So what really happened Tuesday night in Pennsylvania? Did monied businessman Tom Wolf romp to victory in the Democratic gubernatorial primary by dint of his deep pockets?
Did he basically purchase the rights to go one on one this fall against Tom Corbett?
The circumstantial evidence says yes. As you may already know (or maybe not, because the primary season stirred little interest), Wolf was a cipher in the polls back in November. Nobody had a clue who he was. Then he wrote himself a check (the final self-tab was $10 million), and began to flood the airwaves with ads about himself. By the time February rolled around – presto! – he was tops in the polls, far outdistancing his Democratic rivals. He sustained his lead all the way to the finish line, a candidate a la California Chrome.
But it’s too facile to say that Wolf owes his 40-point win to his wallet. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
We tend to assume that rich candidates do this sort of thing all the time. The truth is actually the opposite; if Wolf wins in November (and the odds look good, because Corbett), he’ll be a big exception to the rule. The rule is, most rich candidates flame out.
A study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics says that, between 2000 and 2009, only 11 percent of self-funded candidates won their races. In other words, for every Michael Bloomberg, there are eight others who lose. Politically inexperienced, unaccustomed to public scrutiny, most of them turn out to be really bad on the stump. Money can put you on the radar, but it doesn’t necessarily close the deal – not if you have skeletons in the closet, not if you lack the savvy to spend it well. Which is why the casualty list of self-funded candidates is colorfully long.
For instance, wrestling mogul Linda McMahon spent $100 million of her own money trying to win a Senate seat in Connecticut, but came up empty. (Voters weren’t impressed that she had a yacht named Sexy Bitch.) Hewlett-Packard executive Meg Whitman spent $144 million of her own money trying to become governor of California, but it didn’t happen. Another exec, Carly Fiorina, won a California GOP senatorial primary after spending $5.5 million of her own money, but she was clobbered by Barbara Boxer in the fall (it didn’t help Fiorina that she made a catty remark, on an open microphone, about Boxer’s hair). Florida billionaire Jeff Greene spent $14 million of his own money trying to become a senator, but the voters didn’t like the fact that his private plane had gold seatbelt buckles, nor the act that his yacht allegedly tore up a precious choral reef in Belize.
But my favorite is Rich Iott, who tried to self-fund a House campaign in Ohio with $1.4 million. He seemed well-positioned to win; he was a tea-party guy (“I’m not a politician”) in the ultimate tea-party year (2010). Problem was, Iott in his spare time liked to dress up as a member of the Nazi SS – specifically, the 5th SS Panzer Division, which fought on the Eastern Front – and naturally those photos surfaced. Unschooled in the political art of spin, Iott defended his hobby by calling it “a father-son bonding thing.” Say goodbye, dude.
So why has Tom Wolf (thus far) managed to defy the odds? Because he has spent wisely – on timely, quality advertising – and because his Democratic rivals were slow off the mark and generally underwhelming.
Having lots of money means nothing if you lavish it on bad TV ads. But Wolf’s initial ad, in particular, was very good. He looked and sounded like a nice guy. He was “born and raised in central Pennsylvania” (catnip for centrist and conservative Democratic voters who distrust Philadelphians). He has a fetching family. He worked in the Peace Corps (catnip for liberal Democratic voters). He grew a family business (catnip for business-oriented Democrats), the business was kitchen cabinets (a nice way to get rich, unlike, say, hedge funds), and he shared profits with the workers (more catnip for liberals). He got “a PhD from MIT,” yet he “started out driving a forklift.” All told, as uber-pundit Terry Madonna says, “They were maybe the best introductory commercials of a candidate in modern Pennsyvania history.”
Timing is everything, in politics as in life, and the “Meet Tom” ad was perfectly timed. It ran everywhere in late January and February – especially in the expensive Philadelphia market, which reaches roughly 40 percent of the state’s voters; and especially in the 7 p.m. hour, when the most habitual voters (older folks) are watching TV. Some of his ads showed up on the Winter Olympics broadcasts. Wolf got voters’ attention right at the time when they were just starting to think about the gubernatorial race (although, as we know from the abysmal Tuesday turnout, most registered Democrats paid scant attention).
And while Wolf was spending his money wisely, what were his rivals doing? Not much. They left Wolf a vacuum, and he happily filled it. Which is why, in a span of three months, he soared in the polls from worst to first.
Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, the one-time frontrunner, had raised enough money to compete with Wolf. But she didn’t put ads on the air until the end of March. And her basic message was cluttered with inside-Washington lingo (like her efforts to pass “CHIP,” as if the average viewer knows what that is), and boasts about her big-shot endorsements. This is not a good year to boast about being an establishment insider. Nor is it generally a good idea for a gubernatorial candidate to run an ad touting oneself as “Philadelphia’s own,” given the fact that Ed Rendell is the sole Philadelphian to govern the state in the last 100 years.
When Wolf was asked about his cash infusions during a candidate forum back in February, he replied, “I lament the role money has in this race. I think it distorts democracy.” However, “I’m playing by the rules of the game as they exist right now.” The courts say that money is speech; those are the rules. But money alone is no guarantor of success. You need luck, smarts, and lousy opponents. We’ll soon see whether the beleaguered Gov. Corbett is lousy enough to justify Wolf’s lavish investment.
Meanwhile, did you know that clueless trolls have plagued us since the 15th century?
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