POLITICS

John Fetterman outperformed Joe Biden in all but 5 Pa. counties. Here's how he did it.

Bethany Rodgers Chris Ullery
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

John Fetterman strolled down a sleepy street, passing a brick-fronted law office and a small automotive shop in the roughly 2,000-person town of Emporium, the seat of Pennsylvania’s smallest county. 

In this scene from the Democrat's U.S. Senate campaign launch video, he explains in a voiceover that former President Donald Trump targeted struggling communities like these, winning over people who had long felt forgotten by political elites. 

Fetterman wouldn’t make the mistake of ignoring them, either, he suggests. 

“We cannot afford to take any vote for granted,” Fetterman said. “We cannot afford to take any place for granted.”

Fetterman's pledge and campaign slogan, "every county, every vote," are nothing new for a politician. But the candidate — who spent 13 years as mayor of a fading steel town near Pittsburgh — backed up these overworn statements with his own biography and by spending time and resources in communities he knew he would never win.

And the strategy worked. The Democrat outperformed President Joe Biden’s 2020 numbers in 62 of the 67 Pennsylvania counties and netted a comfortable, 240,000-vote win over his Republican rival, Mehmet Oz, in the pivotal Senate contest. 

Fetterman took 37% of the vote on average compared to Biden's 35% average, but the former Braddock mayor doubled that two-point lead in many counties with more registered Republicans than Democrats.

In a swath of about 10 counties running 160 miles between West Virginia and New York, where Republicans typically make up about 53% of registered voters, Fetterman doubled his two point lead over Biden.

Biden only outperformed Fetterman’s 2022 results in Chester, Monroe, Montour, Delaware and Pike counties.

The statewide plan gave Fetterman an opportunity to showcase the deep Pennsylvania roots he accused Oz of lacking. The Republican celebrity surgeon has in-laws in Pennsylvania and grew up nearby but lived in New Jersey for about 30 years and only moved into the state about a year before announcing his Senate bid.

Julie Roginsky, a Democratic national strategist, noted that for the senator-elect’s campaign, the plural of “you” was always either the Philadelphia “youse” or the Pittsburgh “yinz.” He also had fun playing on the east-west rivalry between Wawa and Sheetz.

“That’s an incredibly personalized message" Roginskey said, adding that, insofar as "it underscores to voters that only somebody that’s from Pennsylvania, and lives in Pennsylvania and has always lived in Pennsylvania, would know those nuances.”

“That’s not something you pay a social media company in California to do for you.” 

The election outcome answers critics of the statewide approach who said a Democrat couldn’t deliver a strong showing in both the rural and metropolitan parts of the commonwealth, Fetterman senior adviser Rebecca Katz explained. 

“John Fetterman was counted out every step of the way by a lot of people who said this strategy would not work,” she said. “That was obviously not the case."

Turnout for the midterm election was almost underwhelming considering the national attention the Senate race between Fetterman and Oz received.

About 5.3 million ballots were cast in the race, roughly 60% of the 8.8 million voters registered in Pennsylvania before Nov. 3. That’s roughly the same as the turnout for the 2018 midterm.

More:John Fetterman wins Pa. Senate race, flipping key seat for Democrats

What did the 67-county strategy look like?

In the very earliest days of his candidacy, Fetterman argued in an Erie Times-News op-ed that running an every-county campaign is a moral imperative — and a winning strategy.

“Focusing on rural areas doesn’t mean we start ignoring our big cities and suburbs,” he wrote. “It’s not about pitting urban versus rural, because the reality is there are far too many communities in both that have been overlooked and left behind.”

Opinion:Lt. Gov. John Fetterman: We are one Pennsylvania, with shared values and needs

Katz noted that Fetterman’s first big campaign event was in Mercer County, a western Pennsylvania county that lands squarely in the Republican column at election time and did again this year. He went on to draw crowds in other staunchly conservative counties during the race, areas where he knew he wouldn't prevail but where he wanted to lose by less. 

Normally, she explained, campaigns anticipate an event “flake rate” of about 50%, meaning that half the people who say they’ll attend a rally or campaign stop end up being no-shows. But Katz said, even in rural areas, more people were showing up to see Fetterman than had RSVP'd.  

His team launched hyperlocal ads that incorporated regionally specific landmarks and references, such as Presque Isle, the state park on Lake Erie.

Nov 7 2022; Pennsburg, PA; Nov 5 2022; Pennsylvania, USA. Republican Senate nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz campaigns in Pennsburg the night before midterm elections.

The Erie-specific ad mentions that Fetterman likes to take family trips there and says Oz “probably thinks Presque Isle is off the coast of Scotland.” Another ad, focused on central Pennsylvania, featured Fetterman’s parents, Karl and Susan, talking about his York upbringing.

“He’s our son, but really he’s a son of Pennsylvania,” his father says.

Although Fetterman reached out to communities with local references, he kept his policy messaging consistent and didn’t tone down his progressive ideas even when visiting conservative areas, Katz said. 

In his op-ed, Fetterman pinpointed weed legalization and broadband expansion as two priorities with crossover appeal to rural and urban voters. However, he also spoke unabashedly about protecting abortion rights, ending corporate price-gouging and eradicating the filibuster in solidly Republican places, according to Katz. 

Fetterman’s margins improved in rural counties

Christopher Nicholas, a veteran GOP consultant in Pennsylvania, said he doesn’t think Fetterman’s performance in deep-red counties was what bagged him the win. Many of these counties have tiny populations, and winning a few more percentage points in them doesn’t add up to many votes, he said. 

“Doing four or five points better than the Democratic average in little Cameron County only nets you 400 or 500 more votes,” Nicholas said. “So that strategy was not determinative in him winning.”

In his view, Fetterman’s gains in left-leaning Lackawanna County and purplish Luzerne County, more populous areas in northeastern Pennsylvania, were more significant in helping the Democrat firm up his lead over Oz. Fetterman’s strong showing in Allegheny County, the Pittsburgh metropolitan area where he lives, also boosted his total, Nicholas said. 

Brendan McPhillips, Fetterman’s campaign manager, counters that improved performance in small counties across the commonwealth can have a meaningful impact on vote totals in the aggregate. Hillary Clinton got beaten so badly in rural areas in 2016 that even the Democratic strongholds of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh couldn’t pull her out of the hole, he noted. 

More:John Fetterman has reforged every political office he’s held. Now what?

But Biden in 2020 opted for a more statewide strategy and ended up clinching a win that helped put him over the top in the Electoral College, said McPhillips, who was Biden’s Pennsylvania state director in the presidential race.

By improving on Biden’s percentages in rural counties, Fetterman captured more than 30,000 additional votes, according to a USA TODAY Network analysis of the results.  

The every-county approach is also baked into Fetterman’s identity, McPhillips said. Fetterman campaigned that way in his lieutenant governor race and later visited all 67 counties on his listening tour on weed legalization.

The life-threatening stroke that Fetterman suffered in May made it impossible to campaign in every county they’d hoped to visit during the general election, McPhillips said. But he argues the Democrat had already made a mark in these places.

“He has years of showing up to very red, small counties,” McPhillips said. “People remembered that and on the campaign, we could bank on that previous work.”

Those red counties also didn't seem as keen to vote for Oz in general.

In only two counties, Chester and Montour, did Oz get a higher percentage of the vote compared to Trump.

On average, Trump secured 3.7 percentage points higher than Oz across the state.

Fetterman also made gains in larger counties

Fetterman also succeeded in eroding the Republican vote share in larger counties that lean right or are usually tossups.

He proclaimed during the race that no candidate who lost Erie County would prevail overall; Clinton lost Erie County and Pennsylvania in 2016, while Biden captured both in 2020. And, sure enough, he ended up beating Oz in Erie County by about 10,000 votes and outperforming Biden in the process. 

McPhillips said, he was paying special attention on election night to returns in the swing counties of Northampton, Luzerne and Erie. And when a fresh batch of returns bumped Fetterman’s lead in Erie from two percentage points to nine, “we all kind of lost our minds,” he remembers.

“That’s when we started feeling really good that we thought we closed the deal,” McPhillips said.

More:In campaign return, Fetterman says 'if you can't win Erie, you can't win Pennsylvania'

While Fetterman lost conservative York County to Oz by double digits, he still outdid Biden by nearly six percentage points there. 

Chad Baker, chair of the York County Democratic Party, said it helps that Fetterman grew up in the county and still has family living there. Fetterman’s ground game, though, was the bigger reason he was able to narrow Democratic deficits in the county, Baker said. 

Statewide Democratic campaigns often deploy coordinators to the York County area, Baker said, but these workers are often overseeing a regional effort. By contrast, he continued, Fetterman assigned an organizer specifically to York County to develop a get-out-the-vote campaign tailored to the community.

The deeper message, that every voter and county matters, might have also won back people who strayed from the Democratic party to support Trump, Baker said. 

“If they had voted Democratic in the past and had voted for Donald Trump in 2016, it was because they felt they weren’t being reached out to,” he said. “They were either looked over or spoken at, but not listened to.”