Next week’s Democratic primary for governor suffers from voter apathy, lack of statewide name recognition among the contenders and regionalized support that offer no guarantee of winning in the fall, experts say.
"There really is no conventional wisdom in this race," said pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
Two of the four candidates are from Western Pennsylvania — state Auditor General Jack Wagner of Beechview and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato of the North Side — and two are from the East, state Sen. Anthony Williams of Philadelphia and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel of Abington.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Onorato in the lead, with 36 percent of voters supporting him, and Wagner, Hoeffel and Williams each with than 10 percent. Yet, the largest number of voters surveyed, about 37 percent, remain undecided.
And a Quinnipiac poll in April indicated soft support for all of the candidates. Seven in 10 voters said they could change their minds before the May 18 election.
This race involves an interplay of regionalism, money for advertising and old-fashioned bread-and-butter endorsements, Madonna said. Onorato, who raised an impressive $6.7 million, and Williams are airing television ads.
"Onorato right now looks like the likely nominee," Madonna said, "but you cannot discount the daily barrage of statewide local-level endorsements that Wagner has accumulated, Hoeffel’s impact on Onorato in the Philly suburbs and Williams’ voter turnout in the city of Philadelphia."
The missing component appears to be voter interest, he said.
"Onorato’s poll numbers show that he seems to be more ‘known’ and ‘more liked’ than his opponents," said Villanova political science professor Lara Brown. "But all of these candidates’ numbers are low, which indicates that voters have not yet really tuned in and made up their minds — which is why things could still change."
Madonna and Brown see little interest among voters in the heavily populated eastern corridor, making it difficult to gauge how the race will finish.
In 2002’s Democratic primary, former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell defeated then-state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. by winning 10 of the state’s 67 counties. He concentrated his campaign on Philadelphia and its surrounding counties.
Mindful of that strategy, Madonna said, "Onorato could conceivably run a campaign of coming in second-place in every region except Allegheny County and win the race."
Bert Rockman, a former University of Pittsburgh political scientist, considers that strategy a risky one.
"If I were betting, I would be inclined to put my wager on Wagner," he said.
In 2008, Wagner won more votes than any candidate in the state. In Rockman’s view, if Wagner runs a grassroots campaign playing on his considerable statewide name recognition and appealing to older, more conservative party voters who are most likely to turn out for the primary, he can win the nomination.
In 2002, former state Treasurer Catherine Baker Knoll won her bid for lieutenant governor in a similarly crowded field — a victory that experts largely credit to statewide name recognition and relentless ground-up politicking.
Brown said she can envision a turnout model that splits the anemic eastern vote between Hoeffel, Williams and Onorato, with Wagner winning a majority of votes in the West.
"You can take Hoeffel out of the mix as a winner," said Philadelphia-based Democratic political consultant Larry Ceisler. "But you cannot discount his ability to garner votes in the Southeast suburbs and progressive pockets of the state."
If Hoeffel communicates a progressive message via the Internet and word of mouth, his presence will be significant — and could cost Onorato the nomination, Ceisler said.
That makes this race buck every scenario of conventional wisdom, said Republican strategist Charlie Gerow of Harrisburg.
Right now, most people believe Onorato has the advantage because of his healthy campaign bank account. But, according to Gerow, "Money is not the sole determinate of elections.
"You can be outspent and still win. You can even be significantly outspent; you just can’t be exponentially outspent."
Unlike money, Ceisler said, geography is not an advantage for Onorato.
"The ads make it possible for him to run consistently well throughout the state, without piling it up in one region," he explained. "Geography, on the other hand, plays for all candidates except for Onorato.
"Williams is the Philadelphia candidate; Hoeffel, the Philly suburban guy; Wagner, everything West. But Dan has to run a general-election, statewide race."