Reflecting on the District 4 Council Race

By: Paul Bentz, reposted from HighGround blog

I’ve often said that the best part about campaigns is that they actually end and you know if you won or if you lost.  Needless to say, it’s also the worst thing about campaigns – particularly when you come up on the losing end.  Such is the case of Justin Johnson for Phoenix City Council.

First, let me say, Justin Johnson was the hardest working candidate that I have ever worked with.  He was the first one up in the morning and the last one out at night.  He was willing to talk to anyone and meet with whoever wanted to meet with him.  His willingness and dedication to knocking on doors, making phone calls, raising money is amazing.  He (and his entire family for that matter) has an uncanny special talent for hard work.  When he started the race, he had 6% support and he ended up earning first place in the August election.

Our internal polling had the Johnson campaign up by high single digits going into August.  The final tally, however, was much closer, and foretold of things to come.  What we found were several hundred West Phoenix voters who fell outside of the traditional participation model had made the run off much closer than anticipated.  

We adjusted our model accordingly and expanded the universe.  Once again, polling showed a lead for Johnson – confirmed not only by our internal polling, but also in the Lake Research Polling for the Independent Expenditure formed to bolster Pastor and attack Johnson.

We knew the run-off was going to be difficult – Congressman Pastor has deep roots in the community, extensive fundraising capabilities, and is probably the most liked official in all of Democrat politics.  The Democratic establishment lined up in uniform support for the Pastor campaign and went to work attacking his Johnson’s Democrat credentials (and you thought it only happened amongst Republicans).  As the Lake Research Polling suggested, the “IE needed to define her opponent quickly and aggressively.”  That they did.  The IE spent hundreds of thousands on mailers attacking Justin’s character and falsely aligning him with tea party interests.  

Despite all of that, Johnson still held a narrow lead.  

In the end, it came down to ballot collection.  As returns came in, a similar trend emerged that was reminiscent of the run off. Another massive increase in early ballots (over and above August turnout) was seen from West Phoenix precincts – 311% participation from Holmes, 167% participation from Culver/Marivue, 146% participation from Acuna/Lynwood/Riverside, 142% from Granda/Madrid and 162% participation in Hayden High/Isaac/Lewis.    
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To their credit, Johnson’s campaign took on the herculean task of trying to counteract that flood of ballots all the way to the end aggressively generating returns of their own.  They spent every moment turning out their voters and reminding their supporters to vote.  Their efforts are why turnout is up across the board from August.

IEs on both sides made things messy and certainly made it a much closer election.  However, in the end, with 30 days of early voting, the results may not come down to mailers, endorsements, or even party ideology.

As we have seen more and more in close election contests, the daily grind of strategic ballot collection (particularly in low efficacy partisan targeted areas) can spell the difference between a win and a loss. Independent voters still tend not to participate at anywhere near the levels of partisan voters, and most seem turned off by the entire process.

Paul Bentz is Vice President of Accounts & Strategy with HighGround Public Affairs Consultants.


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