PA Gov Race: Onorato Is Losing, but Mainly Because of Rendell

Posted on August 14, 2010. Filed under: General Politics, PA Executive Branch |

Our latest poll in the governor’s race earlier this summer shows Attorney General Tom Corbett with a 10-point, 43% to 33% lead over Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato; 24% of voters were undecided at the time the survey was taken (June 3-7).  For all intents and purposes, Corbett’s lead is wide and deep and he leads in nearly all regions of the state. 

For instance, Corbett leads Onorato by a 51/25 margin in the Northwest/Erie region, a 53/21 margin in the conservative or rural “T” region which includes most of Central PA, a 51/27 margin in the South Central or Harrisburg area, and leads by a 50/34 margin in the Southwest/Pittsburgh media market surrounding Allegheny County.  Corbett even holds a narrow 43/41 lead in Allegheny County where Onorato serves as the county’s top elected official, and even leads Onorato 33/31 in the Democratic-leaning, vote-rich suburbs of Philadelphia, and the Northeast/Wilkes-Barre/Scranton market by a 50/33 margin.  Onorato leads only in Philadelphia, a city that has become so Democrat that there are only three remaining Republican Members of the state legislature representing parts of the city, now a 27-member delegation.  

So the question is: Why is Corbett up by so much,  so early in the race?   The truth is that Corbett has three things going for him this year that all make him the odds-on favorite.  Number one is the fact that the political environment has shifted in his favor.  Truth be told, Republican voters have the enthusiasm this year, their base is more energized, and polls show that Republican candidates will benefit from the top of the ticket down to the bottom because they happen to be the political party out of power at a time when the economy is still wallowing in recession, one that national polls show most voters still believe we have not yet hit rock bottom on.  These political winds now blowing Republican are a huge headwind in Onorato’s face.

 The number two reason Corbett leads is that Pennsylvania has a history since the 1950’s of alternating between 8 years of Republican governors and 8 years of Democratic governors.   From eight years of Democrat Milton Shapp, to 8 years of Republican Dick Thornburgh, to 8 years of Democrat Robert Casey, to 8 years of Republican Tom Ridge, and back to 8 years of Ed Rendell.  It’s now the Republican’s turn, and Tom Corbett’s simply at the right place in history. 

 The third and most important reason Corbett leads is not because voters are necessarily rejecting Dan Onorato’s brand of politics.  In fact, Dan Onorato proved with his convincing primary win in May that he is articulate, well-versed on the issues, and has a vision for the state with the CEO-type credentials most voters would probably find attractive, all things being equal.  But all things are not equal when it comes to politics and campaigns.  And the polling is showing more and more lately that to most voters, a vote for Onorato is a vote for a continuation of the Ed Rendell agenda, something most voters are dead set against.  

 More specifically, Rendell’s average job approval score is a staggering low of 24% in 62 of the state’s 67 counties, while an average of 66% disapprove of his job performance. Only in the remaining counties of Philadelphia and its four suburban extensions (Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery) do voters still give the former Philadelphia mayor and current governor a positive rating.  Moreover, the intensity of voters’ feelings against Rendell is quite sobering.  When asked if they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the governor, by a near 3:1 margin voters say their opinion is largely unfavorable, and by a 2:1 margin the percent who say “very” unfavorable is usually twice as high as those with a “very” favorable opinion.  In some cases, the percent who have very unfavorable opinions of Rendell reaches forty percent or higher, even in districts in the west that register two-to-one Democrat or more in voter registration. 

Simply put, this animosity is not a Republican or Democrat thing. Rather, its’ very foundation is more driven by a lousy economic climate, a sentiment shared by most that our state is on the wrong track, and eight years of bad Rendell publicity piled high from continued late budgets, high taxes and record state spending.  But just as importantly, it has everything to do with a governor that has lost favor with the people, or one that most voters no longer believe shares their concerns and values or hopes and dreams for the future.  In eight long years, the governor’s poll numbers have come full circle for a candidate who first won the state back in 2002 by carrying only 17 of the state’s 67 counties, largely due to a tidal wave of support in Philadelphia and its vote-rich suburbs.  Four years later when he won reelection, he won 34 of the 67 counties, a huge accomplishment that gave him bragging rights to say he wasn’t only “Philadelphia’s” governor.  However, the support he earned in the counties he won in 2006 outside the Southeast has all but washed away, and all that remains is steadfast support in the same 5-county region that carried him into office in the first place. 

The end result is that Tom Corbett will run a campaign against Dan Onorato by trying to convince voters he is the wrong candidate to lead Pennsylvania, has the wrong policies, and is open to higher taxes and increased spending.  In all fairness to Corbett, he has gotten to where he is by doing most things right.   He won 15 of the 19 congressional districts when he campaigned for reelection in 2008, the same year the state voted overwhelmingly for Obama, which shows he is a proven vote getter.   He has earned an image as a tough, bipartisan prosecutor, a fiscal conservative and one who says if elected he won’t be afraid bring real reform to Harrisburg to shake up the culture of corruption. All these things are no doubt helping cement his lead and contributing to his current lead.   This puts him in a good position going into the remaining weeks of the election.

For Onorato to win, it’s a whole different ball game.  Onorato has to effectively communicate a message that he is a new kind of Democrat, which will help create the “firewall” or distance he’ll need from any direct or indirect association with the Rendell agenda. This is especially important in a year like this one when party labels matter. For this, he might want to take a page from Joe Sestak’s playbook for the US Senate, who successfully used a similar theme in his historic upset of Sen. Specter in the recent primary.  Onorato also has to convince people he has a proven record as a CEO to run a diverse state like Pennsylvania, and has the right mix of leadership and governing skills to lead.  He also has to get his base motivated, not an easy thing when polls show a lack of intensity to vote among Democrats.  If he can do this, and can take advantage of any miscues by Corbett along the way, this may put him back in the ball game and turn the race into a real dog fight.  If he doesn’t, November 2 could be an early night for him.

But to many heading to the polls, the number one thing on their minds will be a simple choice that doesn’t even appear on the ballot.  And the choice is Ed Rendell or Tom Corbett, and this is proving to be a tough and elusive opponent even for Dan Onorato.

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