It’s not often you find yourself working on the business side of a referendum campaign with less funding than your opposition and 70 days to get organized before the vote.
From my experience working domestically and internationally, ballot measures and referendum votes have longer runways that give you more time to galvanize support, hone your messaging and winnow your target universes.
But this spring in Los Angeles, I found myself consulting for the effort described above. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), with help from Mayor Eric Garcetti, had just ended a brief but high-profile teacher’s strike.
In the aftermath, a unanimous LAUSD Board of Education, Superintendent Austin Beutner, Garcetti, United Teachers Los Angeles and their allies set their sights on a school district-wide ballot measure that would have been a massive property tax increase — ostensibly to fund LAUSD schools.
What we learned during that short campaign, which defeated the parcel tax (Measure EE) last June, is instructive. Here are some of the lessons to take away:
For a local election on a tight turnaround, getting supporters in line — particularly large businesses that don’t make decisions quickly unless there’s a crisis — is difficult. In our case, the opposition was hoping that the business community couldn’t get its act together to fight Measure EE – in spite of its $500 million/year price tag.
One of the items that helped form our coalition was early survey research. We conducted polling and it proved to not only help us clarify our messaging, but it also helped us raise money.
The teachers union and its supporters believed that because the public overwhelmingly supported the teachers strike, they then would support a tax increase in the name of public education.
But we knew from our research that support for the striking teachers didn’t equal support for a tax increase. As a result, the polling helped convince our coalition members that EE could be defeated and we were able to drive a truck through their messaging.
If we had taken a month to get our act together, we would have been doomed.
Direct mail, together with digital, is still king in local races.
In Los Angeles, direct mail is still one of the best, most cost-effective ways to reach likely voters. We didn’t produce and mail seven mail pieces leading up to Election Day. We produced and mailed about 70 unique mail pieces to highly targeted audiences — each one was a little bit different. We also did very aggressive social and digital media to complement the mail drops, and even ran small broadcast and cable TV buys during the campaign’s final weekend.
Get your targeting right.
In the campaigns that I’ve done all over the world, I learned it’s all about putting the message in front of the right voter at the right time. That axiom held true, especially in a low-turnout special election.
In this campaign, there’s no question we targeted better than they did. The Yes side was trying to get people without regular voting histories to go to the polls, which is an expensive proposition.
We knew the electorate would be small so we targeted by party and used other targeting criteria, as well. In the LAUSD service area, Republicans are an endangered species so we targeted homeowners, Latino homeowners, and length of time as a homeowner.
We also targeted older voters who were unlikely to have children in the school system, the San Fernando Valley (with strong anti-tax and strong anti-LAUSD sentiment) and we over targeted one specific council district that was also having a special election. Council District 12, which is in the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley, also happens to be the most conservative in the city. It still has a Democratic majority, but the properties are larger. Therefore, they would pay more in taxes.
To each of our universes, we successfully demonstrated how directly or indirectly they were going to pay for this tax increase with no guarantee that the LAUSD’s poor performance would improve.
Making it personal can backfire.
The Yes side went on the attack right after we announced the formation of our opposition group. Businesses were threatened with lost city contracts if they opposed Measure EE. I was on the end of personal attacks, too. They were hyper aggressive.
As a result, the opposition to this measure hardened. The feeling was we either sink or swim together. If the Yes side hadn’t gotten personal and so aggressive right off the bat, I think people would have said, “We have plenty of time to get an opposition campaign rolling."
Our opponents were convinced we would go quietly into the night. They just said, “you know what, we have overwhelming support for teachers…and the tax increase.”
Ultimately, they grossly miscalculated in calling a special election for June. They were banking that the business community couldn’t form a committee, raise money, develop a campaign plan and implement it before Election Day. As indicated earlier, they falsely believed that support for the strike equaled support for the tax, which it didn’t.
We proved them wrong. On Election Day, we triumphed 54-46.
Matt Klink is owner and president of Klink Campaigns.