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Pittsburgh-area voters focused on economy, reproductive rights, latest WESA/Campos survey shows

Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

The genius of the American political system is that thanks to its endless campaign cycle, by the time we vote, we’re often sick of the candidates. It’s arguably a good way to prepare yourself for the possibility of disappointment after the winner is sworn in.

Did that sound cynical? Thanks to our WESA/Campos Pulse survey — the product of an ongoing partnership between us and the Pittsburgh-based marketing firm — I can tell you such sentiments merely prove I’m young at heart.

When Campos undertook a pre-primary survey of voter attitudes it found that 28% of voters aged 18 to 34 said their vote had no influence at all on national elections. Only 11% of voters over age 65 were so jaded. (Voters aged 35 to 64 skewed closer to the younger mindset: 23% said their vote had no impact. But that demographic includes Gen Xers, so what do you expect?)

The survey sought to gauge voters’ mindsets, rather than ask horse-race questions about who they’d vote for. But fully 13% of younger voters told the Campos team they hadn’t made up their minds yet. That compared to just 2% of people over 65, and 11% of folks 35 to 64.

Oh, for the boundless idealism and energy of old age!

It’s no secret that younger voters are less likely to turn out for elections: In our last presidential election, slightly more than half of eligible citizens between 18 and 34 turned out, while nearly three-quarters of older adults did. This year’s lack of enthusiasm is likely compounded by frustrations over the war in Gaza. Those are particularly common among younger Americans, as the protests outside President Joe Biden’s appearance in Pittsburgh this week remind us. This CNN piece, anyway, was not the kind of coverage Biden came out here for.

Still, it’s notable that when asked about the issues most important to them, there wasn’t much difference among age groups. Voters across the board said economic issues and reproductive rights were their biggest concerns. (The largest difference was that younger respondents cared a lot less about immigration and crime — and election integrity! — than elderly voters, but more about education.)

From the standpoint of voter engagement, the generational enthusiasm gap closes as elections get closer to home. Young voters are more likely to say they can have an impact on state and local elections: Only 11% say they have no local impact, which is barely different from the 8% share of older voters who feel disempowered.

And even with the presidential nominees for both parties already set, next week’s primary has other contests to attract our interest.

Maybe the most meaningful contest whose outcome we don’t already know is the race for state attorney general, where two Republicans and five Democrats hope to be their parties’ nominee. Pittsburgh son Eugene DePasquale is a Democratic contender, and he has some advantages: He’s the only western Pennsylvania candidate, and he’s held statewide office as auditor general. On the other hand, he’s never practiced criminal law … and despite declining crime rates, public safety is a top issue for more than 40% of older voters in our Campos survey.

Still, Josh Shapiro had no criminal law experience before he ran for AG, and he’s managed to eke out a decent political career. And while there are races for treasurer and auditor general on the ballot, who Pennsylvania chooses as its next AG could have national implications. Shapiro challenged Trump and his supporters on election integrity and reproductive rights, while Republican AGs elsewhere have thwarted Biden on issues that include student debt forgiveness.

A lot of pundits will be keeping an eye on the 12th Congressional District Democratic primary contest between Summer Lee and Bhavini Patel, though the race hasn’t gone quite as expected. There was a lot of talk early on that pro-Israel groups would spend millions here, but it hasn’t happened. And while Patel has sought to question Lee’s loyalty to Biden, Lee got a thumbs up from the president during his visit Wednesday: He listed her alongside fellow Congressman Chris Deluzio and other Democrats as one of “the folks who had my back” in Washington.

Even so, anecdotal evidence suggests that some of the ads that have hit the airwaves have made an impression. And Patel has been a pugnacious critic, one of the few who can go toe-to-toe with Lee.

It may also be worth your while to keep an eye on what happens in the state House District 34 seat Lee used to hold, where Ashley Comans is challenging first-term Democratic incumbent Abigail Salisbury. A lot of locals will be watching this battle as an early test of the political coattails of Lee and her progressive allies, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and County Executive Sara Innamorato.

The three endorsed Comans over Salisbury, putting themselves at odds with Democratic interest groups that sided with the incumbent. Since then, we’ve already seen fundraising reports that show the local at progressive base being augmented by national interests — a dynamic we’ve witnessed before.

But while previous progressive challenges have often involved taking on white males who skew more conservative, Salisbury is less easy to pigeonhole: She’s a bisexual Jewish woman whose votes have been in line with the liberal mainstream.

Comans is a worthy challenger, a longtime activist who serves as a Wilkinsburg school board member — the most thankless elected position in America. But if she wins, it may be time for local progressives to hang up the talk about taking on the “political establishment.” They will be the establishment, if they aren’t already.

And that too is the cycle of life. The vanguard of today becomes the rear-guard of tomorrow, and someday you realize you too are a supervoter over the age of 65, sharing a demographic with presidential nominees.

Hope that makes you young voters feel more optimistic about the future!

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.