By Jay McCleskey, Partner, Lincoln Strategy Group
Nicole McCleskey, Partner, Public Opinion Strategies
The Albuquerque Journal labeled the RJ Berry win in the mayoral race “a move to the right.” That is a true statement. But it’s not just because a Republican mayor was elected for the first time in over 20 years. It’s where that movement came from within the electorate that’s important to note when examining this election in the context of the overall 2010 cycle.
Berry’s victory was made possible because Republicans over-performed their registration/traditional performance numbers and swing voters who have been solidly in the Democratic camp for the last two cycles swung back and responded to more conservative messages from a Republican candidate.
It Should Have Been A Coronation
Most mayors running for re-election would love to have the political environment that was handed to Marty Chavez in his historic bid for a fourth term in office. Sixty-two percent (62%) of likely voters in Albuquerque felt the city was heading in the right direction and six out of ten had a favorable impression of the mayor himself.
The big tip that something was amiss was the re-elect ballot test where we ask voters if they would vote to re-elect Chavez or if they think it is time for someone new. By a two-to-one margin, voters told us they wanted someone new.
The Genesis of the Message
Our initial assumption was that voters wanted someone new because they viewed Chavez as an unethical politician and/or they were rejecting his overall record. But rather than basing the campaign on assumptions, we decided to do a focus group with soft Republican voters who had previously supported Chavez to test messages and themes.
The theme of the campaign emerged through our rich discussion with these voters: “What can the Mayor accomplish in 16 years that he has not accomplished in 12?” Voters had simply tired of Chavez – they didn’t despise him, nor did they discount some of his accomplishments. The theme captured the sentiment without appearing to trash a man they actually liked.
Out of the focus group, we set our compass on Northeast. As one group participant said: “We’re headed North in Albuquerque. We don’t need to go South. We need to go a little Northeast.” Hence, our campaign spent no time criticizing the state of the city. That was going to be a message that would fall on deaf ears and waste precious resources.
Rather than making the election a referendum on the city, we set out to make this a referendum on the specific spending and crime issues that would be the hallmarks of a Chavez 4th term.
The tone of that message was important. It was clear that the wish to elect someone new was not based on some harsher sense that the mayor was corrupt or even unethical. Voters viewed the mayor as ambitious, certainly. Pushy at times. Even sneaky. But, they did not view him as a bad guy. This informed the tone for the entire campaign. That’s why the first TV spot opened with the lines, “12 years. Some good. Some bad. Just time to turn the page.” Despite criticism from pundits that the message was not a sharp enough contrast to move voters, our research said differently and we drove the “12 years is long enough” theme home.
Developing the Narrative
Every campaign is a story that unfolds. We could beat the drum that 12 years is long enough, but what we needed to do in order to make the theme stick was provide solid examples and develop a viable alternative.
Richard Berry is a leader who studies issues intensely and works hard to come up with practical solutions. It is important to note that our message development never changed Berry’s position on any issue. Rather, our challenge was to find the intersection where Berry’s issue positions crossed with the opinion of the electorate and frame it in a way that reinforced the overall theme of the campaign. To accomplish this, we tested a series of about a dozen Berry campaign positions in a July survey that presented a problem and introduced the Berry solution. Three issues rose to the top:
< Fight property crime.
< Focus spending on basic city services and not a $300 million trolley car.
< Change the city’s “Sanctuary City” policy for criminals.
Some political commentators might suggest that these issues allowed Berry to consolidate the Republican base and catapult him into the mayor’s office. That’s only partially true. The part missed in much of the analysis is that these issues all had strong appeal among Independent and soft Democrat voters.
One such message that had tremendous appeal was to put Chavez’s plan to build a trolley/light rail system in Albuquerque in the crosshairs. The trolley/light-rail message presented the not-so-exciting issue of government spending to voters in a way that immediately connected. Looking ahead, the power a spending message had with swing voters could spell trouble for Democrats in 2010.
The sanctuary city policy was another hotly debated issue. Berry had come out against this policy very early in the campaign. Not surprisingly, liberals tried to make the issue about race, claiming that Berry was engaged in some form of race-baiting. It was a false claim that voters soundly rejected.
What these liberals missed is that ending sanctuary city policy for criminals has just as much appeal to Hispanic voters as it does to white voters, and it worked well across party lines. Common-sense tells one that Hispanic voters in New Mexico, many of whom can trace their family roots in this state back centuries, will not view policies aimed at cracking down on violent gang members from El Salvador as somehow an attack on them and their family.
To our benefit, Chavez bought the liberal spin that this was a base Republican message, dug in his heels, and went right down the ill-advised road of defending a wildly unpopular policy. Berry, on the other hand, did not get rattled by the loud shrieking from the Left and stayed focused on appealing to swing voters by driving a common-sense policy change. Berry had the right message – ending the sanctuary city policy was not about race; it was about public safety. Voters of all ethnicities and parties understood and responded.
Getting There: How to Cross the Finish Line
We felt confident in the message. Next came the tactics of how to get to 40% of the vote in Albuquerque in a three-way contest. That objective is fairly daunting when you consider that Chavez was actually winning soft Republicans in our initial July survey (31% Chavez/30% Berry/23% Romero) and Berry was losing to BOTH of the other candidates among Independent voters (31% Chavez/24% Berry/27% Romero).
Winning over 80% of the Republican vote, as some have wrongly speculated Berry did to win this race, was never even a strategy. We certainly sought to consolidate the GOP vote, but we knew getting upwards of 80% would not be possible and we could not get across the finish line without winning Independent and swing voters. Using our vote models based on historic turnout in city elections, Berry had to win at least 70% of the Republican vote, more than 40% of the Independent vote, and 17% of the Democrat vote to pass the 40% threshold and avoid a run-off election. This would be no small feat.
We also knew that changing the make-up of the electorate by even a few thousand Republican votes would make the challenge less daunting.
One way to change the electorate was through absentee voting. In 2005, Chavez won 57% of the absentee vote. However, in 2009, Berry won the absentee vote, carrying 43% to Chavez’ 37% and Romero’s 20%. But that’s not the story. What made the absentee vote so crucial is the fact that 30% of the Republicans who voted absentee had not cast ballots in either of the last two city elections. This influx of new Republican voters helped create an overall electorate that was more Republican.
Turning to our vote models again, changing the profile of the electorate to a more Republican one pushed Berry close to 40%. But getting over the top required dominating the Independent vote and winning a significant chunk of soft Democrats.
And that’s exactly what happened.
The election night coverage was full of local Democrats and pundits expressing surprise that Berry was posting respectable numbers in Democrat strongholds. Even Richard Romero commented the next day that Berry “really surprised us with strength in some Democratic districts.”
The only reason this strength should have been a surprise was if one blindly accepted the premise that Berry’s messaging only had appeal to base Republican voters. That premise was proven false in our message development research and confirmed on Election Day.
In sum, we learned some important lessons in the Albuquerque mayor’s race that may have bearing in 2010:
1. Republicans want to vote this year (and next), which has big implications for turnout.
2. The Democrat lease on independent and swing voters that they have enjoyed for the past two cycles has expired. Conservative ideas trumped those of liberals among these key subgroups in the city election.
One election does not make a trend. It remains to be seen if Republicans will turnout in disproportionate numbers next fall and whether Republican candidates will win these swing voters in 2010 the way Berry did in this election. But it’s clear that the swing vote is once again up for grabs – and that’s change Republican candidates can believe in.
Jay McCleskey is a partner with Lincoln Strategy Group, which provided strategic general consulting to the Berry campaign, as well as producing the television, radio, and direct mail advertisements. McCleskey previously served as the Regional Political Director for the Republican National Committee from 2005 to 2009 and managed the RNC’s Victory operation on behalf of President Bush’s successful re-election campaign in New Mexico in 2004. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nicole McCleskey is a partner with Public Opinion Strategies, which provided opinion research and strategic advice for the Berry campaign. Nicole is a recognized political expert on Western politics and public opinion. POS has a client list that includes 18 U.S. Senators, 7 Governors, and over 40 Members of Congress. According to the trade publication Campaigns and Elections, Public Opinion Strategies has the best won-lost record of any polling firm on either side of the aisle. She can be reached at email@example.com.