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How Many Candidates Are Too Many?

Tuesday is Election Day and Republican and Democratic voters will go to the polls and see a lot of candidate names on their ballot.

Statewide, there are calls for candidates who are polling in the single digits to “drop out” and consolidate around a “front-runner.”

Example: Jake Corman is expected to step aside Thursday morning and toss his support behind Lou Barletta for governor.

It begs the question … how many candidates are too many running for office? Do historical trends give us any indication as to what we should expect on Tuesday night?

PoliticsPA has reviewed past primary elections in the Commonwealth in statewide senate, governor and lieutenant governor races with four or more names on the ballot. We looked at all gubernatorial contests since 1970 and were available to chart senate races dating to 1992.

What did we find?

Let’s start with the GOP.

In 1978, Dick Thornburgh won the nomination for governor outlasting six other candidates with 32.6 percent. He went onto victory in the fall, defeating Pete Flaherty.

In 1994, Tom Ridge secured the nomination, garnering 34.6 percent, to defeat four other candidates. He also won in the fall, downing Mark Singel.

In 2010, Jim Cawley earned the nod alongside eventual victor Tom Corbett as lieutenant governor with 26.2 percent of the vote to defeat eight other candidates.

In 2012, Tom Smith got the Senate nod with 39.5 percent to down four other candidates. He lost to Bob Casey in the general.

And in 2018, Jeff Bartos defeated three other candidates to get the lieutenant governor nod with 46.8 percent. He and Scott Wagner fell to defeat in November.

Lessons learned: Even with seven senate and nine governor candidates, if historical trends hold, expect Tuesday’s winner to come away with at least 25 percent of the vote. Primary winners who face four or more opponents are 3-2 in the general.

Now to the Democratic side.

In 1970, Milton Shapp defeated five opponents for the gubernatorial nod with 49.2 percent and went onto victory in the fall over Ray Broderick.

In 1978, Pete Flaherty took the governor’s primary against three other opponents with 44.9 percent of the vote. He lost to Thornburgh in the general.

In 1982, Allen Ertel eased to victory over three gubernatorial opponents with 57.6 percent of the vote. That didn’t turn into popular support in the general, as he lost to Thornburgh.

In 1992, Lynn Yeakel defeated four other Senate candidates with 45 percent of the vote. She lost to Arlen Specter in the fall.

1994 saw Mark Singel outlast six other candidates with 31.2 percent for governor. He fell to Ridge in the general.

In 2000, Ron Klink secured the nomination for Senate with 40.7 percent to defeat four other opponents. He lost to Rick Santorum in the general.

2002 saw a nine-person race for lieutenant governor, won by Catherine Baker Knoll with 25.4 percent. She won alongside Ed Rendell in November. Knoll repeated in 2006, defeating three other candidates with 61.4 percent.

In 2010, Dan Onorato garnered the governor’s nod with 45.1 percent to down three other candidates. He fell to Corbett in the general.

2014 saw Tom Wolf win the first of two primaries, taking the governor’s nod with 57.9 percent to easily defeat three others. Mike Stack rode to victory over four opponents for lieutenant governor alongside Wolf with 46.8 percent. Wolf knocked off the incumbent Corbett in the general.

In 2016, Katie McGinty defeated three other candidates, including current lieutenant governor John Fetterman, for Senate with 42.5 percent. She lost to Pat Toomey in the fall.

Finally, the 2018 lieutenant governor race found Fetterman outlasting four other candidates with 37.5 percent. He and Wolf rode to victory in November.

Lessons Learned: In races with four or fewer candidates, historical trends show that the winner will receive at least 42 percent. The Dems’ primary winner that faces four or more opponents is 6-7 in November.

3 Responses

  1. When the Dems run scoundrel candidates like Pete Flaherty, even a patrician like Dick Thornburg will win. Josh Shapiro is a superior candidate than all the GOP crop now put together.

  2. Why is Melissa Hart NOT under investigation for campaign expense fraud? She raised 35k. Spent little and has almost nothing left. Where did the money go? It is time for an audit.

  3. McGinty was not a good candidate and Fetterman is more “average person” than McGinty. Abortion drives Dems to polls in November in historic numbers that they need in Bucks Montgomery Lehigh Valley to elect Shapiro and Fetterman.

  • Reader Poll: Should President Joe Biden Step Aside?

    • Yes. He should step aside because of his age, declining ability to do the job. (45%)
    • No. He should not step aside. (39%)
    • Yes. He should step aside because he can't beat Donald Trump. (15%)

    Total Voters: 231

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