A Tale of Two Campaigns in Pennsylvania

A Tale of Two Campaigns in Pennsylvania

A Tale of Two Campaigns in Pennsylvania

The Shapiro and Fetterman victories show there’s more than one way to win as a Democrat.

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In the wake of the 2022 midterm elections, many Democrats find themselves in an unfamiliar position: winners. In our state of Pennsylvania, Democrats won big. Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman ran remarkably different statewide campaigns—and both won. Rather than argue over which win is more instructive, we want to explore what each of these campaigns did right, and what we can learn from them going into 2024 and beyond.

In his gubernatorial run, Josh Shapiro put his own unique stamp on the “moderate” playbook, in which candidates emphasize bipartisanship and unity and position themselves slightly left of center on a left vs right axis. Shapiro ran on his professional qualifications as attorney general. Painting his opponent Doug Mastriano as a far-right extremist and a danger to our commonwealth, Shapiro framed himself as a hard-working bureaucrat who could work with anyone to enact common sense solutions. He highlighted Mastriano’s plans to take away freedoms from Pennsylvanians, including voting rights, the right to an abortion, and the right to marriage for the LBGTQ+ community, and ran unapologetically on protecting these freedoms. These messages were particularly well-suited to an opponent like Mastriano, a Christian nationalist who attended the January 6 insurrection and who promised to criminalize abortion with no exceptions. Shapiro touted endorsements from Republican leaders who were uncomfortable with Mastriano’s extremism, projecting and building a winning majoritarian coalition.

In looking for lessons in Shapiro’s win, it’s also important to note that Mastriano was hung out to dry by the GOP establishment who largely kept their distance, withholding endorsements and financial support. Mastriano also refused to interact with the mainstream press, which seriously weakened his ability to contest Shapiro’s disciplined framing. Shapiro was also well situated for a gubernatorial race—where themes of normalcy and predictability are common, and where voters tend to view candidates through a less partisan lens.

John Fetterman’s Senate campaign used an “every county, every vote” strategy that emphasized Fetterman’s unique brand of progressive populism. He prioritized issues like fighting corporate greed, protecting abortion rights, legalizing marijuana, and “making more shit in America.” He strategically avoided invoking the left vs. right axis, and instead framed his fight as bottom vs. top: everyday working people versus a greedy and out-of-touch elite. He also consistently signaled support for the working class, down to his wardrobe choices (his now infamous shorts and Carhartt hoodie uniform), and his references to regional touchstones (e.g., taking a side in the heated Sheetz/Wawa rivalry). While this might seem gimmicky coming from other politicians, Fetterman came across as genuine and relatable to millions of voters—“one of us.”

This approach was particularly well-suited given Fetterman’s opponent, Mehmet Oz, a wealthy doctor turned TV star. It’s tempting now to view Oz as an especially weak and ridiculous candidate—a Gucci-loafer-wearing elitist who owns 10 mansions and who struggles to use normal words in grocery stores. But this now popular perception of Oz was really a framing accomplishment of the Fetterman campaign, who cast Oz as a caricature in a story that Oz proved unable to escape from—a story in which he was a second-rate celebrity, a greedy millionaire, and, perhaps worst of all, a carpetbagger who lives in New Jersey.

Fetterman’s campaign was also notable for its use of humor, a strategy that most campaigns either don’t attempt or fail to pull off successfully. Fetterman’s comms team was extraordinarily savvy with social media, producing an endless stream of viral videos (e.g., a mock episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous showing Oz in a mansion). Fetterman’s team managed to create moments of joy during a difficult race, which resonated with voters. In contrast to Shapiro’s campaign, which invoked fear of a dangerous opponent, Fetterman painted Oz as a bumbling grifter, deserving of mockery.

Much more than Shapiro did, Fetterman had to fend off constant negative attacks, both from his opponent and from the GOP establishment, who sought to portray Fetterman as an “extreme socialist,” while framing Oz as a responsible moderate. Oz argued that Fetterman’s stroke made him unfit for office and portrayed Fetterman as “soft on crime,” presenting a distorted account of Fetterman’s tenure on the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.

In the wake of the election, these attacks don’t appear to have landed as much as was feared. This may be because Fetterman’s image as an everyman inoculated him against them. In public events, Fetterman would ask audience members to raise their hands if they had experienced a major health challenge, or if their parents or their children were struggling with chronic health conditions. By the end, the whole room would be raising their hands, united in their shared struggles. “Can you even imagine,” Fetterman would then ask, “if you had a doctor that was mocking your illness?” Oz was no longer just attacking Fetterman but insulting everyday working people who identified with what Fetterman was going through.

In April 2018, Nathaniel Rakich published an article at FiveThirtyEight showing that, on average, Democrats were performing equally well (actually, slightly better) in working-class areas compared to relatively affluent suburbs. Democrats had long prioritized relatively affluent suburban voters, who tended to vote in higher percentages, but who also tended to oscillate between Democratic and Republican candidates. Whichever group Democrats prioritized reaching—affluent or working-class—they were likely to get some results from their efforts. The problem, Rakich warned, is that in seeing positive results from whichever choice they made, Democrats would likely conclude that they had made the right choice, and lean even harder into it. If they continued to prioritize affluent voters, they would win over some of those voters, but they would also continue their decades-long trajectory of bleeding out working-class voters.

If the Democratic Party stands at a crossroads, the Shapiro campaign and the Fetterman campaign may each represent one of these two choices—about how to campaign and which voters to prioritize.

Shapiro’s strategy was similar to Biden’s 2020 strategy and the DNC’s 2018 midterm strategy, both of which prioritized urban and suburban voters, and both of which were generally seen as successful. However, while Biden won the presidency—a crucial victory—Democrats performed significantly worse than expected in down-ballot races, perhaps partly as a consequence of a strategy that prioritized suburban swing voters, who tend to split their ticket. This was also the strategy used by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, which didn’t fare well.

In March 2021, Representative Jim Banks sent a strategy memo to House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, claiming that “we are now the party supported by most working-class voters.” Banks advocated strategically embracing the broad political realignment that Trump set in motion in order to “permanently become the Party of the Working Class.” Given the GOP’s failure to deliver a “red wave” in the midterms, it may be tempting to dismiss this memo. Part of the party’s problem may be that its deep commitment to serving the wealthy and big business renders it incapable of actually delivering for working people, forcing it instead to lean further and further into a faux-populist politics of division that has become too extreme for millions of voters.

But Democrats also shouldn’t assume that fighting far-right extremism—even if essential to this year’s success story—will magically erase the need to reverse their long decline among working-class voters (both in terms of losing voters to the GOP, and voters’ staying home). And even though Democrats clearly boosted turnout enough to outperform expectations this month, early analyses of the 2022 midterms suggests that Democrats continued to lose both white and non-white working-class voters this cycle—an alarming trend that has continued to worsen since 2016.

The Fetterman campaign sought to reverse this trend. Fetterman took the powerful tool of anti-elitism back from the authoritarian right. Above all, he signaled that he was in the corner of working people. However, individual candidates may only be able to take such an approach so far; so long as the Democratic Party remains branded as the party of affluent elites, that brand weighs them down, making it harder to appeal to the voters they seek to win back.

While Fetterman and Shapiro may represent very different paths forward for Democrats, this fork-in-the-road metaphor frames an either/or choice—when what we might really need is both/and thinking. These two candidates’ races were quite different in terms of campaign strategy, policy, tactics, rhetoric, and more. But, importantly, neither ever framed their different approaches in opposition to each other—and both operated as team players with other Democratic candidates across the state. They also both won. In fact, while Shapiro won by larger margins than Fetterman, both candidates outperformed Joe Biden’s vote share from 2020 across the vast majority of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. And while it’s important to look at which approach might appeal more or less to which voting blocs, the campaigns might also present different tools to use under different circumstances.

Along those lines, one important takeaway is that candidates and their strategies shouldn’t be assessed in a vacuum. For Fetterman and Shapiro, the difference between their opponents is fundamental. Mastriano embodies the extremist authoritarian wing of the GOP, and that made him vulnerable to Shapiro’s framing him as a dangerous far-right extremist, and Shapiro’s framing himself as the responsible choice. By contrast, Oz’s lack of overt authoritarianism led voters to perceive him as relatively mainstream. Importantly, however, Fetterman’s anti-elitist narrative helped him to flip a potential strength of Oz—his celebrity status and name recognition, which typically provides a significant boost to candidates (e.g., Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Franken, and Trump)—into a liability. Each Democratic candidate’s strategy was effective in deflating the particular opponent they faced.

There’s nothing inherently contradictory about the messages that Shapiro and Fetterman—among many other Democrats—used to win their races. In 2022, Democrats across the country talked about defending democracy, defeating extremism, protecting the right to abortion, and building an economy that works for working people. It may be that not just one but all of these messages ultimately helped Democrats collectively perform better than expected. As we gear up for 2024, Democrats should think about not just winning votes from their base in the short term but also winning the future by fighting visibly for everyday working people. This will happen not just through campaign rhetoric, of course, but by delivering for working people in ways that meaningfully improve their lives.

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