Tuesday night’s debate between Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz will be the first and only meeting between the two candidates before the Nov. 8 election.
Its outcome could go a long way in deciding who wins a seat that political experts say could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
Although experts say Fetterman’s health remains under observation after suffering a stroke in April, it may not ultimately have much of an impact on voters.
“I guess people have already made up their minds and it won’t have much of an impact,” said Richard Scotch, a professor of sociology and political policy at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Scotch has studied the impact of disabilities on political candidates and said there are few examples where health concerns have affected a campaign.
“There may be a few voters who will be affected,” he said, “but I don’t see it as a problem, although there may be a lot of people talking about it in the media.”
Fetterman’s health came into the spotlight just days before the April Democratic primary when he suffered a stroke. This left him hospitalized and out of the campaign. He came back in earnest this fall. His campaign has argued that Fetterman has no lingering cognitive deficits as a result of the stroke, but he continues to experience what he called auditory processing issues that require him to use a closed-captioning device to answer questions in real time. He plans to use the device in Tuesday’s debate.
Fetterman’s campaign released a letter this week from his doctor clearing him for full-time work. The letter said Fetterman is healthy but still experiencing mild symptoms from the stroke.
“As we’ve said time and time again, John is healthy and fit to serve and also still has an auditory processing problem from the stroke,” Fetterman spokesman Joe Calvello said. “John has now released two different letters from his doctors, one from his cardiologist and one from his primary care physician, both saying he is fit to serve, and he has also released a candid letter directly from himself about his stroke. John has been transparent by talking openly about his health with local and national media while showing constituents how closed captioning technology is helping him communicate more effectively.”
Fetterman’s opponent, Oz, suggested that Fetterman had not been sincere about his health and questioned his fitness to serve in office.
The Oz campaign did not respond to a request for comment from the Tribune-Review.
Experts say that despite increased talk from the candidates and a raft of political ads that have focused on Fetterman’s health in the weeks leading up to the election, past history and current polls suggest he is not at the top of the list of issues voters will consider next month.
Berwood Yost, director of opinion and research at Franklin and Marshall College in Lebanon County, said the survey showed the candidate’s health was not an issue for voters in the highly competitive Senate race, where Fetterman has a narrow lead over Oz.
“We’ll be watching to see how he does in the debate, but unless there’s a major problem, I suspect he’ll be pretty far down the list that people will care about,” Yost said.
The survey found that voters are focusing more on policy differences. Yost said the survey shows that about 47 percent of adults have some sort of chronic illness, and after voters turn 65, that number rises to about 80 percent. With the majority of the electorate dealing with health issues, there is likely a lack of concern about how a political candidate’s own struggles might affect the outcome of the election, he said.
Discussions about Fetterman’s health have intensified in recent weeks following a national television interview in which Fetterman described using a captioning device.
Despite that attention, Yost said, polls show voters aren’t concerned about Fetterman’s health.
“In my model, I don’t think it changes the race,” Yost said.
Oz closed the ballot this fall after attacks on Fetterman’s stance on crime and policing became a central part of the campaign, according to Yost. He expects political issues, not health care, to decide the race.
Lisa Schur and Doug Kruse, co-directors of the Disability Studies Program at Rutgers University, said there is a long history of disabled candidates being elected to public office, including in recent years Greg Abbott, who uses a wheelchair and was elected governor in Texas. Abbott is running for re-election this fall.
Perhaps the closest comparison to Fetterman’s situation is the 2008 reelection of U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat from South Dakota who suffered a stroke in 2007.
“He won pretty easily,” Cruz said.
Johnson retired after completing his third term in 2015.
Schur and Kruse pointed to a 2021 survey conducted in the United States and England that asked voters whether they were influenced by a candidate’s disabilities.
“There was no overall effect. Overall, it wasn’t a real rise or fall,” Cruz said.
In the Pennsylvania Senate race, Schur said other issues are likely to have a bigger impact on the outcome.
“This election may be more focused on the policies that (Fetterman) stands for, and that’s the goal,” Schur said.