Memphis mayor used polls to hone strategy

Friday, September 2, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 36
By Sam Stockard

Political strategist Steven Reid calls Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s campaign “the perfect example” of using polling to win an election.

As a Memphis City Council member, Strickland pushed a “tough on crime message,” advocated for Blue Crush, the city’s data-driven police initiative, and backed recruitment of more police officers to work the streets.

So when tougher sentencing for repeat offenders polled strong early in the race with every Memphis demographic group, Strickland made crime fighting a focal point of his 2015 challenge of incumbent AC Wharton.

Good strategy entails taking two or three issues in an initial poll and meshing them with the candidate’s message, according to Reid.

“It was a perfect match to carry forward in the campaign,” Reid explains.

While polls aren’t believed to be as great a predictor of outcomes as 25 to 30 years ago, largely because of the advent of cell phones, if screened and weighted correctly, they can give candidates a good idea where they stand.

Figures from Patrick Lanne of Public Opinion Strategies in Alexandria, Virginia, were so accurate the Strickland campaign knew eight weeks before the vote it had moved into a dead heat with Wharton, according to Reid.

Numbers also showed 60 to 65 percent of Memphians weren’t happy with the city’s direction.

Using those results, the campaign started a new ad called Friday Night Lights, which was more of a “comparative” ad between Strickland and Wharton, and three weeks later, Strickland led by 4 points.

Within another week and a half, Strickland was up by 8 points, and the campaign ran a final tracking poll showing it had a double-digit lead, according to Reid.

“We knew we were headed towards victory at that point, and our marketing changed its tone and style to a more safe message in the final two weeks,” Reid says.

The Strickland campaign was no longer challenging the incumbent mayor, who started collecting endorsements by the Commercial Appeal, the Chamber of Commerce and wealthy business people. Wharton also benefited from a Nashville fundraiser held by key supporters such as former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredeson.

To be sure they’re reaching young voters, among other demographic groups such as Latinos and urbanites, pollsters have to reach cell-phone users.

But in non-presidential elections such as the Memphis mayoral race, the number of voters in the 18-to-35 age range falls.

Consequently, Reid says, Strickland’s numbers might have over-sampled young people, many of whom don’t see television advertising where much of his message went out.

A Commercial Appeal poll released shortly before the election didn’t jibe with the Strickland campaign’s numbers, and it oversampled young voters, Reid says.

When he “readjusted” Strickland’s own polling numbers for early voting trends and demographics, Strickland’s percentages improved dramatically.

“That’s one reason we safely knew we were headed to an easy victory,” he says.

Calculation overcome

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais held a comfortable lead over challenger Grant Starrett in spring polling for the August Republican primary, as much as 50 percent, according to the incumbent.

By early July, the three-term congressman’s lead shrank to 36 points. In the final two weeks, Starrett poured nearly a half-million dollars into the campaign, putting out advertisements claiming DesJarlais supported funding for federal food stamps.

DesJarlais’ campaign responded with an ad depicting Starrett as a rich kid from California who was trying to buy a congressional seat in Tennessee.

The South Pittsburg Republican says when respondents found out Starrett was not from Tennessee and had hardly worked or voted here, 70 percent were less likely to vote for him.

DesJarlais also tested Starrett’s claims about the food stamp vote and found it was resonating with voters, even though he says the Farm Bill he supported really cut food stamp spending.

“We had the ‘Mr. California’ ad ready to go, and we were polling high in early July. But then he added that extra money at the end and it was basically distorting my record to the point that we felt like we needed to define him, and it worked,” DesJarlais says.

“We ended up winning by about 10, but I think we could have easily won by 20 had I gone up about a week earlier. I think people didn’t realize his story, and I probably waited a little longer than I should have to tell it.”

Meanwhile, DesJarlais, who faces Democrat Steven Reynolds in November, is banking on strong polling in Tennessee for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

He was one of the first elected leaders in the state to back the real estate mogul, and some of Tennessee’s top Republicans, including Gov. Bill Haslam, still haven’t endorsed Trump.

A combination of polls showing election results today and on Nov. 8 at fivethirtyeight.com show Trump winning handily in Tennessee but losing by a wide margin nationwide.

Other polls, though they were conducted by Republican organizations, show Trump’s favorability is high in the 16-county 4th Congressional District, “and I think we’ll have a good win in November,” DesJarlais says.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.