“You don’t beat somebody with nobody.” That familiar old maxim expresses a very modern political truth. Well-known candidates tend to win elections 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 Demo-crats are offering up second-rate opponents for Corbett.
Indeed, the Democrat field may be the best in modern times for a nonopen 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; Congresswoman Allison Schwartz; former Congressman Joe Sestak; state Sen. 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 visions for Pennsylvania, while giving their 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 Mitt Romney’s 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 united parties into their fall campaigns.
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 1970s, 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.
G. Terry Madonna, Ph.D., is professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. Michael Young, Ph.D., is a former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State University and is managing partner of Michael Young Strategic Research.