According to the polls, Josh Shapiro should win the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race going away.
The Jewish Democrat leads Republican opponent Doug Mastriano by an average of more than 10 points. As FiveThirtyEight’s aggregation tool shows, recent polls from Suffolk University, Emerson College and others got the same result: Shapiro is ahead by between 10 and 15 percentage points.
But “according to the polls” has become a loaded phrase in American politics in recent years. Before 2016, it usually meant what the numbers showed: a victory for the candidate who was ahead. But then in 2016, Donald Trump defied consistent deficits to stun Hillary Clinton and become president of the United States. Four years later, Trump nearly did the same thing against his Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Perhaps the fastest-rising star in American politics right now, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, won his gubernatorial race in 2018 after trailing in the polls. In the most high-profile race of the 2021 election season, Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin did the same. And in that same off-year season, just over the bridge in New Jersey, Republican Jack Ciattarelli nearly upset incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy. The Democrat led by double digits in the polls in late October but only won by 3.2%.
So, should Josh Shapiro trust the polls?
But does that mean he is going to lose in a shocking upset to a man who, as a state senator, tried to overturn Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania in 2020?
The Jewish Exponent spent a day with both campaigns to take the pulse of the race. As you should expect by now in American politics, the reality is far more complicated than the numbers show.
Why Shapiro Shouldn’t Trust the Polls
It’s a rainy Saturday morning in early October. Outside of a Phoenixville fire hall, the parking lot is almost full. Stickers on the back of one car say, “Doug Mastriano Governor” and “Socialism Destroys Nations.” Another car’s front license plate reads, “One Nation Under God.”
Inside before the meet-and-greet with the Republican candidate, seats are filling up fast. They come from Chester County, the Philadelphia region’s westernmost territory, and the surrounding area.
Many say they love Trump, who endorsed Mastriano before the Republican primary; many others say that they are conservative voters supporting the Republican candidate; and still many others blame the Democrats, who hold power in the Pennsylvania governor’s mansion (Tom Wolf) and in Washington, D.C., for rising crime in communities and prices at gas stations and grocery stores.
Not a single person said they were there to see Mastriano the candidate, the man, the politician. (He’s a first-term senator in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.)
“They are screwing our state,” said Alan Walter, a Chester Springs resident, of the Democrats.
When asked in what ways Democrats were “screwing” the Keystone State, Walter laughed. But then he said, “Well, I don’t even feel safe going down to Philadelphia.”
Though they may not be drawn to Mastriano the man, supporters kept walking in, eventually filling hundreds of seats. Campaign volunteers later estimated that about 600 people attended, though the real number was probably between 300 and 500. Nonetheless, according to volunteers, the planned meet-and-greet transformed into a rally.
When Mastriano walked through the back door with his wife Rebbie, they proceeded to a podium that was already set up. The candidate spoke for more than 30 minutes, handing the microphone off to other speakers at various points throughout his remarks.
Mastriano has been described by the mainstream media as extreme, and it’s not an unfair description.
Mastriano said three years ago that women should be charged with murder for getting abortions. He organized buses for the Jan. 6, 2021 protest against the election result that turned into a storming of the Capitol Building in D.C. Earlier in the campaign, he joined a social media site, Gab, known as a safe haven for antisemites and white nationalists. While Mastriano did not say anything antisemitic on the site, he did pay Gab and its founder, Andrew Torba, a $5,000 consulting fee.
During his speech in Phoenixville, the candidate doesn’t back down from any of those positions. He also brings up a right-wing media opportunist, Norristown native Jack Posobiec, who has more than a million Twitter followers, to offer rambling remarks to the crowd about how dangerous Philadelphia is these days, among other topics. (They mostly yawn and tune him out.)
At the same time, it is not any of these positions that Mastriano emphasizes in his speech. Instead, he leads with the issues that seem to be defining this campaign. He also ties them to a Democrat who is in power: his opponent, Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s attorney general.
“On his watch, crime has risen by 40%,” Mastriano says of Shapiro’s tenure as AG.
“One thousand carjackings in Philadelphia alone this year,” he continues. “Are you kidding me?”
“He’s worse than Tom Wolf,” he says later.
The crowd seems to agree. Mastriano talks in a low monotone, so he’s hard to hear at times. But his hundreds of supporters nonetheless cheer loudly, hold up campaign signs with the slogan “Walk as Free People” and even stand in unison.
Carolyn Di’Arcangelo, a resident of East Vincent Township, said she believes abortion is “personal” and that she’s “not judging anybody.” But she also said she’s voting for Mastriano.
“I do not want Shapiro because he’s a career politician. I hate career politicians,” she added. “I just don’t like him as a Democrat.”
Later in the day at The Fuge in Warminster, Bucks County, even more supporters turned out for similar reasons. Mastriano and his volunteers said almost 1,000 people showed up and, while that number may have been exaggerated, it was not exaggerated by much.
Why Shapiro Might Win Anyway
By all traditional measures, Josh Shapiro is winning this race.
In addition to his lead in the polls, the Abington resident is convincing the mainstream media to buy his credible argument about how dangerous Mastriano might be for the commonwealth. On Oct. 9, The Philadelphia Inquirer endorsed Shapiro and said a Mastriano win would “effectively end democracy in Pennsylvania.”
The Jewish Democrat has also outspent his opponent by more than $40 million. The Mastriano campaign just ran its first television ad in early October. And finally, Shapiro, a politician with a career dating almost 20 years, has been his party’s sole candidate since October 2021. Mastriano, on the other hand, won a crowded primary and has not gotten support from the national Republican Governors Association. As LancasterOnline reported on Oct. 9, many former Republican officeholders in Pennsylvania have endorsed Shapiro.
Yet as Shapiro well knows, in 2022, none of this guarantees anything. And in fact, Mastriano is drawing hundreds, sometimes close to 1,000, supporters on the campaign trail. To beat an opponent who can score, you cannot simply run out the clock.
So on Oct. 8, a sunny Saturday in the Philadelphia area with temperatures in the 60s, the Democrat hit the trail.
In the morning outside of the United Steelworkers’ hall in Media, he used a 10-minute version of his stump speech to motivate his assembled supporters, more than 100 people, most of them members of labor unions, to go knock on doors and spread the word. Much like his opponent, Shapiro opens his speech with the issues that are defining this campaign.
On crime, like Mastriano, he promises more cops. On the Pennsylvania economy, like Mastriano, he pledges to drill. And on schools, like Mastriano, he promises more options for kids. (In Shapiro’s vision, that means vocational-technical programs. In Mastriano’s, it means redirecting state funding to students and families over public schools.)
“We’re running for office not just to win an election,” Shapiro says during his Media speech. “But to meet this moment for Pennsylvania.”
And like Mastriano, Shapiro draws cheers and applause. His crowd is not as big as his opponent’s from the previous Saturday because it’s a canvass kickoff, not a rally, but it’s just as enthusiastic.
Later in the day in nearby Swarthmore, more than 50 people crowd into a small room in a nondescript office building. It’s another canvass kickoff. Only these residents of Swarthmore and its surrounding area are not union members. They are just supporters.
Many believe that, in the wake of Trump’s attempt to “stop the steal” of the 2020 election and Mastriano’s support for it, democracy is in peril; many others want to uphold abortion access for women in Pennsylvania; some are even former Republicans who resent the party’s Trumpian turn.
None, however, mention crime or the economy as their reasons for coming out.
“I’m worried that the MAGA part of my party is taking over,” says Pat Brodeur of Wallingford. “And they are going to hurt our future elections.”
Shapiro has been a state representative, a Montgomery County commissioner and now an attorney general. He understands how to craft and communicate a narrative about his career.
In this race, he is pitching himself as a public servant who takes on “big fights,” like balancing Montgomery County’s budget after years of Republican excess, suing the Catholic Church over sexual abuse allegations and settling for $1 billion with pharmaceutical companies that pushed opioids. This pitch started last October during Shapiro’s campaign kickoff, but after Mastriano won the Republican Primary in the spring, it took on new meaning.
Mastriano, the woman-hating, election-denying friend of the antisemites, as Shapiro often portrays him, became the “big fight.” In his stump speeches on Oct. 8, the Democrat reached the big fight beat around the middle, after he got through his plans for dealing with crime and stimulating the economy, but before he orated his way through his depiction of his rival.
At the day’s last public event, a campaign office opening in West Philadelphia, Shapiro looked out over a parking lot of more than 100 excited supporters. They came from the Main Line, Center City and nearby neighborhoods. It was his most diverse crowd of the day.
And with more Black residents in the audience than at either of his previous two events, the Democrat painted his most vivid picture yet of his opponent.
He said Mastriano is the “only candidate in the nation who is on a white supremacist website known as Gab.” He talked about how a few years ago, Mastriano wore a Confederate uniform for a picture at the U.S. Army War College. And then he paraphrased a Maya Angelou quote, “When someone tells you who they are, believe them,” to emphasize that Mastriano “keeps telling us who he is.”
“In Doug Mastriano’s Pennsylvania, unless you think like him, and look like him, and vote like him, and pray like him, and marry like him, you don’t count,” Shapiro said. “Here’s my view: No matter what you look like, where you come from, who you love or who you pray to, you count in Pennsylvania, and I want to be your governor.”
The crowd hollered.
“I will do everything I can to make sure that Doug Mastriano is not elected,” said Sajda Purple Blackwell, a West Philadelphia resident. “We don’t need white supremacists in office.” JE