The Democrats “Nobody Problem”

Silhouette question mark“You don’t beat somebody with nobody.” That familiar old maxim expresses a very modern political truth. Well-known candidates tend to win elections running against unknown candidates. The well-known candidate may be unpopular, may be flawed or even worse. But having high name identification among voters becomes a huge advantage that often predicts winning or losing.

The importance of name identification is something state Democrats ought to remember even as they salivate publicly at the prospects of taking on embattled gubernatorial incumbent Tom Corbett in 2014; they should do so because at the moment Democrats are offering a field of gubernatorial candidates, none of whom is widely known across Pennsylvania. These candidates are in that sense “nobodies,” and one of them is going to be running against “somebody” Tom Corbett in 2014.

It’s not that state Democrats are offering up second-rate opponents for Corbett. Indeed, the Democrat field may be the best in modern times for a non-open seat election. Consider these likely or announced so far–still 20 months from Election Day: former Department of Environmental Affairs Secretary John Hanger; Philadelphia businessman Tom Knox; State Treasurer Rob McCord; Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski; Congresswomen Allison Schwartz; former Congressman Joe Sestak; state Senator Mike Stack; and former Revenue Secretary and businessman Tom Wolfe.

The field is impressive, but not one of them is well known statewide. Of the eight, only three have even run in a statewide election. Schwartz ran in a Democratic primary for the U.S Senate in 2000, placing second in a five candidate race. Sestak won a U. S. Senate primary in 2010 before losing the fall election. McCord has won two statewide state treasurer elections (2008 and 2012) and may be the best known of the aspiring candidates.

Clearly, what Democrats need are not more candidates or better candidates. What they need are better-known candidates. And one sure way to accomplish that is to hold a good old-fashioned party primary, one that will give their candidates a chance to offer their vision for Pennsylvania, while giving those voters a chance to size up the candidates.

Not surprisingly, this is not a popular view. In fact, proposing a contested party primary while running against an incumbent flies in the face of much conventional wisdom. It’s widely believed that contested primaries usually waste limited campaign resources, gratuitously offer general election opponents juicy targets and turn off voters.

Sometimes this is true. We need look no further than last year’s presidential contest to illustrate an instance when a contested primary probably hurt the party candidate in the fall. Almost certainly, both the tone and the length of the GOP presidential primary diminished Romney’s 2012 presidential chances. But we find the opposite result coming out of the 2008 Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Few can imagine Obama winning the presidency without going through that primary.

In state politics, Pennsylvania offers up even better examples of contested gubernatorial primaries that probably strengthened general election prospects. Dick Thornburgh built a statewide reputation dispatching six primary opponents in 1978. In 1994, Tom Ridge faced multiple opponents, garnered only about one-third of the primary vote, but still went on to a comfortable victory. In 2002, perceived underdog Ed Rendell squared off in a tough primary against Bob Casey. All three, despite spirited primaries, took a united party into the fall campaign.

Clearly, the conventional wisdom that primaries are always bad is wrong. Much depends on the candidates, the context of the race, and the issues. Party primaries can offer a chance for little known candidates to introduce themselves to voters while gaining invaluable experience running.

Why then are state Democrats so unenthusiastic about a primary? Partly, it’s the flawed thinking about primaries. But mainly, Democrats think they don’t need one. They reason that given Corbett’s low standing in the polls and other well publicized problems, they cannot lose in 2014. In this conclusion, they are dangerously mistaken.

Wounded Corbett may be, but his political resources are still impressive. Since the 1970’s, Pennsylvanians have not unseated an incumbent governor running for re-election, a powerful tradition in his favor. Moreover, any momentum in the economy will help him. In addition, Corbett, as incumbent, will be able to raise impressive campaign funds as well as command public attention. He has already done so with a set of ambitious budget proposals. Finally, Pennsylvanians have long shown a penchant for electing governors from parties other than the party in power in Washington.

For these reasons, Democrats probably need a serious primary in 2014 if they hope to win the governorship. Few Democrats buy that argument right now, instead advocating the party avoid a primary contest and endorse an early “consensus” candidate.

If they do so, state Democrats may end up squandering their best chance to defeat an incumbent governor in modern state history.

February 28th, 2013 | Posted in Editorial, Features, Front Page Stories, Top Stories | 7 Comments

7 thoughts on “The Democrats “Nobody Problem””

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  2. flynnbw says:

    Primaries are good … except when they’re bad. Senate primary in 2000: Allyson Schwartz and a bunch of other SE candidates split their base vote and allowed Ron Klink to win the primary (but with approximately seven dollars left in the bank).

    I’m not saying that Dems should let Rep. Schwartz (or anyone else) cruise to the nomination … just that they have to be careful.

  3. brrrrdat says:

    Not that your nit picking or anything.

  4. BetterPollster says:

    Your Republican leanings are betrayed by your use of “Democrat field” instead of Democratic field. And you could at least spell the candidates’ names correctly — it’s Allyson with a Y and Wolf without the E.

  5. Democrats aren’t “offering up” Sestak (unless it’s his head on a silver platter).

    The 2012 GOP primaries hurt Romney only because they revealed the dark side of the GOP’s right wing, and Romney’s total lack of spine.

    The 2012 Dem primary helped Kathleen Kane. She had high name recognition going into the Fall, while few could name her GOP opponent.

    The 2010 primaries hurt Dems, because Sestak blew Specter’s $10 million bankroll and ran so far to the Left that he gave up the center to Toomey. The fact that Sestak managed to alienate half of the Democratic party with his poor sportsmanship victory speech on Primary night didn’t help either.

    McCord and Schwartz are the only two serious names on the list that have the money/resources to play the game into 2014. When the end-of-year fund raising numbers come out, the field will narrow considerably. I have the impression that McCord will not stay for a big fight against Schwartz in the SE, where she has the advantage.

  6. Bucks Barrister says:

    Ask Kathleen Kane how the DEMOCRATIC primary worked out for her?

  7. Bucks Barrister says:

    Ask Kathleen Kane how the primary worked out for her?

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