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Meet the pollster behind the wins of Pittsburgh progressives Lee, Gainey, Innamorato and more

State Rep. Sara Innamorato celebrates winning the Democratic primary race for Allegheny County Executive.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
State Rep. Sara Innamorato celebrates winning the Democratic primary race for Allegheny County Executive with supporters, including Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, left, and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, right.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. Sign up here to get it every Thursday afternoon.

Considering their central role in modern politics, campaign pollsters get very little attention. Campaigns understandably want the spotlight trained on their candidate, and that suits the pollsters I’ve met just fine, due to varying combinations of professional reticence, personal shyness, and Gollum-like unnaturally large eyes that are especially sensitive to sunlight.

So it was notable last month when Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey gave a shout-out to his 2021 campaign’s pollster, Ethan Smith, as “the best there is” when Smith launched his firm, Upswing Research & Strategy. Few people in the region have spent more time studying what is driving local politics today.

Smith previously worked for D.C.-based opinion research and consulting firm GQR, and while he remains in the D.C. area and has worked for clients across the country, his roots are here.

“It’s easy for me to be involved in Pittsburgh races because I know the area,” he said. “And it’s not common for pollsters to have that knowledge.”

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Smith spent his childhood in Dormont, and doesn’t need a poll to tell him affordable housing is a concern. “I recently looked at a place I lived when I went to college,” said the University of Pittsburgh graduate. “I was paying $450 a month when I went to school 10 years ago, and now it’s $1,500.”

If Gainey seems ready to give Smith the key to the city, it’s because Smith helped him and other prominent progressives secure the keys to their offices. Smith also worked on Summer Lee’s congressional bid in 2022, as well as Sara Innamorato’s Democratic primary win for county executive and Matt Dugan’s toppling of District Attorney Steve Zappala this spring. He’s also done work for SEIU, whose political director hails Smith as “an instrumental part of the wave of progressive wins” locally.

Smith has ridden that wave almost from the outset. Early on he assisted Rich Fitzgerald’s 2011 bid for county executive at a time when “Rich wasn’t just the most progressive person in that race. He was the most progressive politician in the county.”

If Fitzgerald is now regarded in some circles as too conservative, Smith ascribes that less to changes in Fitzgerald than to shifts in the political climate. “Watching how Rich went to the left of the party probably to the right of it in 10 years is emblematic of how dramatically things have changed,” he said.

Within heavily Democratic Allegheny County, he said, elections are increasingly driven by a new coalition: voters under age 50, people of color, and people with college degrees, especially women.

Meanwhile, Smith said, we’ve had a generation of leaders who — whatever their philosophical differences — were shaped by the local steel industry’s collapse. Their response was, broadly, “We’re going to clean things up and bring in these eds and meds,” Smith said. “Ed and Sara and Summer are saying something different.”

Ironically, the eds-and-meds approach worked well enough that many voters now worry about whether its players have too much power. And concerns about economic growth are now leavened with a belief that in a tech-driven economy especially, growth should be shared more equitably.

Smith says a desire to keep UPMC and other big employers in check, for example, is among the top-polling progressive messages. Others include climate change and environmental concerns, and the need for housing: A proposal that Innamorato championed in the state House to provide aid for home repairs tested “through the roof” in polls, Smith said.

More broadly, he added, Innamorato rivals Michael Lamb and John Weinstein campaigned on their years of experience as city controller and county treasurer, respectively, and Lamb could tout a strong record as a reformer. But “Sara was the only candidate who was talking about what she would do, not what she had done.”

She has one more challenger to reckon with: Republican Joe Rockey. Democrats enjoy a two-to-one voter registration advantage in Allegheny County, and Rockey is a first-time candidate with little name recognition. But he gives every sign of trying to make a race of it.

His campaign is orchestrated by Coldspark, a consulting firm that made its bones electing Republicans in areas where doing so is an uphill climb. The potent Laborers union — one of the region’s biggest-spending unions — endorsed Rockey on Thursday, and a couple other, more conservative unions may follow suit. Laborers are among those who’ve backed Republicans before, and the fact that they have members who work in the fossil-fuel sector makes them especially dubious of progressive environmental agendas.

Still, Smith is upbeat about prospects for the fall and beyond.

“As a pollster, I’m required to give the most pessimistic case,” he said. “But the places that are gaining the most population are also the places where we are doing well.” Those include increasingly Democratic suburbs along the Route 19 corridor south of the city, and areas of the North Hills that “are undergoing a political revolution” driven by increasingly diverse and college-educated newcomers.

By contrast, Smith said, “The places that are seeing population loss have more moderate voters, like the Mon Valley,” where Republicans have been making gains.

I tend to be wary about that kind of prediction — not because I doubt Smith’s analysis, but because on the national level particularly, Democrats sometimes seem to expect demographics to do their work for them. (They assumed, for example, that Donald Trump couldn’t win Pennsylvania in 2016 by appealing to communities that were dying on the vine while growth was elsewhere.)

But in Allegheny County, at least, it’s the folks running against Smith’s clients who arguably took too much for granted, running campaigns based largely on having a familiar name or being able to toss around the word, “socialist.”

Progressives, meanwhile, aren’t leaving much to chance. That’s one reason Smith’s new venture will probably be pretty busy for at least a few years to come.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.