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Malcolm Kenyatta’s internal poll shows a path for his Senate run — if he can get his message out

Kenyatta polls second in the campaign-released survey, trailing Lt. Gov John Fetterman by 24 points among 600 likely Democratic primary voters.

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta gives a speech to mark six months since the Capitol insurrection during a gathering at the Pennsylvania State Memorial inside Gettysburg National Military Park on July 6.
State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta gives a speech to mark six months since the Capitol insurrection during a gathering at the Pennsylvania State Memorial inside Gettysburg National Military Park on July 6.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta says he’s in “a solid second place” in his underdog campaign for Pennsylvania’s Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. But even second place comes with some huge caveats.

His campaign released an internal poll Monday showing Kenyatta polling second in a contest with four candidates, trailing Lt. Gov John Fetterman by 24 points among 600 likely Democratic primary voters. But Kenyatta does markedly better — tying Fetterman — when voters are given more biographical information on the candidates, including criticisms likely to be lobbed at them during the race.

The poll confirms Kenyatta’s ongoing challenge: how to more widely broadcast his narrative, and discredit his opponents, despite fewer resources. He’s among the lowest fund-raisers in the Democratic pack vying to fill Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat. As of October filings, Fetterman’s campaign had $4.2 million, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb had $2.2 million, and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh had $1 million, while Kenyatta had just $319,000.

A campaign’s internal polls have to be taken in context. Candidates rarely release numbers that look bad for them. And when they do publicize what their polls show, it’s just as often to remind voters they are still in the race.

» READ MORE: Race to the Senate: Who's In and Who's Out

Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, said that the pollster that Kenyatta’s campaign used, Anna Greenberg, is reputable, as is her firm’s methodology.

But he noted that releasing internal polls usually comes with a purpose. “They want a message out,” Borick said. “That doesn’t mean that the polling is necessarily flawed but it certainly can reflect the goals of the campaign.”

For Kenyatta, that goal is to argue that he’s still a contender in the race — that while Fetterman is the clear front-runner, he’s currently in the mix for second. Kenyatta’s numbers also mirror a Dec. 13 internal Fetterman campaign poll, obtained by The Inquirer, which found Lamb and Kenyatta virtually tied at 16% of the vote and Fetterman drawing 42%.

With five months until the primary, any poll comes with a grain of salt. Kenyatta’s shows a 14-point improvement among Democratic voters after they hear biographical information and opposition research on Fetterman, Kenyatta, Lamb, and Arkoosh. But that’s not a foolproof sampling of how a race will play out.

“This is a hypothetical world where all these messages are presented equally, shared equally, and reaching voters equally,” Borick said. “That’s not reality — the reality is that will be largely determined by the resources available to the campaigns and how good the campaigns are also but how effective they are at getting these messages out.”

But for Kenyatta, a 30-year-old state representative who has run on a platform of being a working-class candidate, it’s a moment to argue for his viability against skepticism over his youth and anemic fund-raising numbers.

“All these people who have written off our campaign have been wrong,” Kenyatta said on Monday. “This campaign is in it to the end.”

And this is a race observers have witnessed how quickly a candidate’s fortunes can change. Sean Parnell had been the Republican front-runner for much of the summer and fall, after former President Trump endorsed him. Now Parnell is out.

The Senate race is poised to be one of the most competitive and expensive in the country, particularly with a slate of GOP candidates, several of them self-funding millionaires, driving up media market costs. Kenyatta said Monday he thinks “voters are sophisticated,” and that the polling shows he’s reaching voters.

“We’re in a solid second place over two people who are outspending us,” Kenyatta said, referencing Lamb and Arkoosh. “So voters are hearing us. They’re hearing us not because we’re just investing in TV and hoping that works but because we’re going to their communities.”

Kenyatta would be the first Black and openly gay man elected to the Senate. He’s the only declared candidate from Philadelphia, though State Sen. Sharif Street has previously said he’s exploring a run. In the survey, Kenyatta leads with Black voters and voters in the Southeast.

» READ MORE: David McCormick is taking his first public steps to run for Senate and join a tumultuous GOP primary

Voters who took the survey were asked which candidate they would support based just on hearing their name, then their name and some biographical information, and then a third time after hearing negative statements about all four — the kind they might expect to hear from an opponent in the primary or general election.

The statement about Lamb criticized his record as too moderate, saying he voted “nearly 70 percent of the time in line with Trump and Republicans.”

Fetterman’s recounts an incident in which he was armed and detained a Black jogger he suspected of a shooting.

Arkoosh is described as “out of touch with Pennsylvania” as a “multimillionaire who put five hundred thousand dollars of her own money into her campaign.”

The statement about Kenyatta said he’s “too young and inexperienced to win against a Republican in the general election. He is a young, Black openly gay legislator and it would be hard for him to get broad support across the state.”

Those statements preview some of the mudslinging yet to come.

“The reality is to win statewide it’s gonna take a lot of resources and organization, but it’s also gonna take some degree of exposing potential weaknesses of your opponents,” Borick said. “A lot of polling like this is designed to do just that and kind of see what might stick or what might work.”