State Policy Network
Commonwealth Foundation reaches across the aisle to curb Pennsylvania Governor’s executive overreach

The Pennsylvania Governor exerted unilateral control over Pennsylvania during the pandemic—renewing his coronavirus disaster declaration five times since March 2020. By excluding the Pennsylvania Legislature, the governor left Pennsylvanians without a say in policies that directly impact their lives and livelihoods.

The governor’s abuse of power over the past year opened opportunities for the Commonwealth Foundation to build a diverse, bipartisan coalition in opposition to his harmful executive actions. As a result, Pennsylvanians approved two ballot initiatives that restored the balance of power between the governor and the Legislature during disaster emergencies.

SPN: What was your project?

Commonwealth: We united many disparate groups of Pennsylvanians in our fight to rein in the governor’s unilateral control during the coronavirus. To win this fight we had to appeal to and motivate right-of-center voters who were instinctively skeptical of the governor and his pandemic restrictions. But our polling showed that these voters alone would not be enough to achieve victory. We also had to move independent and left-of-center voters to vote “yes” on the ballot questions.

Faced with this challenge, we divided our messaging campaign into two distinct approaches. One approach, which we used exclusively on social media such as Facebook, engaged our traditional grassroots audience of right-leaning voters. We began reaching out to this audience early in the pandemic with the slogan “Do Better Wolf” to inform voters of the governor’s unforced errors in responding to the health crisis. We also included Commonwealth Foundation branding in these materials, building a statewide recognition of our brand’s capacity to provide informative, balanced content. Then, as the pandemic was winding down but the governor did not relent his executive overreach, we shifted our messaging for this audience to the slogan “King Wolf” and focused on the power of self-determination and pushback against Wolf’s monarch-like mandates. The goal was not to persuade this already-persuaded audience that the governor needed to be reined in, but to ensure that their grassroots energy built to a peak leading up to the referendum vote on May 18, 2021. That way, we would maximize turnout and ensure that word-of-mouth outreach grew from start to finish.

The other approach was led by our ally, Commonwealth Partners. They focused on reaching a left-of-center audience. Along with CF, they focused on radio stations and mailing lists, especially in Philadelphia, emphasized “equality for all Pennsylvanians.” Most importantly, it encouraged voters to vote yes on a third ballot question along with the two that were focused on reining in the governor’s executive overreach. This third ballot question would amend Pennsylvania’s constitution to ban discrimination on the basis of race and other protected categories, which both the Commonwealth Foundation and Commonwealth Partners supported. 

SPN: To what audience groups were you seeking to expand your brand reach?

Commonwealth: Despite the devastation that the governor’s lockdowns caused to inner-city residents of Philadelphia and other disadvantaged communities, many traditionally Democrat voters seemed poised to vote against any constitutional amendments that would potentially restrict a Democrat governor. We needed to convince those voters to vote yes on the amendments without sacrificing our conservative brand with our grassroots supporters. Unless we achieved a respectable “Vote Yes” turnout among both groups, the ballot questions would not receive over 50 percent of the statewide popular vote. This is why our bifurcated outreach was crucial—and ultimately successful.

SPN: What mechanisms did you use to expand your audience? (platforms, tools, tactics, etc.)

Commonwealth: To energize our grassroots conservative audience, we heavily targeted the “King Wolf” message exclusively on social media and email. We tapped into the anger that small business owners and average citizens were expressing on social media, and creatively searched for ways to engage and re-engage our audience throughout the campaign.

We re-targeted social media accounts who engaged but did not click and expanded the geographic targeting across the state. During the last two weeks before the May 18 vote, we also released a special “King Wolf” video inspired by the Netflix show The Crown and boosted six “Vote Yes” op-eds to specific regions of the state. This campaign also added more than 17,000 email signups to our mailing list, part of a total 36,000 addresses added during our clash with the governor this past year.

Along with this conservative grassroots outreach, the “Equality for all Pennsylvanians” messaging also reached a wide audience, particularly in Philadelphia, where voters enthusiastically supported both amendments limiting executive overreach and protecting civil rights through a non-discrimination law.

In the final accounting, our metrics for this campaign were stellar. Almost 18,000 people participated in phone to action calls to the governor’s office, we reached 581,051 Facebook users through ads, and our explainer video received 78,242 views. Our social media impressions totaled 2,865,002 and boasted an above-average engagement rate of 25.69 percent. This expansion of our audience seems to have been the extra boost needed to achieve victory on the referendum, where our Vote Yes campaign garnered 53 percent of the statewide vote.

SPN: What did you learn about expanding your audience this way?

Commonwealth: When it comes to exponentially increasing your audience, targeted messaging is critical. We would not have been successful in getting the amendments passed nor expanding our audience had we only focused on one segment of the audience.

Instead, by tailoring our messaging to each group—for instance, using business-focused messaging for right-leaning voters, using equality-focused messaging for left-leaning voters, and using red-meat, graphic and image heavy messaging for a social media audience—we ensured that the right message was hitting the right people at the right time. Had we only used one message, rather than tailoring it, we would not have successfully motivated people to take action based on the values that they considered important.

We also learned a specific technical lesson, that on digital platforms, a single digital engagement is not enough to generate a real-world action. Instead of assuming that a number of clicks, views, shares, comments, or likes will translate into votes or phone calls, we learned that it is crucial to adjust messaging and retarget those who express interest in a particular policy topic. That way, the issue is always present in their minds and they are more likely to take action.

For their success in building a bipartisan coalition to stop executive overreach, the Commonwealth Foundation is a finalist in State Policy Network’s Bob Williams Awards for Outstanding Policy Achievement, in the Biggest Home State Win category. Commonwealth is also a finalist in State Policy Network’s Communications Excellence Awards, in the Expanding Your Audience Award category.

Organization: State Policy Network