Early voting begins tomorrow which always puts candidates a little more on edge. Even though about 13,000 votes will have been cast by mail, something about people showing up to the polls makes it feel like the election has officially arrived.
If you separate primary and general elections, which I do because they are different opponents with different budgets even if the candidate who became the nominee stays the same, then I will have completed my 19th local campaign as a manager after this primary wraps up.
I’m just starting out in my career, but this gives me a bit more experience than two of my four candidates, Stacey Worthington and Tod Cloud, for whom this is their first election with their name on the ballot. To their credit, they are handling it remarkably well.
The next 12 days will be a challenge though. In sports media when an athlete new on the scene receives a big contract, some commentators speculate that the money doesn’t change who that person is – it just reveals more of who they already were. We used to say the same thing about dollar beer night in college.
It’s a similar situation for candidates facing this electoral crunch time. Any pivots in message strategy or campaign tactics won’t be a new aspect of that candidate but rather a reveal of what was already there the whole time.
You see where this is going. A candidate who chooses to go negative must be a bad person by this logic. Not necessarily.
Some people think any type of negative advertising backfires, yet academic research shows that’s not the case. Others contend that while negative advertising may work on the general populous nationwide, local voters who embrace our small town community values are turned off by it.
The data is mixed on this. In 2018, Commissioner Scott Carnahan beat former commissioner Scott Adams after Adams sued Carnahan over his residency. The lawsuit was filed in early July and not resolved until after voting by mail had already begun. Even after it was tossed out, Adams ran attack mailers repeating the claims just days before the election.
Adams outgained Carnahan in election day votes by about 500, potentially from the content of these negative ads, though Carnahan had enough of roughly 1,500 from vote by mail and early voters to cover the losses experienced on the final day.
In 2020, Luis Marin ran several newspaper ads in the final weeks before the election about Ruthie Schlabach’s campaign benefiting from untraceable committee fund expenditures and her position in favor of raising the sales tax. Much like Mr. Carnahan, Ms. Schlabach earned 52.55% of the votes by mail that started early and just 40.87% of the vote on Election Day.
Whether either of these examples are a result of the message strategy or a normal swing with election day voters that tend to be more conservative is still up for debate, but it certainly suggests negative advertising could have played a role.
In past Concurrent columns, I have broken election messaging into thirds that all start with the letter P: the personal, the professional and the political. The first two should be off limits for negative. The third, such as highlighting residency concerns legally required to hold office and positions on issues such as raising the sales tax, is fair game even if the message comes across as aggressive.
This might leave you wondering what an off-limits message would look like. The 2020 sheriff election brought us a prime example when a political committee paid Chronicle ad published numerous personal items about Pat Crippen’s finances.
That brings us to the present day with only 12 more left in this primary. Though the forums are done, candidate advertising is likely going to ramp up, the conversation is going to intensify and the Chronicle is undoubtedly going to get more involved. Less than two weeks is more than enough time for a candidate to feel the heat as the voter totals tick upward.
As each of these things happen, keep a careful eye on the reaction from each candidate. They might be the target of the attacks or ones behind the negative advertising. They could be riding high on momentum or feeling the walls close in around them.
Whatever the situation, some candidates will flourish while others will flounder. This might feel like new revelations about who they are, but really it will be a reveal of who they were the whole time.