John Fetterman’s previously unabashedly progressive campaign has taken on a moderate tone, which endangers his ability to energize the progressive base that carried his campaign through the primary elections.
Lauded as a modern-day Pennsylvanian superhero, John Fetterman’s progressive views have achieved widespread acclaim. Rooted in community organization, Fetterman began his political career in 2005 as the Mayor of Braddock, which was a bustling steel town during the 60s and 70s but saw shrinking opportunities in the steel industry and a rise in poverty and violent crime. His leadership was shown through the implementation of various social welfare programs including “The Braddock Youth Project” and the “Braddock Redux,” which fosters sustainable community development efforts and mentors young people. His ties to progressive leaders like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY 14) should have alienated half of the voting population of this swing state. In spite of his political affiliation, however, his unique physical stature and blue-collar charm have brought him support from rural and urban voters alike. Conservative voters who don’t align ideologically with his political stances find themselves giving due credit to his work rebuilding Braddock and carrying on the same principles to strengthen the commonwealth. The most important question to be addressed now is whether or not John Fetterman can bring his progressive persona from the Lieutenant Governorship to the Senate.
During his primary campaign, John Fetterman ran against Allegheny County-based House Representative Conor Lamb (PA-17) and PA House Representative Malcolm Kenyatta (District 181). Although they ran solid campaigns, Lamb’s establishment Democratic ideals and Kenyatta’s alleged lack of electability resulted in a Fetterman victory. Even after suffering a stroke just days before the primary election, John Fetterman won handedly, securing all 67 counties in Pennsylvania from the comfort of his hospital bed.
This momentum continued into his general election campaign, where he integrated a special focus on introducing policy aspirations aimed at obtaining the attention of more moderate voters, in addition to his already established progressive policy aspirations. He shifted from a campaign about legalizing cannabis, maintaining a blue senate, codifying Roe v. Wade, and promoting LGBTQIA+ rights to investing in rural communities, respecting the rights of senior citizens, and supporting veterans. All are helpful policy goals that have been shown to evoke a positive response from the Democratic voter base, but this stark messaging shift from the primary to the general election is also indicative of a change in the way he runs his campaign.
Confusion arises when analyzing the most recent polls, which indicate that Fetterman’s once dominating lead is dwindling, closing the gap as election day approaches in a few short weeks. Why? If John Fetterman’s popularity—as a progressive in a swing state—could remain consistently strong in the face of a life-threatening medical emergency, what changed so significantly that it could alter the public perception of his ideals? The most obvious answer is that his opponent is getting more favorable in the eyes of moderate voters, but this would be untrue. Polling has shown that neither candidate is particularly favorable in the eyes of voters; as the Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll found when considering the favorability of the voters, John Fetterman leads Mehmet Oz by 6%, and Oz is viewed more negatively by voters with a 53% disapproval rating compared to Fetterman’s 46%.
Although Fetterman’s campaign continues to lead according to polls aggregated by FiveThirtyEight, what is accounting for his sudden drop in the polls in correspondence with Mehmet Oz’s increase? It’s all in the messaging.
Now that his campaign has been catering to the needs of conservative voters, considering their importance in the general election, Fetterman has also chosen to distance himself from progressive identification. While it may be a carefully calculated strategy, it is also an extremely risky one. Considering the voter base he must win over is composed of moderate older Pennsylvanians who backed Trump in 2016 and narrowly supported Biden in 2020, his new campaign strategy is catering directly to what they respond to, personal attacks, rather than policy proposals. These efforts have sometimes been broadly successful. After Oz released a video complaining about the price of “crudités,” in Wegmans, a popular chain of northeastern grocery stores, the Fetterman campaign fundraised $500,000 in twenty-four hours. If attacks on the trivial campaign actions of an opponent work this well, sign me up—but they aren’t sustainable in ensuring the success of a campaign, because Fetterman needs to excite progressive voters as well.
It is clear that a broad base of voters are responsive to Fetterman’s focus on the importance of Pennsylvanian identity. However, that same broad voter base did not deliver a landslide victory in the primaries—progressive voters did. Fetterman’s primary election campaign energized young progressive voters, with his heavy focus on implementing policy and being the next non-establishment Democrat to vote in the Senate, along with the invigorating leak of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Now that his efforts have strayed from policy aspirations, Fetterman inches closer and closer to the same behavior that turns progressive voters away from establishment Democrats.
Now, I am not implying that a lack of focus will cost Fetterman the election, which is shaping up to be a win for Democrats. I will, however, caution that forgetting about the potential of exciting young voters is the exact death wish which costs establishment Democrats elections across the country. His uniquely Pennsylvanian aura is what attracts voters to him. Losing sight of his ability to gain the trust of voters through the unadulterated progressive representation he exhibited in Braddock will turn him into the establishment Democrat that he so desperately seeks to be the disembodiment of.
Claire McCafferty is a freshman political science major in the School of Public Affairs. She is a Staff Writer for the American Agora.