county. Figure 3 shows the statewide share of the primary vote in comparison to the share of the vote a candidate received in their home county listed on the ballot. Any marker that appears above the diagonal line means that the candidate won a larger share of their home county vote than their share from the entire state vote. In a close race like the Republican US Senate primary, where four of the seven candidates are from Montgomery County and only one is from Allegheny County, the candidate from Allegheny County, Dave McCormick, is likely to benefit.
Just as a candidate’s county of residence is a piece of information a voter can use in making their vote decision, so is a candidate’s ballot position. Political scientists have found that candidates benefit from being listed first on the ballot, with the effect largest in down-ballot races, non-partisan elections, and primaries where voters often lack a lot of information about the candidates.
In Tuesday’s primaries for governor and U.S. Senate, many voters will have sufficient information to make a choice without relying on ballot position, so the effect for those whose names are listed first – Lou Barletta in the Republican governor’s race; Kathy Barnette in the Republican Senate race; and Alex Khalil in the Democratic Senate race – may be small. But with a long list of candidates in each of these races, being further down the list of candidates could have a depressing effect on vote share. 
This essay has highlighted factors that may have some impact on Tuesday’s elections but that are often overlooked. Because they get plenty of attention from political observers, we didn’t mention the role endorsements play in primaries. This year, their role is more limited than usual.
Endorsements typically serve as another piece of information for voters to use in deciding which candidate to support, but neither party endorsed in any of the contested races for US Senate, governor, or lieutenant governor this year, with the exception of the Democratic lieutenant governor's race. Of course, an endorsement from former President Trump is the holy grail for Republican candidates. As of this writing, his only endorsement is for Mehmet Oz in the US Senate race. Trump’s endorsement of Oz has elicited some criticism among his supporters, and recent polls showing that Kathy Barnette is increasing her support means that not all conservatives are convinced that Oz is the authentic MAGA candidate. Still, for Republican voters having a hard time deciding between the leading candidates, Trump’s endorsement will probably be the deciding factor.
Primary elections often produce unexpected outcomes for unanticipated reasons, especially when there are long lists of candidates running for an office. Without a partisan cue to guide their decisions, voters turn to other available sources of information. Even in a year where interest is likely higher than normal, some combination of the factors we mention above is going to influence the outcomes of these races.
References & Resources
The election turnout data for Figures 1 and 2 was compiled by the authors using data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of State, specifically the Election Results and Voting & Election Statistics pages found here.
The ideological profiles of the state's voters by geography are displayed in Figure 2 of this post.
 The data used to create the image is based on every contested statewide primary in the state between 2000 and 2020 (n=108 candidates, 73 Democrats and 35 Republicans). The data was compiled by the authors from state election returns and county of residence was determined from state campaign committee filings.
 In Pennsylvania, a candidate’s position on a primary ballot is determined randomly.
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