Case Study: Political – Upset Victory
Case 2: An Upset Victory Against an Entrenched Opponent Who Outspent Us 2 to 1
Harold Sterling, a former Tennessee State Legislator and leading real estate agent, had just won the Republican Primary to represent his party in the General Election for Assessor of Property in Shelby County Tennessee. He was referred to Ethridge & Associates, L.L.C. for strategic campaign consulting to help him win the General Election.
Harold had so far only raised $3,000 to invest in his campaign against the formidable, well-entrenched and well financed incumbent, Michael Hooks, nephew of nationally known Dr. Benjamin Hooks, the former Executive Director of the NAACP. Harold asked Steven C. Ethridge how he should best invest his $3,000 toward winning the race.
Ethridge advised Sterling to spend every penny of it on strategic polling to find out whether Sterling could win and, if so, how. Whereas, often, political campaigns that have little money insist on spending what little they have on media, we knew that if Sterling didn’t first get the message right, he would never be able to raise much money. The polling was an investment, not a cost. Sterling understood that and followed Ethridge’s advice.
Based on a small but strategic poll, we were able to determine that there was indeed a path to victory, but that Sterling could not possibly win by more than 1 percentage point (Sterling later won by ½ of a percentage point). Based on our polling, we identified Hook’s greatest candidate weaknesses, Sterling’s greatest candidate strengths, the most important issues, how best to position Sterling in contrast to Hooks, the most persuasive campaign agenda/theme, the target segments of voters that Sterling’s campaign needed to target to win, and which media to use to reach those voter segments.
Next, with no campaign money left, Ethridge wrote a radio ad based on the findings from the poll. Sterling and Ethridge took the radio copy to some prospective donors and asked for enough money to produce the ad and air it on the radio. We raised just enough money to do those things. Then, when the radio ad began to air, it stung Hooks to the core on his key weakness, generated news press, and became the political “buzz” of the county.
We knew we had hit a responsive chord but we didn’t know how effective the ad was. So, we went to some prospective donors and raised just enough money to do a tracking poll to measure the effects of the ad and to confirm what we thought we should do next.
Before we conducted the next poll, Hooks responded to our radio ad and used Harold Sterling’s name in the ad more than he used his own. This helped our campaign by raising awareness of Sterling and increasing the credibility of his campaign.
Then, the tracking poll showed that the radio ad had indeed reduced Hook’s vote and increased Sterling’s vote significantly. Moreover, both the radio ad and Hook’s response had favorably increased Sterling’s name recognition. Sterling was still behind but now within striking distance with a shot to win.
Based on this tracking poll, Ethridge wrote three television spots. We took the poll results and the copy for the three television spots to some prospective donors and raised just enough money to produce the television spots. Then, when the TV was produced, we showed them to some prospective donors and raised just enough money to air the first ad.
After the first TV spot had aired, again the “buzz” around the county was moving in Sterling’s favor. As Sterling was out campaigning in public places (e.g., grocery store parking lots, malls, etc.), television news cameras intercepted him periodically and ran their interviews on the network news every few days. The campaign got very exciting.
Knowing that Hooks was in a competitive race, then U.S. Congressman Harold Ford, Sr. announced that he, his brother John Ford who was a state legislator, and Michael Hooks were running together on what they called the “Dream Team” Democratic ticket. From all appearances to the news pundits, this shifted the momentum back in Hook’s favor.
We came under considerable pressure to change our strategy to directly react to the Dream Team. However, because we had done strategic polling that had confirmed the strategy that we needed to use to win, we stuck to our original plan.
Again, we were out of money but wanted to know exactly where we were and to confirm whether running our next two TV ads were still the right thing to do. So we raised just enough money to conduct another tracking poll. This showed that we had moved closer to Hook’s lead but still were behind with a clear shot to win. Moreover, the poll showed that our strategy was still the right one needed to win. So we took the poll results to some prospective donors and raised just enough money to air the last two television ads.
The entire campaign was “hand to mouth,” in terms of raising just enough money, when we needed it, to do what we needed to do next to win. On election day, Harold Sterling went counter to the trend — that Harold Ford Sr. and his brother John Ford won their races — and Sterling defeated Hooks by ½ of a percentage point. Reportedly, Hooks out spent Sterling more than two to one. Yet, in this race, message mattered more than money. Our strategic polling made the difference.
There are at least three lessons in the campaign for other candidates.
- First, when you have limited money, never have the mentality that you need to hoard money to spend on media rather than investing it in a valid, objective strategic polling to discover how to win. Assuming that there really is a path to victory for your candidacy, a good strategic poll to determine how you can win is the best possible investment to help you raise money. It will show not only that you can win but that you have a plan to win. That is what will motivate people to donate to your campaign.
- Second, once you have used the poll to raise money, then, spend the money the right way to connect with your target voting audience. We have seen too many viable candidates lose because their finance committee was concerned that they needed to have a lot of money in the bank on financial disclosure reporting dates as the means of raising money, rather than spending what money they have to connect with their target voting audience as the means of raising money. The problem with hoarding money is that, while the “political insiders” pay attention to those financial disclosures, the average voter does not. Spend what you have, the right way, when it needs to be spent to connect with voters — that’s how you build campaign momentum and raise more money.
- Third, once you have a strategy that polling confirms will work, stick with that basic strategy. Tracking polls may show that you need to “fine-tune” or adapt in minor ways at critical points in the campaign, but do not allow outside pressures to get you off your basic strategy.
The only way that a campaign can have confidence to spend money as the means of raising money and to stay on strategy even under fire is to begin by investing your first campaign dollars in good strategic polling and then doing tracking polls at key points throughout the campaign.
The following is a brief testimony from Harold Sterling about how our strategic polling and communication consulting helped him win a race that most pundits thought he could not win.
“The information and advice that you gleaned out of the data collected resulted in a strategy and victory that few people thought could be done. Your ability to not only collect the data but also to interpret the data resulted in our winning strategy. My victory for Assessor of Property surprised all the pundits and resulted in the largest turnout in any August General Election in the history of Shelby County.” Property Assessor, Harold Sterling