Why a Tom Wolf Win Is No Surprise: Money

In a primary race where few issues separate the candidates, money will predict the outcome.

Tom Wolf
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
May 19, 2014, 4:57 p.m.

Nine times out of 10, the can­did­ate with the most money wins, and the Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al primary in Pennsylvania is shap­ing up to be no ex­cep­tion. The ques­tion head­ing in­to Tues­day’s primary isn’t wheth­er self-fun­ded can­did­ate Tom Wolf will win, but by how much.

The busi­ness­man and former state rev­en­ue sec­ret­ary pledged to put $10 mil­lion of his own money to­ward his bid early on, beat­ing his rivals to the air­waves when he aired his first tele­vi­sion ad in late Janu­ary. Since then, he’s kept up a per­sist­ent drum­beat of me­dia buys, tack­ling top­ics from his per­son­al nar­rat­ive to edu­ca­tion.

Wolf’s spend­ing ad­vant­age has proven par­tic­u­larly use­ful in a primary where few is­sues di­vide the can­did­ates. Wolf’s TV ads left his rivals with little wiggle room to stake claims on voters, and head­ing in­to primary day they’re slated to suf­fer be­cause of it. The most re­cent poll from Muh­len­berg Col­lege gave Wolf a 23-per­cent­age-point lead over Phil­adelphia-area Rep. Allyson Schwartz, while state Treas­urer Rob Mc­Cord and former state En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Sec­ret­ary Katie Mc­Ginty trailed farther be­hind.

“They agree on 93 per­cent of the is­sues that mat­ter most to voters,” said Terry Madonna, the dir­ect­or of the Frank­lin & Mar­shall Col­lege poll. He has tracked the gubernat­ori­al race since it got un­der­way and also mod­er­ated two Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate for­ums in the spring. “The nu­ances are so minute that I’m hav­ing trouble fig­ur­ing out what they are.”

The col­lege’s track­ing polls have found edu­ca­tion to be primary voters’ most im­port­ant is­sue, but even there, the dif­fer­ences lie only in the peri­phery. “They all want to use a sev­er­ance tax on nat­ur­al gas to fund edu­ca­tion. The only ar­gu­ment is on the rate of the sev­er­ance tax,” Madonna said.

“We could go through any is­sue: gay rights, gay mar­riage, abor­tion, gun con­trol, the en­vir­on­ment, Medi­caid ex­pan­sion,” Madonna con­tin­ued. “The oth­er three have not been able to find is­sues to work with voters, so they went through their own per­son­al nar­rat­ives, but there’s not enough of a dif­fer­ence there to speak of, either.”

Madonna says he isn’t alone in his in­ab­il­ity to tell the can­did­ates apart on the is­sues. He re­called a mo­ment dur­ing one can­did­ate de­bate when Phil­adelphia Daily News colum­nist John Baer slammed his fist on the po­di­um and yelled, “Can’t I find something one of you dis­agrees on?”

The only vari­ance is that Wolf used his deep pock­ets to get his mes­sage out first, and more voters know who he is be­cause of it. His money al­lowed him to hire top-tier Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ants like the me­dia firm Shorr John­son Mag­nus, which pro­duced ads for Pres­id­ent Obama’s 2008 cam­paign and for Vir­gin­ia Gov. Terry McAul­iffe’s in 2013.

Wolf has run a total of 15 tele­vi­sion ads, nearly all of which aired in the state’s largest and most ex­pens­ive mar­ket, Phil­adelphia. He’ll have run nearly as many ads there as all of his primary rivals com­bined — no small ac­com­plish­ment, be­cause the Philly mar­ket reaches about 40 per­cent of the state’s voters.

“His me­dia strategy to this point has been bril­liant,” said former Demo­crat­ic Lt. Gov. Mark Sin­gel. “By smart use of tele­vi­sion, he has in­cor­por­ated his brand in­to the mind of the Pennsylvania voter.”

Sin­gel, a Wolf sup­port­er, high­lighted one ex­ample: His can­did­ate was the only one with ads run­ning dur­ing the heav­ily watched Winter Olympics in Feb­ru­ary. “Wolf caught them right when they were just form­ing their opin­ions,” Sin­gel said.

Schwartz and Mc­Cord tried to lob per­son­al at­tacks at Wolf over his busi­ness and his char­ac­ter, but they mostly back­fired. In the end, a Demo­crat­ic unity rally will come to­geth­er swiftly and without fan­fare; state Demo­crats are united in their de­sire to un­seat Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Tom Corbett. Madonna says he’s asked around the state for one single ex­ample of a Demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al lead­er who has something neg­at­ive to say about Wolf. “You can’t find one.”

Sin­gel en­dorsed Wolf in early May, but said, “All four of them would be bet­ter than cap­able gov­ernors, there’s no ques­tion about it. The ques­tion be­comes who’s go­ing to win the cam­paign sweepstakes, and who can run a cam­paign.”

By that stand­ard, Wolf has already won.

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