Case Study: Political – Governor’s Race

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Case Study: Political – Governor’s Race

Case 1: Being Outspent 2 to 1 and Still Winning a Governor’s Race

We had worked with Dr. John P. Bakke, now retired Chairman of the Department of Communication at The University of Memphis, as a consultant for U.S. Congressman Don Sundquist for several campaign cycles. When Congressman Don Sundquist decided to run for Governor of Tennessee, he and his consultant Charlie Black, former strategic advisor to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W Bush, hired Dr. Bakke as Director of Communication for the Sundquist for Governor campaign. Dr. Bakke, in turn, hired the following to be on the communication strategy team:

  • Steven C. Ethridge as pollster
  • Dick Morris, who at the time was a Republican consultant (and later worked for President Bill Clinton as his senior campaign advisor) as a strategic communication consultant
  • Marius Penzner (who later followed Dick Morris to work on the Clinton presidential campaign) for video production
  • Becky West to handle media placement and direct mail

Ethridge was privileged to work on this seasoned team with Dr. Bakke, Charlie Black, Dick Morris, Marius Penzner and Becky West for the Sundquist for Governor Campaign. Ethridge conducted all strategic polling for the campaign, with the input, of course from Dr. Bakke, Charlie Black, Dick Morris, Marius Penzner and Becky West. We started in 1993 with strategic benchmarking and planning polls to develop Sundquist’s campaign strategies and then tracked at appropriate intervals throughout 1993 and 1994. This was the one of the largest, most fast-paced and competitive campaigns that Ethridge had been involved with at the time.

Two particularly noteworthy things occurred in this campaign that speaks to Ethridge’s accurate polling capabilities. These are referred to as “Mini Cases” A and B below.

Mini-Case A

The first requires describing some context from an unrelated campaign. Ethridge had done polling for a Senatorial candidate in the Republican Primary, Harold Sterling, in 1993. In this poll, Ethridge was the first pollster in America to discover that then U.S. Senator Jim Sasser, the powerful Chairman of the Senate Budget Finance Committee could be defeated. Ethridge and Harold Sterling took the results of this poll to the Republican Senatorial Committee and presented them to their Chairman at the time, Haley Barbour (now Governor of Mississippi), and their Director of Communication Paul Circio (now partner in Stevens & Circio). At the time, the Republican Senatorial Committee did not have any idea that Sasser could be defeated and  they did not consider Tennessee to be a “top tier” state for the 1994 Republican Senatorial campaigns. After seeing our poll, they began to follow Tennessee more closely.

At the time, Dr. Bill Frist, who later won Sasser’s Senate seat, had not yet decided to run for office. Frist picked up on the themes from our poll about how Sasser could be defeated. Frist, out-spent Harold Sterling and won the Republican Primary and then used the themes that we had discovered to defeat Sasser.

In separate tracking polls for Don Sundquist, throughout 1993 and 1994, Ethridge had been tracking the Frist vs. Sasser trial heat election question. Throughout that time, we showed Frist ahead of Sasser in every poll up until September 1994, after which time we showed Sasser leading only twice by an insignificant amount.

Shortly after Frist won the Republican Primary, Frist’s pollster White Ayers called Steven Ethridge and said that they had just found, for the first time in their tracking polls, that Frist was leading Sasser. Ayers asked Ethridge for permission to take our tracking polls and his latest poll that showed Frist ahead and write a memo to the Republican Senatorial Committee showing Frist ahead by two polling firms. Of course, Ethridge gave Ayers permission to do this and, as a result, the Republican Senatorial Committee gave the Frist campaign its maximum donation. Whereas our poll in March of 1993 showed that a well-financed Republican who used the message themes that we recommended could defeat Sasser with between 56% and 64% of the vote, Frist defeated Sasser with 56% — exactly as we foresaw was possible nearly two years before the election occurred.

Mini-Case B

During the General Election in 1994, the campaign strategists for three campaigns, Don Sunquist’s campaign for Governor, Bill Frist’s campaign for U.S. Senate, and Fred Thompson’s campaign for U.S. Senate, were agreeing to share tracking polls with one another as a means of corroborating where each candidate stood in their races. At one critical period during the campaign, over a period of several weeks, both Frist’s and Thompson’s pollsters were showing Sundquist trailing his opponent Phil Bredesen, whereas, by comparison, our polls were showing Sundquist consistently and significantly ahead.

Ethridge was under a lot of pressure to explain why his was the only tracking poll that was consistently showing Sundquist ahead (in all but one poll in October where we showed them tied). Dr. Bakke asked Steven Ethridge to get on the phone and find out what the differences were in the three polling firm’s methodologies that would account for the difference in the polls. Ethridge did that and found several things about our sampling and interviewing methodology that were superior (all proprietary aspects of our methodologies).

When Ethridge reported these differences in methodology to Dr. Bakke, he told Charlie Black, Don Sundquist, and Dick Morris that he believed that our polls were correct and that he was standing by Ethridge’s polls. Based on our polls — the only ones that were showing Sundquist ahead — we made all campaign decisions based on the belief that Sundquist was ahead, rather than making decisions as if we were behind (which would have been entirely different, reactionary, and could have caused us to lose).

On election day, our polls proved to be the most accurate compared not only to these three polling firms but also compared to the Mason Dixon polls that were conducted for the media. To see historical documentation of this click here.

The stories above testify to the accuracy of our polling. Moreover, regarding effectiveness of our communication strategy that was developed out of the polling, Bredesen outspent Sundquist by two to one (by approximately $12 million to $6 million), yet we won very decisively as the newsletter link above describes.

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