Currents political commentators T.J. Rooney and Alan Novak assess the state of the presidential race leading up to next week's Pennsylvania primary.

T.J. Rooney

is a former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party

Alan Novak

is a former chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania

Rooney: Like many things in this year's primary election on both sides, we can expect the unexpected. In this moment in time it appears that Donald Trump has a very commanding lead over his two Republican challengers. The question for both Democrats and Republicans is: Will the candidates play on a wholesale statewide basis or will they focus their campaigns in certain congressional districts? Out of our 18 congressional districts, it's not inconceivable that you might have some candidates only running in a handful of selected districts where they feel they have a shot at winning delegates.

Novak: It's the difference between somebody swinging for the fences or playing small ball. I'm a baseball fan. The Kansas City Royals are the world champions because they played small ball better than anybody else last year. Getting delegates is a lot like scoring runs. The goal is to get delegates and keep the other side from getting delegates. You want more delegates than the other side. That's how you win.

Trump might win Pennsylvania's 17 super delegates - which go with the winner of the state on the first ballot at the convention. But the 54 delegates elected in the congressional districts are elected as individual delegates associated with no candidate. They are completely free agents, except now they are getting pinned down by media asking what they are going to do. They are getting pinned down by constituents asking if they are supporting certain candidates. Many are saying, "I will vote on my first ballot for whoever wins my congressional district." That is where the small-ball game comes into play.

Rooney: Sen. Ted Cruz might not mount a successful statewide effort in Pennsylvania, but it is not at all unlikely that you might see his campaign and others focus their attentions in a laserlike fashion in congressional districts. The compositions of certain districts lend themselves better for those campaigns' success than the prospect of winning the popular vote of the entire state.

Novak: Winning the state helps Trump in one way, but winning congressional districts helps the others who are all in on a contested convention right now.

Cruz has been playing the small-ball game much better than Trump so far. Cruz has built grassroots relationships, established local organization infrastructures, and understands the rules of delegate selection better. He's been picking up delegates left and right by understanding that better than Trump. It's conceivable he could win a couple of congressional districts in the northern tier, as well as central and south-central parts of the state. Ohio Gov. John Kasich should do well in the Philadelphia media market. It's more moderate and I know there are many Kasich supporters in the Philadelphia region.

Rooney: Democrats choose their delegates differently, so while there will obviously be a lot of strategy involved in deciding the course of the campaign, the results in New York on Tuesday will really tell the story. If Secretary Hillary Clinton wins a decisive victory - and I would define decisive by double digits - that type of victory would let a lot of the wind out of the sails of the Sanders campaign. However, if Bernie Sanders were to run a very close race in New York or somehow to prevail, then that last week in Pennsylvania will be a great week for those who like to watch politics, because all the presidential campaigns have to offer will be on full display.

Novak: Clinton is on a pretty rough losing streak recently, but I think if she wins in New York and she wins in Pennsylvania that streak is history and she picks up some momentum leading into the homestretch to the Democrat convention.

Rooney: There is another interesting dynamic in Pennsylvania. We have closed primaries in Pennsylvania, so only Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary and only Republicans can vote in the Republican primary. If you are an independent or registered with another party, you cannot cast a ballot in the primary race for a candidate of a different party.

This year we have seen a significant number of party switchers and there's been a reasonable influx of new voters. The question becomes: How do you communicate with all these new voters? Unlike open primary states, where they are used to a lot less predictability, Pennsylvania is not, and it becomes much more difficult to pinpoint voters. So, when you are looking at a race like attorney general, which is seemingly a close race and where not a lot of polling has been done, you are going to have to spend extra resources in order to touch those new or infrequent voters.

Novak: In most years the people who run campaigns and spend the candidate's campaign dollars on voter contact usually focus on the people who have a history of coming out and voting regularly. In this election cycle, because Trump is bringing more people in and because there have been party switches for whatever reason, campaigns have to make decisions about spending dollars trying to contact those people. And that is another reason why the small-ball campaigns that are playing out in the presidential race are impacting the game plans in other races.

On April 26 I will be watching every congressional district to see which presidential race carried the individual congressional districts. That will tell us more about what role Pennsylvania may play in the nominating convention than anything else.

T.J. Rooney and Alan Novak are principals of RooneyNovak Group Bipartisan Solutions and appear together regularly to discuss political issues and debate policy. Contact them at and