Local Political Marketing – The Strategies Which Spell Victory or Defeat

victoryPolitical marketing in small-town America, vying for those coveted primary nominations and ultimate general elections, can be one of life’s most challenging experiences. Just as in our large-scale elections, every nuance of one’s character is exposed for all to see. How those personal traits are judged can make or break a candidate, something we witness daily on a sometimes tragic, national scale. As a political marketing expert, it never ceases to amaze me why someone with a vulnerable profile chooses to enter politics in the first place, knowing he or she may risk public humiliation for himself and his family should a scandal arise. But even without scandal, the emotional journey may be more than some are able to tolerate.

Based on previous results in past local elections, I was contacted this summer to once again handle the marketing for the entire Republican Party in a large river town in New York’s Hudson Valley. This included two judges, town supervisor, town clerk, and several town councilmen. Since many in the party were fortunate to run unopposed, my task was limited to a choice few races, the circumstances of which were no less daunting.

The first and most immediate order of business involved the primary election for the town clerk who was opposed by her own deputy clerk, also a Republican, with whom she had worked intimately for the past eight years. This presented endorsement problems for the party since both candidates were Republicans, making the primary election a political proving ground. While the incumbent had held this office for more than eighteen years and was a highly educated, respected and accomplished individual, her rival made attempts to discredit her performance through public venues like direct mail and letters to the editor of the daily paper.

A similar issue existed for the two incumbent judges, both of whom are experienced lawyers, and had been town justices for many consecutive terms. However, they were opposed by a Democrat – a woman – also an attorney, but a newcomer to the political arena who resorted to subliminally disparaging intimations in her marketing efforts. In this case, the Republican Party fully endorsed its two judges wholeheartedly, neither of whom had previously been confronted by opponent negativity.

The two Republican candidates for town council included a male incumbent with male opposition and a female newcomer with a female opponent. Both of the Republican candidates had highly visible, responsible professional positions in the community with many achievements and honorable accolades. Yet again, the opponents’ marketing slyly interjected language to portray our Republicans as less than desirable choices. Par for the course in political marketing? Maybe.

The final candidate for town supervisor was unopposed but viewed the election process as an opportunity to promote his abilities, achievements and bipartisan attitudes so that the community would positively embrace his inevitable victory. Having been a well-liked, hardworking town councilman for many years already, his representation of the Republican Party was considered one of strength and honor.

Since I absolutely abhor negative marketing, which I define as efforts to attack an opponent’s character in any way, I always emphasize the importance of using marketing to concentrate on promoting one’s own positive record of achievements. Since every candidate must fund the expenses involved in marketing efforts, which can get expensive, there is no reason to devote any of that space or time to discussions of one’s opposition. And any negative comments made, in my opinion, only serve to reflect poorly on the person making those statements, rendering them nothing more than “sour grapes.”

In order to get as much visibility for our marketing as possible, we began our efforts by reserving billboards and highly desirable key advertising space and positions in the local paper months in advance with dates coinciding with the election calendar. In order to get some of the billboards which dominated an opponent’s “territory” or professional stomping grounds (the board which faced an opponent’s place of business, for instance), we were able to find out who had reserved that board for the months we wanted and were able work a deal to use that board instead. In most cases, the original advertisers for such boards were not in the political race so their month of use could easily be postponed.

We also developed large attractive direct mail postcards, and orchestrated the necessary printing and mailing schedules so that we could utilize services offered in areas of the country where rates were more modest, rather than have to compete for local services at the last minute at a much higher rate.

There were also the delicate issues of getting other strong political party endorsements for each candidate. By presenting an expertly composed sample letter using polished marketing language to announce the proud endorsement of the Independence and Conservative Parties, we were granted permission to use the signature of each chairman as a symbol of authenticity to ask for member support at the polls. Along with such letters of endorsement, we also developed party-specific palm cards for each candidate to hand to party members at their front doors while canvassing on foot in neighborhoods within the community.

Very much a team effort, success in politics is reliant on a strong combination of ideology and marketing, along with candidate commitment, presentation and accessibility. Failure on any one of these fronts can spell disaster. However, there is always something new and unexpected with which to grapple in each election, something which in retrospect could have been the determining factor in the final outcome.

Although our district is made up of a majority of registered Democrats, Republican candidates tend to historically find victory at the polls in this area despite a number of reasons to expect otherwise. Local elections can sometimes mirror their national counterparts in that the mood of the consensus can sway sentiment. On one hand, with a Democrat in the White House under severe scrutiny and criticism, some would believe that Republicans stand a better chance to succeed in this next round. On the other hand, with the recent victory of Andrew Cuomo as New York’s, so far, popular governor, also a Democrat, you would think the state might lean left in its political taste going forward. However, this county has been dominated by Republican leadership for many terms and the large local daily paper strongly endorsed another Republican to inherit the role of county executive in this election. Given that our town’s complete governing body has been Republican for several consecutive terms with the exception of the town supervisor who is stepping down, handing the town’s most important position unopposed as a gift on a silver platter to our very worthy Republican candidate, perhaps this is a good reason to expect continued Republican leadership.

Political predictions are always a gamble in any election and unexpected circumstances can derail the best of efforts. Take the multiple errors made by the daily newspaper in “forgetting” to run our ads on the key dates we had reserved! Yes, they made good on all those missed opportunities by running equivalent or bigger and better ads we submitted on other dates, but timing is everything. Also with a time-sensitive target of the primary election, which fell on Tuesday, September 13th, our billboard’s installation was unfortunately delayed due to inclement weather. Although its term was to begin on Thursday, September 1st, it was finally installed on September 5th, giving us only 8 days of exposure before the election. Ironically, we had contracted for 3 more boards for the month of October but those boards stayed up through Election Day, November 8th, because no one had contracted the space after us, allowing us a free ride for those vital days. (You win some, you lose some.)

Then there was the issue of the post office’s inconsistent delivery performance of our many different postcards mailed from a different state well in advance of the election. Standard mailings (previously called bulk 3rd class mail) are supposed to require a maximum of ten days for delivery. Yet, the first postcard we mailed arrived in two days, weeks in advance of the election. I reminded our team of the cumulative effect of all marketing efforts, and that the expectation that one and only one piece of literature will determine success or failure is deeply flawed. I urged repetition and diversification to ensure message delivery and reinforcement but with funds so limited in this economic climate, we had to live with the realities of our situation at best. Some wiser candidates opted to do two staggered mailings with two varying messages. And as the mailing dates approached proximity to the election, we abided by mailing house advice that we utilize first-class postage to certify delivery prior to election day. Their educated and ultimately correct perspective was based on past experience with first class delivery delays due to added postal congestion as more contenders target the same delivery dates, particularly from out of state! Our two standard mailers were delivered in two days and ten days respectively, although mailed only one day apart. And our three first class mailers arrived within five days of the election, but one did not arrive at all in my mailbox but did elsewhere. The importance of “seeding” your list with watchdogs for each mailing cannot be stressed enough.

But what none of us could have predicted was something which we hold responsible for the final result we now have to with. Actually it was a lethal combination of events which terminated all hope for one candidate, the one who dangerously only did one mailing. Liberal-leaning students from an ivy league college in our town who are not native to this region but who are within their rights to vote given they now “live” on our town campus, turned out in droves to support the Democratic Party. And, because the majority of the town’s Republican candidates, and most especially the top supervisor position, was unopposed, registered Republican voters apparently felt no urgency for their support and uncharacteristically did not bother to go to the polls.

The final results were overwhelming victory for our incumbent town clerk, a close victory for our two incumbent judges, a comfortable re-election of our incumbent town councilman, and of course, total triumph for our unopposed town supervisor. Unfortunately, it was our new female candidate for town council who bore the brunt of the college vote. Our two judges, although victorious, felt the power of their female rival who came quite close to unseating either one of them in her first attempt.

In fact, when the “final” election results were announced in the paper, it mentioned that none of the results was truly final until all of the absentee ballots were counted, numbers which were estimated to be no more than a couple hundred for each race. It then said that in our close town justice contest, absentee ballots could overturn the initial results in favor of the female candidate! My stomach turned upside down at the thought!

Only with knowledge of what strategies we had implemented in combatting her presence in the political arena can you appreciate how sickening a loss for either judge that would have been. First, she had resorted to mailing a letter of strong endorsement from the current, retiring town supervisor, a Democrat and also a woman, to every registered female voter in the district. Not to be outdone by this obnoxious tactic, we located a recently retired New York State Supreme Court Justice with local roots now living in Florida, and coincidentally, also a woman, who graciously endorsed our two male judges which we got published in letters to the editor of the largest daily and weekly newspapers through excellently timed cooperation from each of those editors. We also included an eloquent quote from this same Supreme Court judge in very strong advertising for the two judges which again we were able to get strategically placed on the letters to the editor pages on the last two days before the election. One of the judges who had shown no restraint in investing in the success of this election did a special direct mailing to the lists of absentee voters as an insurance policy of sorts. No matter how much advertising, how many mailings, how much exposure we were able to get, this pesky female candidate for town justice managed to match many of our efforts, case by case.

Although we claimed the final victory by about one hundred votes, which isn’t much, the maddening wait for some four interminable and torturous weeks for those absentee ballots to be counted gave us plenty of opportunity to reflect on what we could have done differently and experience the true meaning of possible humiliation.

What have we learned from this?

1. You can never be too diversified in your marketing efforts: the more ways to reach voters, the better. And the important word here is “reach”! For the college crowd, something different was needed to appeal to their sense of loyalty to their chosen Party, something outside the box, as they say.

2. You can never rely on what seems to be happening on the national political front as a comfort zone on the local front. Every election is unique and must be confronted on its own terms.

3. Finally – because Republicans usually can be counted on to support other Republicans – no matter what else you do, the most important thing is to make sure the members of your own Party get out to vote, because that, in the final analysis, will be what determines victory or defeat.

Marilyn Bontempo, president of Mid-Hudson Marketing since 1975, has extensive experience guiding business leaders, directors, and professionals with successful strategies for business growth and sustenance. Long-term relationships have been established with law firms, medical practices, pharmaceutical companies, real estate executives, and a variety of other trade, corporate and industrial specialists. Her professional writing, editing, photographic, design and aesthetic specialties provide clients with proven methods of achieving successful branding and public image. Mid-Hudson Marketing is a top New York advertising, marketing, website and graphic design firm located in Dutchess County’s Poughkeepsie area specializing for more than 35 years in the creation and management of high quality branding for business success. With numerous prestigious awards to its credit, the firm’s services include full scale advertising programs; expert website development and search engine optimization; professional writing, editing and ghostwriting; blog setup and management; e-commerce and email marketing; outdoor and online billboards; trade show and point-of-purchase displays; sell sheets, posters, flyers, brochures, and catalogs; logos, tag lines and trademarks; photo enhancements; direct mail marketing; newsletters; public relations; and more: call (845) 493-0070(845) 493-0070. For more info, please visit: http://www.midhudsonmarketing.com

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