It usually takes something special to break a streak like the one Memphis was on. Before October, the incumbent mayor had been victorious in nine out of 10 reelection contests going back to 1975. The current incumbent, Mayor AC Wharton, was four for four in past elections. He also won each race with more than 60 percent of the vote. Local conventional wisdom said Wharton was unbeatable.
This is what our candidate Jim Strickland was up against. So how did a campaign that was outspent and launched with little support from the local political and business establishment complete such a big Southern upset? The old fashioned way.
We relied on extensive polling and data to develop a campaign message and stuck to it. Moreover, we tapped into voter discontent by branding Strickland as the anti-establishment candidate. In 2015, we ran a throwback campaign largely devoid of the digital bells and whistles. Our candidate’s victory proved that some tactics are timeless — at least when courting a local electorate.
Now, the first cracks in Wharton’s approval began to appear in various polls conducted by candidates in countywide races during the summer of 2014. Wharton had been through a bruising budget battle, which included deep cuts to pensions of city retirees. Crime was also an issue with Memphis ranking in the top 10 of America’s most dangerous cities.
The numbers told us that, clearly, Wharton’s popularity was at an all-time low — especially among black voters. But even in a city that’s 63 percent African-American, Strickland would need a cross-section of white and black voters. That would be a challenge because Wharton’s approval rating among white Democrats that summer was holding steady around 70 percent.
Memphis city elections are somewhat unusual. On account of a 1991 federal court order, all voters regardless of political party cast votes for their favorite candidates in non-partisan races with no runoffs. It’s one vote, on one day, and then you have the winner. Strickland needed a plan.
As the general consultant and chief media strategist for the Strickland campaign, I commissioned Virginia-based Public Opinion Strategies to conduct a benchmark poll of 400 likely voters in November 2014. We included the names of other likely challengers, although the field was far from set.
At the time, Wharton had 32 percent of the vote and a 15-point lead over Strickland, who was virtually an unknown to nearly one-third of city voters. Still, Wharton also had high negatives with 46 percent of voters disapproving of the job he was doing. It didn’t help him that two thirds of respondents also thought the city was on the wrong track.
“Mayor Wharton is a wounded incumbent,” pollster Patrick Lanne wrote in a memo to our campaign.
Next we asked a series of questions to determine which issues would most influence voters, including the positives and negatives of the candidates. The answers we heard could be boiled down to: “It’s crime, stupid.” It dominated the issue agenda. Nearly half of voters named crime as the most important issue facing the city in an open-ended format, and 88 percent of Memphis voters believed the “level of crime and drugs” was a “very serious” problem facing the city.
As a nearly two-term member of the city council, Strickland had made public safety his signature issue. As a result, it was natural for crime to be at the forefront of his speeches, messaging and advertising. Strickland had long advocated for zero tolerance with violent criminals. And in the wake of a rash of juvenile crime in the city, including a high-profile attack on citizens at a Kroger store, Strickland had become critical of the mayor for failing to enforce curfew laws.
We knew, however, that messaging could be problematic. We were in the shadow of the Black Lives Matter movement so we expected pushback from social media, bloggers and columnists. One opinion writer said the plan “pander[ed] to our basest instincts.”
Our polling, however, showed we had the right message. In fact, 86 percent of African-Americans supported zero tolerance for violent criminals and enforcing curfew laws. Throughout the entire campaign, our position was to know the data and trust the data. That wasn’t always easy to do when the press and many of our own supporters were critical.
But throughout the campaign, Strickland was a disciplined candidate and stuck to his message. After five weeks on the stump with the message backed by TV spots, Strickland was leading the mayor by eight points. Still, it was essentially Strickland versus everybody
As incumbents often do, the mayor had the overwhelming support of the political establishment, the business elite and the local press. During the final weeks of the campaign, these groups stepped up every effort to secure another term for Wharton. Memphis’s three billionaires—Frederick Smith, founder of FedEx, J.R. Hyde III, founder of AutoZone, and Mason Hawkins, owner of Southeastern Asset Management—joined together for a big-ticket fundraiser in support of the mayor. Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) held a fundraiser in Nashville, which boasted a guest list of the state’s top politicos. Soon after a Super PAC surfaced attacking Strickland with a barrage of direct mail.
The Commercial Appeal, Memphis’ largest daily, also jumped on the bandwagon. Amid the Super PAC mailings, the paper’s editorial board endorsed Wharton in a piece that was, at the same time, critical of the Strickland campaign. The pile on soon included the Greater Memphis Area Chamber and many of the city’s notable elected officials who lined up behind Wharton in the final stretch of the campaign.
Establishment support behind the incumbent turned out to be an opportunity for Strickland to message to the voters who wanted change. All of our final marketing in social media, email blasts, direct mail, radio and TV included the line: “The Establishment doesn’t want change, but the people of Memphis do.” In a city that loves the underdog, the Strickland campaign had settled comfortably into this role as we headed into early voting. The public never knew internal polls showed Strickland leading by double digits.
Our initial benchmark poll and a series of tracking polls throughout the campaign provided key to the campaign’s success. It allowed us to set the message, and adjust it as needed. And though Strickland was outspent by the incumbent, we were spending wisely – saving our ammo for large television and radio buys.
Strickland’s total budget was around $650,000 compared to Wharton’s budget of some $950,000 reported on his latest filings. We focused our spending on media with our $370,000 TV budget covering 6,000-7,000 GRP’s throughout the 10 weeks we were up. Direct mail took $65,000 of the budget, traditional radio received $70,000 and digital only $10,000.
We felt that the latter warranted such a small share because 70 percent of voters were over the age of 55. To reach the most voters most frequently, the campaign focused on traditional marketing.
Polling was also a big expense at roughly 10 percent of the campaign’s budget. The rest of the money went to a small staff, paid phone banking and canvassing, a rented headquarters and yard signs. We were a lean operation, which allowed us to make decisions quickly.
We were the first campaign on TV and it paid off. After two weeks of television, our internal polls showed we were tied with the incumbent mayor. But at 48 percent, we were still a long way from consolidating the white vote needed for a decisive victory. Crosstabs showed Wharton had the majority of white voters that identified as Democrats. We adjusted our cable buy and micro-targeted white Democrats with direct mail that identified Strickland as the past chairman of the local Democratic Party and more progressive than Wharton on social issues.
We then launched a comparative ad titled “Friday Night Lights,” which reminded voters that only a year earlier Mayor Wharton’s answer to juvenile violence was to cancel Friday night high school football games, which didn’t play well. Our poll numbers were soaring. Just 10 days before early voting, we had an 8-point lead over the incumbent. And a final poll just after the start of early voting showed we had increased our lead to a 10-point margin.
On Election Day, we were quietly working our GOTV plan, which included direct mail, phone banking and canvassing to our strongest base of Independents and Republicans.
Strickland received 42 percent of the vote to Wharton’s 22 percent. Two other top contenders captured 18 percent and 16 percent while a half dozen candidates stood at less than 1 percent each. With no runoff, Strickland had a clear victory, becoming the first city council member to win the city’s top job since 1972.
Steven Reid is president of Memphis-based Sutton Reid Advertising, Inc.