After weeks of unchallenged command of the state’s television markets, businessman Tom Wolf has sprinted into the lead in the Democratic primary for governor, according to a Harper Polling survey.
According to the Republican-leaning firm, the former state revenue secretary had the support of 40 percent of Democratic voters, nearly three times that of his nearest competitor, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Montgomery County, who had 14 percent.
They were followed by a closely bunched group of rivals. The differences among their single-digit totals were within the poll’s margin of error. State treasurer Rob McCord had 8 percent; former Auditor General Jack Wagner had 7 percent, as did former DEP Secretary John Hanger. Another former DEP chief, Katie McGinty, had 6 percent; while 19 percent were undecided. Lebanon County Commissioner JoEllen Litz is also seeking the Democratic nomination, but the GOP firm did not include her in its poll.
In November, at the time of Harper’s last look at the Democratic field, Mr. Wolf was back in the pack with the support of just 5 percent of voters surveyed. But after weeks of heavy advertising, essentially unchallenged by the other contenders, he had surged ahead. The only other Democrat who is advertising on TV is Ms. McGinty and her purchases were modest compared to the Wolf campaign.
The wealthy businessman, who has contributed $10 million of his own money to his campaign, led in every area of the state. In the combined Philadelphia southeast region, for example, the political base of his closest contender, Ms. Schwartz, he had 37 percent compared to her 31 percent. Mr. McCord, who is also from Montgomery County, polled just under 10 percent in his home base.
At the other end of the state, Pittsburgh and the southwest, Mr. Wolf had 36 percent while Jack Wagner, the only westerner in the field, had about 18 percent of the vote. There was no appreciable gender differences in the results. Mr. Wolf led with 40 percent among women and 39 percent among men.
The survey of 501 Democrats deemed likely to vote was conducted Feb. 22 and Feb. 23, and had a margin of error of 4.8 percent.
Harper’s methodology, however, has been the subject of controversy. Its automated calls go only to landline phones at a time when cell phones account for an accelerating share of phones. That’s a difference that’s been the focus of extensive research by polling experts. Major survey firms, such as Gallup and Pew Research, have shifted their methods in recent years to include cell phones in their overall samples.
Still, there was no dispute from other campaigns about whether Mr. Wolf had seized the lead. His momentum had been evident not just from the volume of his ads, but from the fact he had become an increasingly frequent target for the Corbett campaign, which had previously concentrated most of its fire on Ms. Schwartz.
The question is whether he can hold the lead between now and the May 20 primary.
“With only one candidate blanketing the airwaves so far, it’s unsurprising to see an early, artificial lead,’’ said Mark Nevins, a spokesman for Mr. McCord. “Ultimately, though, our key endorsement from the Pennsylvania teachers and the overwhelming support we’ve received from unions, community leaders, and progressive Democrats across the state will give us a significant advantage. We’re confident that as voters get to know Rob McCord, he’ll be the nominee in May.”
The campaign of the trailing candidate in the poll had an equally optimistic analysis.
“We always knew that we would start behind, and we are confident that we’ll be in position to win in May once voters learn about Katie McGinty’s personal story and record of creating jobs while protecting the environment,’’ said Mike Mikus, Ms. McGinty’s campaign manager. “The results in this poll are not surprising considering Mr. Wolf is the only candidate who has been on the air but that has changed as Katie is now on the air with her own commercials.”
More independent polling is expected to be released in the coming days. Should it confirm the dimensions of the Wolf lead depicted in this survey, it would not only boost his campaign but compound the tactical and fundraising challenges of the candidates trying to catch up.
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562. First Published February 25, 2014 11:46 AM