HARRISBURG — Viewed through the prism of public opinion polls, the Democratic nomination contest for Pennsylvania governor has been static for more than a month, but that’s likely to change soon.
Separate Franklin & Marshall College polls released Feb. 26 and on Thursday painted strikingly similar pictures: nearly half the state’s Democratic voters remain undecided about which candidate to support, Tom Wolf is backed by one-third of those who have made up their minds, and support for Allyson Schwartz, Rob McCord and Katie McGinty is in the single digits.
Six weeks out from the May 20 primary, Wolf is clearly the candidate to beat in the race to choose a Democratic nominee who will challenge Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in the fall.
The 65-year-old York businessman and first-time candidate injected $10 million of his own money into his campaign early on. That enabled him to saturate the TV airwaves with an ongoing series of voter-friendly commercials that described his rescue of the family business and portraying him as a highly educated, Jeep-driving, family man.
“The ads were very effective and well done and (they) had an impact” on everyday Pennsylvanians, said Marcel Groen, the Montgomery County Democratic chairman.
Wolf’s opponents, all from the Philadelphia suburbs, are vowing to step up their game in the closing weeks in an effort to catch up with — or overtake — the front-runner.
All three have more government experience than Wolf, who served less than two years as Gov. Ed Rendell’s revenue secretary.
Schwartz, a former state senator, is finishing her 10th year in Congress; McCord is serving his second four-year term as the state treasurer; and McGinty was Rendell’s environmental protection secretary and an environmental adviser in the Clinton White House.
Opportunities for one candidate to stand out on an issue are limited by the fact that the candidates share generally similar positions — differing on the scope of a proposal, for example, but not on the substance. But in campaign literature, public forums and TV ads, they are talking about their childhoods and life experiences in hopes of connecting with voters.
“In order for anyone (else) to win, Tom’s numbers have to come down and one of the candidates has to emerge” as a contender, Groen said.
“I think Tom moves (up in the polls) not because of the issues, but because of the story he’s told,” he said. “If they have a story that also resonates, they’ll move.”
On Monday, Schwartz will become the last of the four candidates to air TV ads. She plans to stay on the air through the primary, said her campaign spokesman, Mark Bergman.
“Voters are just starting to tune in,” Bergman said. “Voters are not focused on a May primary in April.”
McCord campaign spokesman Mark Nevins expects the intensity of the campaign to pick up and said McCord has the money to “go toe to toe with Tom Wolf” through the primary.
“The most competitive part of this race is yet to come,” Nevins said.
Mike Mikus, spokesman for McGinty’s campaign, said she plans no changes in strategy.
“Voters are going to take their time” in deciding which candidate to support, he said. “”As people get to know Katie, they come to like Katie.”
At Wolf’s campaign, spokesman Mark Nicastre says a coronation is the last thing on his mind.
“That is not Tom’s personality,” Nicastre said. “He’s doing this for the first time. He’s not taking anything at all for granted.”