The fried liver analogy is key to Corbett victory
The electoral fortunes of Gov. Tom Corbett are supposedly so dire, I'm waiting for an overly exuberant Democrat to jump up and exclaim, "Stick a fork in him, Ethel. I think he's done."
All visible and measurable signs point to the likelihood that Corbett will make political history by being the first incumbent Pennsylvania governor to be defeated for a second term. There's no doubt the gov is exceedingly unpopular, perhaps more so than any of the commonwealth's prior chief executives (the redoubtable Milton J. Shapp included).
Last month, the highly respected Franklin & Marshall College Poll showed that only one in four Pennsylvanians believe Corbett deserves re-election. His unfavorable ratings far exceed his favorable; that all means, in effect, that he is not most people's first choice as a companion for a cross country trip.
But not so fast there! Despite these harbingers of potential doom, Corbett should be in no hurry to line up professional movers to carry his personal belongings out of the Governor's Mansion in January 2015.
Polls, no matter how accurate, are nothing more than a snapshot that reflects public opinion at a particular moment in time. It's certainly true that if the election were held today, many voters would be disposed to giving Corbett the old heave-ho. But the election is not being held today, and there's no guarantee that today's political forecast accurately predicts the climate on Election Day 2014, 16 months from now.
Look at it this way: From a June 2013 perspective, anybody looks better than Corbett. It's analogous to fried liver. After looking at a plate of fried liver, who wouldn't desire something else - anything else? If we could vote on whether we'd pass up the fried liver for another menu option, most of us would say thumbs-down to the fried liver.
But suppose, in November 2014, the actual choice boiled down to either that plate of fried liver, which is destined to be even more dried up by then, or a hearty, heaping helping of sautéed pig snout? If you're like me, you'd douse that fried liver with mountains of ketchup, hold your nose and dig in.
Considering that a candidate is only as good (or bad) as his competition, Corbett can take heart from how the Democratic race is shaping up.
Allyson Schwartz, of Montgomery County, who is giving up her seat in the U.S. House to run for governor, is generally agreed to be the front-runner, although that label means next to nothing this early. Schwartz has been leading Corbett in the polls, but, if she is nominated, opponents will undoubtedly attempt to define her as "too liberal" for Pennsylvania. Corbett has little chance of carrying Philadelphia and its suburbs anyway, and it's debatable how well Schwartz can run anywhere else. A strong showing in conservative bastions of northern and central Pennsylvania (the famed "T" on the electoral map) may be all Corbett needs to eke out a win.
Other leading Democratic contenders are state Treasurer Rob McCord and Tom Wolf, former state revenue secretary. Add to the mix John Hanger and Kathleen McGinty, two former secretaries of the Department of Environmental Protection, Cumberland County pastor Max Myers and, possibly, former U.S. Senate candidate Joe Sestak - and Democratic voters' heads could be splitting.
And the list may be even larger. Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz (who?) allowed she is taking a look at running for governor. Among others who have been "mentioned," more or less, are Jack Wagner, former auditor general; Ed Pawlowski, mayor of Allentown; and State Rep. H. Scott Conklin of Centre County, lieutenant governor candidate in 2010.
As of now, Democrats lack a true consensus candidate with enough statewide voter appeal to spare them a divisive primary fight. The only prominent Democrat who fits that description is U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, who may well run for governor again some day, but not in 2014.
It's questionable whether any of the aforementioned candidates can provide the "wow" effect that Democrats need to unseat an incumbent governor, even one as unpopular as Corbett.
One day, the vaunted tradition will collapse, and voters will indeed deny re-election to an incumbent Pennsylvania governor. However, the fact that it hasn't happened yet remains a Corbett advantage.
Another factor that is often overlooked is the role of national politics in the state's gubernatorial equation.
Pennsylvanian governors are elected at the mid-point of a presidential term, and in each cycle, normal voter fatigue with the party holding the White House impacts Keystone State voters' choice. In 10 of the 11 elections held since governors became constitutionally eligible to succeed themselves, the candidate who was of the same party as the incumbent president ended up losing the gubernatorial race. The only exception was in 1982, when Dick Thornburgh won re-election over Allen Ertel by a narrow margin even though an economic downturn was making voters temporarily unhappy with Ronald Reagan.
In 2014, a Democrat will still be occupying the White House. Obama could wind up being the best thing that ever happened for Tom Corbett.
(Betz is assistant editor of The News-Item.)