Lessons from the Fetterman Victory?

This kind of "analysis" drives me nuts

While I have little doubt that there are lessons to be learned from across the country in the wake of the 2022 midterms, including John Fetterman’s win in Pennsylvania, this kind of thing from the Times the NYT is just facile: Democrats See a Blueprint in Fetterman’s Victory in Pennsylvania.

Did John Fetterman just show Democrats how to solve their white-working-class problem?

Let me note that the main thing Fetterman’s victory shows is that it is better to be a a fairly popular sitting Lieutenant Governor when running for a US Senate seat than to be a novice politician from a neighboring state, even one with name recognition.

Let me further note that it is highly unlikely that any given race is going to show the way to “solve” any particular problem that a political party is facing.

Nonetheless, there has been a strong narrative that Fetterman’s style was some kind of Rosetta Stone that Democrats could use to unlock work class white voters who recently voted Trump:

Mr. Fetterman’s decisive victory in Pennsylvania’s Senate race — arguably Democrats’ biggest win of the midterms, flipping a Republican-held seat — was achieved in no small part because he did significantly better in counties dominated by white working-class voters compared with Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 2020.

These voters for years have been thought to be all but lost to Democrats, ever since Donald J. Trump turned out explosively high numbers of white voters in rural and exurban counties, especially in Pennsylvania and the northern Midwest. Mr. Biden recaptured Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin two years ago largely by drumming up support in the suburbs, while working-class white voters stuck with Mr. Trump.

But Mr. Fetterman, with his tattoos and Carhartt wardrobe, and priorities like marijuana legalization, appears to have regained ground with the white working class — though whether he persuaded many Trump voters to back him, or whether he improved on Mr. Biden with the demographic in other ways, awaits more detailed data.

Let me note how this narrative slipped substantially right before the election when the story become hand-wringing over whether Fetterman’s stroke was going to derail him. At that point the tattoos and the hoodies didn’t seem to be winning day. But, all’s well that ends well and now the narrative can be saved.

To be clear, I am not saying that there is nothing to learn from Fetterman’s campaign, but what I am saying is that this is an almost evidence-free application of a host of assumptions that may or may not be correct and that, moreover, ignores some pretty basic fundamentals (like, again, Fetterman had already won a statewide race in 2018 and Oz was from New Jersey) because it is more interesting to say that style can carry the day.

This all just strikes me as a great example of the poor nature of elections analysis in the US.

Mr. Fetterman’s 4.4-percentage-point victory over Mehmet Oz, his Republican opponent, outpaced Mr. Biden’s 1.2-point win in Pennsylvania in 2020. Mr. Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, who posed for his official portrait in an open-collar gray work shirt, won a larger share of votes than Mr. Biden did in almost every county.

This is true, but what is also true is that Fetterman underperformed the Governor-elect, Democrat Josh Shapiro, who won his election 56.4% to 41.8%. That is over 5 points better than Fetterman’s 51.1%-46.5% win over Oz. However, since Shapiro did not campaign in a hoodie, there is no narrative about him solving the white-class voter problem for the Democrats. Where’s his article about the Shapiro blueprint?

Again, I am not saying that Fetterman’s style and approach might not have some lessons for Democrats, but the reality is that the media narrative about his is driven almost entirely by optics rather than any kind of actual analysis.

I am definitely saying that we don’t have any evidence that hoodies and whatnot are why Fetterman won.

Again: popular incumber Lt. Gov. is a blue-leaning, albeit somewhat swingy, state beats out-of-state challenger is a lot more of an explanation for the outcome than: big guy in hoodie campaigns on marijuana legalization.

But, you know, narratives are fun!

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2022, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Scott says:

    John Fetterman and Tim Ryan: Compare and contrast the analyses and evidence of the respective election results.

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  2. Steve says:

    Out of state was bad but I think being a purveyor of miracle pills is what really did in Oz. Once Fetterman had his stroke I think any half decent conventional Republican could have beat him. There is a large minority or small majority of the GOP that likes the quack medicine stuff but doesn’t play well with the nominal independents.

    Steve

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  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    I just want to see Fetterman in a suit with a hoodie suit jacket =)

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  4. Jay L Gischer says:

    This is true, but what is also true is that Fetterman underperformed the Governor-elect, Democrat Josh Shapiro, who won his election 56.4% to 41.8%. That is over 5 points better than Fetterman’s 51.1%-46.5% win over Oz. However, since Shapiro did not campaign in a hoodie, there is no narrative about him solving the white-class voter problem for the Democrats. Where’s his article about the Shapiro blueprint?

    BOOM!

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  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven, I believe I detected notes of sarcasm in your piece.

    Every election we get these stories about how this shows that. Then, months later it turns out there’s no that, but that is still seen as having been caused by this. We base our election messaging on things that ain’t necessarily true or helpful.

    BTW, I suspect Fetterman dresses the way he does out of practicality. It’s hard enough finding things that fit me at 6’2″, 225. The man is 6’8 or 6’9″ depending on your source, and he must be pushing 275 at least. Try going down to Nordstrom men’s department and telling them those measurements.

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  6. Andy says:

    This is so wrong. It was obviously the chin puff that put him over the top, not the hoodie or anything else.

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  7. Mu Yixiao says:

    This post came up on my RSS feed*. I’ll occasionally read the feed over the weekend but not comment. I had to comment on this, however (the editor in me couldn’t let it go):

    While I have littte doubt that there are lessons to be learned from across the country in the wake of the 2022, including John Fetterman’s win in Pennsylvania, this kind of thing from the Times the NYT: Democrats See a Blueprint in Fetterman’s Victory in Pennsylvania.

    There are several words missing from that paragraph.

    ====
    *Thank you for having and RSS feed!!

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  8. Kathy says:

    And thus Professor Taylor explains, perhaps without meaning to, why the “one simple trick” ads are so damned pervasive.

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  9. Sleeping Dog says:

    Fetterman did some things that statewide Dem candidates don’t do often enough, like visit those rural R counties and make his pitch and allow the voters to make a determination on if he should represent them.

    The hoodie and Carhart commentary leaves out that Fetterman is a white male, from a rural community that looks like a prototypical steel worker. Hardly the type of candidate profile that makes the Dem base swoon.

    Regarding Fetterman v. Shapiro, while Oz was a damaged candidate, he was pure perfect in comparison to Mastriano.

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Fetterman ran a Pennsylvania campaign centered on his strong points. It probably wouldn’t work in a different state or with a different candidate or running a different campaign.

    It sure as shit wouldn’t work in today’s Misery.

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  11. Gustopher says:

    I’m just looking forward to every Democratic candidate looking like a Shrek casting reject in 2024. As they say on Twitter, “Why doesn’t John Fetterman simply eat the other 99 Senators?”

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  12. Monala says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I recall a few very tall women defending Michelle Obama’s sleeveless dresses for a similar reason: when you’re that tall, it’s hard to find tops and dresses with sleeves long enough for your arms.

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  13. Moosebreath says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    “The hoodie and Carhart commentary leaves out that Fetterman is a white male, from a rural community that looks like a prototypical steel worker.”

    Fetterman’s town, Braddock, is about 10 miles from where the 3 rivers meet in the center of Pittsburgh, so it’s not exactly rural. And he looks like the bouncer in a biker bar (which still is good for appealing to rural Pennsylvanians).

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  14. Ken_L says:

    Fetterman spent five years campaigning for the seat, which to my mind gave him just enough support to overcome the obvious reservations his stroke created. And indeed if every Democratic candidate spent five years tirelessly crossing their state or district, while being a likeable person with an appealing narrative in a local elected office, it would indeed be a lesson to others in how to win.

    But merely to state the proposition is enough to show why it’s practised so rarely.

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  15. Kingdaddy says:

    I don’t know what to blame for this type of thinking in the press — immaturity, clickbait — but the idea that you can reduce politics to “one simple trick” is offensive and dangerous. Offensive, because it treats the diverse, sincere, and complex opinions of the electorate as something subject to a non-existent, Svengali-like hypnotic gesture. Dangerous, because people who believe in such “simple tricks” end up contributing to political disasters. We’re not in an age that can afford such recklessness.

    In related news, I did not click on the link in my news feed that said, “This one Dungeons & Dragons rule makes sense of everything!”

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