During the Kansas City, Mo., mayoral race in June, an increasingly common pattern played out. The campaign, which saw an eleven-candidate field winnowed to two contenders, was the most expensive, complex, and substantial in the city’s recent memory.
Both Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas, our client, and Jolie Justus, who served with Lucas on the city council, employed teams of professional consultants and pollsters to guide them. Ultimately, their strategies played a role in the outcome of a race that was decided by some 68,000 voters.
Research has repeatedly shown that municipal elections are the place where a strong campaign can have the greatest effect.
Since 2014, our firm has helped elect municipal executives from suburban Maryland to Phoenix, Ariz., in elections with million-dollar budgets and hundreds of thousands of voters, and elections for city council districts that fit in a single zip code. During that time, we’ve seen an explosion in campaign spending, adoption of technology and professionalization in municipal elections. Candidates and consultants alike should take these changes into account as they plan their campaigns.
As municipal elections have expanded and professionalized, some have turned to national, or at least non-local, consultants. Still, there’s resistance to this trend. Why? A combination of over-reliance on local consultants, a distrust of work product that comes across as overproduced and inauthentic, and above all, a belief that “things are just done differently here.”
Consultants need to be realistic about these concerns, which are valid in many cases. But that said, local candidates would be well-served to combine a strategic “kitchen cabinet” familiar with the issues, personalities, and vagaries of their jurisdiction with at least one outside voice who can bring a fresh perspective to a campaign’s strategy and help distinguish effective tactics from the antiquated. The choice between local knowledge and national experience and know-how is a false one — the most effective campaigns combine both.
To provide the right strategic advice, consultants should begin by identifying the critical ways in which their prospective client’s race differs from those further up the ballot. First, the major dividing lines are different. While partisanship is the major dividing line in national politics, many of this year’s largest and most contentious mayoral elections (think Chicago or the aforementioned Kansas City) were between registered Democrats in officially non-partisan contests.
Absent the information many voters use to make their decisions, other significant fault lines typically emerge in a local setting: ideology (more or less progressive), insider/outsider (running against city hall or to be an ally to city hall, regardless of incumbency), and “growth and development” (the bread and butter of local government, and a major source of political division in local politics as a result).
Second, and unsurprisingly, local issues matter — a lot. In municipal races, high-information voters may not just have questions about police funding or bad roads. They want to know about the number of patrols in their neighborhoods and the water mains under their streets. Municipal elections present opportunities for savvy campaigns to win votes by communicating with voters on issues that may not show up in polling, and might be most effective in geographic areas (a few precincts, a particular police district, or neighborhoods off a specific major roadway) that would ordinarily be dismissed as too small, too granular, or too much of hassle on bigger races.
These distinctions make direct mail an especially strong tool for municipal campaigns. At the same time that the demands on campaign budgets are expanding, print technology is allowing the production of fully variable direct mail at lower-than-ever prices. This is making the microtargeting popularized by presidentials available to races for city council and mayor.
For example, in the elections for mayor of Phoenix and county executive in Anne Arundel County, Md., we produced mail with similar designs, then made changes to bulleted text and even photos at the individual level — presenting messages specific to an individual or household’s geographic location, age, party, and/or ethnicity. With a little extra legwork, the same number of mailers, in the same physical dimensions, instantly become more relevant to the individual reader, and thus more effective.
Municipal campaigns will continue to go through the same metamorphosis that congressional campaigns went through two decades ago — creating opportunities both for candidates who embrace new strategic approaches and for the consultants who are quickest to adapt to them.
Nick Mildebrath is a vice president at Convergence Targeted Communications.