Saturday, September 25, 2010

Joe Sestak and Campaign Surges

 In mid May, the whole pundit world was shocked as the "powerhouse" Arlen Specter (D) was knocked out of his Senate seat in the primary. Specter had previously held that Senate seat since 1980 as a Republican until 2009 but he still had the backing of Governor Ed Rendell (D). The successful challenger to Specter was former Admiral Joe Sestak (D) who represented PA-7, a district in the Philadelphia suburbs. In Pennsylvania races, it is nearly impossible for any Democrat to win unless he/she wins in the Philadelphia suburbs. In the primary, Sestak did just that, winning by 8% statewide with large margins in the Philadelphia suburbs. Although Specter won in Philadelphia with Rendell's help, the support did not carry into the Philadelphia suburbs. Sestak crushed Specter there and Sestak also won west Pennsylvania where Specter was never popular. At first, Sestak was losing in the polls because he had barely campaigned. Then close to the election, he started an ad blitz including some ads attacking Specter's party switch. Sestak learned that negative ads do work. Michael Castle's (R) negative ad blitz in Delaware was not so sucessful but that's another story.  I watched Sestak's acceptance speech and noticed how energetic he was. I watched Specter's concession speech and noticed how he had none of Sestak's energy. Sestak now faces former Allentown Rep. Pat Toomey (R). Conventional wisdom suggests that Republicans are shifting to the right to motivate the teabaggers like John McCain (R) but Toomey is not one of those Republicans. He has become a moderate (at least until November 2nd at 8pm) and keeps "forgetting" to mention how friendly he is with the Club for Growth.

So is Sestak barnstorming Pennsylvania like he was before the primary? Is Sestak out there addressing crowds, running ads everywhere telling voters how Toomey is too conservative for Pennsylvania? No, Sestak is running almost no ads except for a few in the Philadelphia media market. Is Sestak low on cash? Not exactly, Sestak has some money. So why is Sestak not using it so he can erase Toomey's 7 point lead that recent polls are showing? The answer is that he is hoping for a late surge. Most pundits believe that once the election gets closer, he will launch an ad blitz which will give him momentum in the polls. If the surge is close enough to election day, the voters will cast their votes before Sestak loses his surge. Also, Toomey will not have much time to respond to Sestak's surge and Toomey will have already spent most of his money. Yes, a surge does seem to be a comeback option for Sestak. The surge worked for him in the primaries where he won by 8 points. The question is will the surge work for Sestak again?

This year is a year filled with upsets and surges. In Delaware on September 14th, Christine O'Donnell (R) received a money surge and won by 6 points when most pundits expected her to lose. This surge though came only a few days before the election before Castle had enough time to respond. The difference though is that the Delaware election was a primary where surges happen more often. In primaries, many voters look for information themselves but in a general election, candidates need to give information to voters. Also, surges can happen when a new candidate jumps on the scene and initially excites everyone. If the candidate has been around for awhile, most people will have an opinion of the candidate so a big surge might not happen. A good example of how late surges do not work in general elections. In the Massachusetts Senatorial election in January, Martha Coakley (D) did not campaign for a couple of weeks while Scott Brown (R) was out on the air campaigning. A week before the election, Coakley realized the election was close so she started campaigning immediately. Unfortunately, she could not surge and lost by 5 points. The reason is probably that since voters knew both candidates, they had already made up their minds. Brown had an earlier surge which lasted long enough which helped make Brown's support deep.

Sestak though is starting to campaign a bit. He is running some ads in the Philadelphia media market. With the Governor's race looking like a loss for the Democrats, Sestak cannot rely on coattails and he needs to increase Democratic turnout in Philadelphia which often votes heavily Democratic. Still, he cannot wait until the last minute for a surge. Early voting starts very soon in Pennsylvania. Although many early voters are strong supporters of one of the parties, some Independents will vote early too and if they vote for Toomey, Sestak's not so early surge will be to blame. He needs to start campaigning now instead of waiting until most voters have made up their minds.

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