WESA: Meet the Pollster Behind the Wins of Pittsburgh Progressives Lee, Gainey, Innamorato, and More

Jun 9, 2023

From Chris Potter at WESA:

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.”

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.”

Read the full article at WESA.