Here’s Why (Insert Your Favorite Candidate’s Name) Will Win the Mayor’s Race

Less than one month out, the contest looks like a tossup.

Photos by Jeff Fusco.

Photos by Jeff Fusco.

There are just 29 days remaining before Philadelphians choose the city’s next mayor. It doesn’t feel that way; not given how low voter interest appears to be in the race, and the late start the candidates got on this election season. But the calendar disagrees. Believe it: this is the home stretch of one of the sleepiest mayoral elections in the city’s modern era.

And right now, it looks like a tossup. There are viable paths to victory — or to crushing defeat — for each of the field’s three leading contenders: State Senator Anthony H. Williams, former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, and former City Councilman Jim Kenney. The odds are longer, like a lot, lot, longer, for the other candidates, but we’ll look at the next 29 days may have in store for them as well. First, the favorites.

Lynne Abraham

Why She’ll Win: Abraham has bounced back nicely from her collapse on the debate stage two weeks ago, campaigning with intensity and making her fainting spell look like a weird aberration instead of a sign of things to come. More fundamentally, low-interest elections — and this certainly qualifies as one so far — are godsends for candidates that start the race with big name recognition advantages. A lot of voters, even those who haven’t tuned in to the mayoral race, know exactly who Abraham is. If they don’t tune it until election day, they’re going to pull the lever for the name they know: Abraham. And if voters instead opt to stay away from the polls in large numbers, well that works to Abraham’s advantage too. Why? Super voters, the kind of voters that turn out for elections a lot of other voters aren’t even aware of, tend to be older voters. That’s Abraham’s base. If the election were held today, and only the super voters showed, Abraham would win this thing.

Why She’ll Get Crushed: The election’s not being held today, and there’s good reason to think a big chunk of Abraham’s support is soft. Voters are going to see a lot more of Anthony Williams and Jim Kenney on TV than they are of Abraham, owing to those candidate’s deep-pocketed Super PAC allies. The ad blitz will eliminate Abraham’s name recognition advantage, and remind voters — particularly African American voters — of the many controversial moments in Abraham’s long career as DA. She lacks the money to respond, and her campaign organization remains a work in progress. Her collapse on the debate stage was a potent reminder of her age for some voters. Oh, and Jim Kenney is rising. Voters like to be with winners, and if they decide Kenney is the only viable alternative to Williams, they’ll abandon Abraham in droves.

Jim Kenney

Why He’ll Win: Kenney’s got the big mo’, and he’s got it at the right time. He’s picking up endorsements from key leaders in both the black and Latino communities, which puts him in a position to win votes outside his base of white progressives and rowhome Philadelphia. There are two deep-pocketed Super PACs helping him out, and they’re going to pour a ton of money into television ads on Kenney’s behalf.Despite some education-reformy moments in his past, Kenney is clearly aligned now with the teachers union and the traditional education model. Voters suspicious of charters will flock to Kenney, and there are a lot of them. He’s got what looks like the most effective campaign operation of the field, and the unmatched election day operation of John Dougherty’s Local 98 backing him. That sort of union backing is a big deal in a low turnout election. They’ll make sure their voters get to the polls, and a lot of their voters are going to be voting Kenney.

Why He’ll Get Crushed: While endorsements from black leaders are nice, the city’s recent history strongly suggests not many black voters will support a white mayoral candidate. Kenney is also vulnerable to attack ads. Just imagine how much airtime will be purchased in the next month highlighting his associations with Vince Fumo and Dougherty. That’ll put a damper on the enthusiasm of those young white progressives now so enamored of Kenney, and it doesn’t take much to get them to skip the whole “actually voting” thing. Another problem for Kenney? Abraham is a figure that inspires fierce loyalty among her core supporters. He might be able to peel away some Abraham voters, but she’s not going to collapse completely, and Kenney needs every rowhome vote he can get if he’s to defeat Williams.

Anthony Williams

Why He’ll Win: As the campaign has worn on, Williams has improved as a candidate. He was effective at the first TV debate, and in other venues, putting to rest some of the questions about both his hunger for the job and his ability to do it. On top of that, he’s got huge structural advantages. Race matters in Philadelphia politics. In fact, it’s critical. And as the only high-profile African American in the contest, Williams is sure to win a huge chunk of the black vote, which is the largest of any racial group in the city city. His Super PAC allies — principally the unfathomably rich trio of education reform advocates that helped found the Susquehanna International Group — are on track to spend more than $4 million on Williams’ behalf. It’s a tidal wave of cash, and it’s going to overwhelm Kenney and Abraham alike.

Why He’ll Get Crushed: As the one guy everybody knew was going to run, Williams had a whole year to lock up this election. But he hasn’t, and that speaks to a deep-rooted uncertainty in a lot of quarters over the prospect of a Mayor Williams. Those doubts will spread as negative ads highlighting his vulnerabilities start to air, and the softer parts of his base — encouraged by high profile union and political endorsements of Kenney — will start to look elsewhere. Milton Street has been a huge presence at every mayoral forum he’s attended, and he’ll win enough votes to significantly drag down Williams’ total. Williams has too much money and too much support among black voters for his campaign to collapse. He’s going to get a lot of votes. But he should have this election well in hand already, and he doesn’t. Voters are shopping for alternatives, and that’s big trouble for Williams.

The Wild Cards

Nelson Diaz: All indications are that Diaz has failed to appeal to voters outside of his Latino base. Diaz has a great resume, but he’s not a dynamic campaigner. The best case scenario for Diaz? Record-breaking Latino turnout that validates the community’s role as an emerging political power. The worst case? Single-digit numbers on election day and meh turnout in the Hispanic community. If he performs well, that probably takes away votes from Kenney, and then a few less votes from Williams (more that later this week).

Doug Oliver: Oliver has proven with this campaign that he’s got real political talent and a future in this business, if he wants it. But he’s not going to win this election. The best case scenario for Oliver? Double-digit returns on election day, which would be a huge accomplishment as a first time candidate and virtual unknown running on a tiny budget. Worst case? He’s a rounding error.

Milton Street: Street’s base is working class black voters, and nearly every vote he wins will be a vote lost for Williams. Best case for Street is a finish around nine or 10 percent, a number that would be big enough to have a potentially profound effect on the election. Worst case? Call it three or four percent. A vote for Street is a protest vote, and there are too many voters unhappy over their options for Street to dip much below that.


IN THIS SECTION