Raleigh functions as a City Council, with seven councilors and one mayor. Two councilors are elected at-large, along with the mayor. The other five seats have discrete districts. In the at-large race, the top two vote-getters win the seats. Candidates must capture a majority or else the runner-up can request a runoff. In the mayoral and district races, that means 50% + 1. In the at-large, each of the top two need 25% + 1.
Before moving forward, outlined below are the various players featured in the election, including incumbents and challengers:
|Mayor||<Open Seat>||Mary-Ann Baldwin|
|At-Large (two seats)||Nicole StewartRuss Stephenson||Jonathan Melton|
|District A||<Open Seat>||Patrick Buffkin|
|District B||David Cox||Brian Fitzsimmons|
|District C||Corey Branch||Shelia Alamin-Khashoggi|
|District D||Kay Crowder||Saige Martin|
|District E||Stef Mendell||David Knight|
Though many chose to run, only a handful of the candidates listed above were serious, in the sense that they had an infrastructure, support within some faction of the community and financial means to compete. The competitive candidates included all the incumbents:
- Nicole Stewart, first elected to an At-Large seat in 2017.
- Russ Stephenson, first elected to an At-Large seat in 2005.
- David Cox, first elected to his District B seat in 2015.
- Corey Branch, first elected to his District C seat in 2015.
- Kay Crowder, first appointed to her District D seat in 2014 after her husband resigned for health reasons.
- Stef Mendell, first elected to her District E seat in 2017.
Every district had serious contenders. In the open races, the top candidates were:
- Mary-Ann Baldwin, former At-Large councilor.
- Charles Francis, attorney and former candidate for mayor in 2017.
- Caroline Sullivan, former Wake County commissioner.
- Patrick Buffkin, a local attorney.
- Sam Hershey, a local businessman.
Targeted Persuasion was hired to lead a campaign for an independent expenditure group called Triangle Government Alliance, which consists of various . IE groups cannot coordinate with political campaigns, so all of the work done on behalf of one candidate or against another was entirely unknown to the respective candidates until an advertisement made it online or a piece of direct mail was delivered to a postal address.
Midway into 2019, our client, the Triangle Apartment Association, endorsed the following slate of candidates:
- Mayor: Mary-Ann Baldwin
- At-Large: Nicole Stewart & Jonathan Melton
- District A: Patrick Buffkin
- District B: Brian Fitzsimmons
- District C: Corey Branch
- District D: Saige Martin
- District E: David Knight
In the 2019 municipal elections, Raleigh found itself at a crossroads. The popular, incumbent mayor declined to seek reelection. The incumbent council, earning the moniker of “The Council of No,” stood in direct opposition to many of the policy prescriptions that would allow Raleigh to maintain its growth from a sleepy town to the metropolitan center it is today. Early in the 2017 term, a faction of slow-growth councilors overtook the mayor’s prerogative to assign committee positions, offering a list of their own that quickly passed.
If the loss of control in that early vote was not enough, the City Council would continue to divide sharply over big-ticket items, often voting factionally. Though all incumbents, save the Independent mayor, were nominally Democrats, their true division fell on a different spectrum: NIMBYs and YIMBYs. The former, the slow-growth faction, were opposed to the urban development that is necessary for growing cities to house the scores of new residents who immigrate daily. The acronym stands for Not In My Backyard, the idea that the preservation of neighborhoods and character overtook the imperative to tackle issues before the city. NIMBY councilors included Stef Mendell, David Cox, Russ Stephenson, Kay Crowder and an occasional fifth councilor, Dickie Thompson, who declined to seek reelection.
On the other side were the YIMBYs, or Yes In My Backyard. This wing of voices proposes smart, dense growth. In lieu of urban sprawl, which pushes new residents into the suburbs and clogs transportation, they advocate for upzoning: increasing availability of housing in dense areas by building upwards. They’re already coming, so build it. The market principle is simple: as demand for housing increases, the only solution is to increase supply.
By the tail end of the 2017-19 council term, divisions between the NIMBY faction and the rest of the city council had only deepened. In a statement outlining her decision against seeking reelection, incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane said that, “We used to fight together for the things we cared about. Now it just seems like we fight with each other. The mean politics of Twitter and social media is painful when it’s about you or someone you love. This social disease has exploded since I first ran for city council in 2007. Raleigh politics could use a reset.”[
With the political environment as fractured as it had been before at the local level, and with no mayoral incumbent to throw around political weight, the Raleigh City Council seemed poised for change. The Triangle Apartment Association, a group advocating for the rental housing industry, hired Targeted Persuasion to implement a campaign strategy for their independent expenditure group, Triangle Government Alliance (TGA), to help effect that change. Here’s how we did it.
Informed by Data: Strategy and Building our Message
The two most outspoken NIMBYs on council leading up to the 2019 contest were David Cox, in District B, and Stef Mendell, in District E. Cox first won his seat in 2015, while Mendell had just won in 2017. The most recent elections, in 2017, were the clear starting point to gauge the relative strength of these target candidates.
Councilor Cox seemed to have a solid base of support. In 2015, he ousted incumbent John Odom 53-47. Odom sought his old seat again in 2017 and lost resoundingly, 68-32. Cox clearly shored up support and was entrenched.
Councilor Mendell presented a clearer opportunity for change. She captured her seat in 2017 by a razor-thin margin, upsetting the incumbent Bonner Gaylord, who ended election day with well over $100,000 in unspent campaign funds. With no candidate passing the 50% threshold, Gaylord was entitled to a runoff but declined.
With these candidates in mind, we consulted polling data commissioned by TGA. The numbers showed clear room to message and reinforced the idea that 2019 was in fact a “change election.” Polling indicated that, while 53% of residents approved of the work done by city council, 43% thought it was time to elect new people to 33% saying all deserved reelection.
Given the relative satisfaction with the council as a whole, we developed a messaging strategy to define Councilors Cox and Mendell, with a specific focus on the weaker incumbent, Mendell. While a loud minority of 33% fit well into the NIMBY category, and had their champions in Cox and Mendell, further analysis of polling showed clear room for movement:
- 49%, a plurality, would be more likely to vote for a candidate that supported higher density;
- 75% would be more likely to vote for a candidate that supported walkable urban development;
- 84% supported the construction of more housing that could be afforded by middle class families;
- 77% supported the construction of more housing that could be afforded by low income families;
It became clear that, for wide sets of Raleigh voters, the policies enacted by the “Council of No” were anathema to the priorities they offered to pollsters. Given the anemic turnout of municipal elections, we set about creating a program that would revive interest and give voice to the issues we knew would resonate with voters after reviewing the data. A catchy and quirky character was developed: Granny Flats.
One of the issues facing Raleigh was, and is, housing affordability. The City Council implemented stringent regulation on the construction of Accessory Dwelling Units, also known as a granny flat. It’s a small building adjacent to the main house where family members, like a mother-in-law, might stay. Many people use the structures to bolster their income, renting them out over short amounts of time. This strict policy, which made construction of new granny flats nearly impossible, was a clear way for us to personify the issues.
We pulled together various options for how the character might behave, look and speak. It would be easy enough to go with what suited us and run with it but providing options to our client was paramount in our process. Opening a dialogue early and maintaining communication throughout the process built the relationship between consultant and client early in the campaign, which made more difficult decisions and quick turnaround possible when it really mattered in the fall.
It was important to make the character relatable for the people of Raleigh whom we hoped to persuade. We ensured that the character fit with the environment she was set to inhabit. After providing a menu of options to the client, we landed on a character outline and moved forward with recruiting an actress who could embody the figure. We were able to locate a local actress and put her on a monthly retainer, allowing us to film as often as needed to make quick, pithy videos and turn them around within a matter of hours.
After selecting the actress, we commissioned a photo shoot to ensure we would have plenty of options when going to produce content for social media. By securing enough photos for the entirety of the campaign, we were able to save money for our client and time for ourselves. Having a base level of photos also meant that we were able to record videos ourselves using equipment owned by Targeted Persuasion. This further reduced the cost to our client and increased the speed at which we could turn out new content in-house.
Using intuition and backing it by polling data, we crafted messaging and gave voice to the issues facing Raleigh. Granny Flats herself was able to speak on the issue of granny flats, housing affordability, transportation – anything that could help move the needle in the direction of our preferred candidates and put the opposition on the defensive.
Speaking to voters in order to persuade them has become extremely cost-efficient via digital targeting. We can find voters based off of myriad characteristics, like proclivity to vote, political leaning, issues they find important – any indicators online that one may think, and vote, in a certain way. We sought to maximize every single dollar spent on advertising, to stretch every dollar as far as it would go.
One way to accomplish this was through retargeting. When visitors came to the Granny Flats sight, they were targeted by pixels inserted by our webmaster. That means that, after visiting the site one time, a viewer was exponentially more likely to be served our same ads next time they go to a different site or to Facebook. This accomplishes two goals at once. We lower the cost per ad, because the algorithm prioritizes visitors as opposed to targeting folks at random, and we increase the views per ad. Repetition is one of the most powerful tools a persuasive message can leverage. People need to see the same message half a dozen times before they really start paying attention; that’s the point after which you can truly start persuading.
The social media page for Granny Flats was built out as the easiest way to disseminate messaging. Posts linked to the Granny Flats blog site, which housed Granny’s thoughts on various issues facing Raleigh. Using the blog allowed us to frame issues in a way that benefited our message and reinforced the narrative we sought to build about Raleigh’s need for change.
In building out the social media presence, we reached out to local influencers that were well known and respected and supported the same candidates we did. This helped us get the social media pages off the ground and into the conversation; without their help in sharing the messages from the beginning, it would have been far more difficult to build up Granny Flats’ credibility. We utilized the #ralpol hashtag on Twitter, which local politically interested people follow and contribute to. That meant Granny’s posts were always put squarely in front of influential people from Raleigh, including reporters. Once election day became closer, we prepared 10 different pieces of direct mail – more on that later. The negative mailers, three for Cox and three for Mendell, were launched in tandem with a digital strategy to ensure that more people saw them, and that people who did see them saw multiple iterations, on different platforms. Collectively, the digital ads had more than 100,000 impressions.
These ads were placed targeting likely voters in the districts of Councilor Mendell and Councilor Cox respectively. Each linked to the Granny Flats blog and had links to back up the claims made in the ads.
On the digital side, we continued rolling ads targeting the negative aspects of the incumbents, but we began pushing positive ads on Facebook that shared the TAA’s endorsements. This allowed TAA to tout their endorsements and continue building their profile as a political heavyweight in Raleigh politics. Every candidate with endorsement ads went on to win their election.
As the end of the election neared, we designed and produced an “October surprise.” In politics, it’s common for a bombshell or similarly election-moving event to occur. Often, they’re unforeseen, but we created our own in the form of three hard-hitting videos that ran on Facebook and Instagram. Each featured the worst headlines written about Councilors Mendell, Cox and Stephenson. The videos linked to the Granny Flats blog with references to each claim, so voters could verify the facts themselves.
The same issues targeted in earlier ads and direct mail were repeated, and with the chorus of media coverage garnered by the Cox mailer, the incumbents found themselves sinking further into negative territory. As planned, instead of highlighting any reasons they should be reelected, the incumbents had to remain on the defensive throughout the election.
Though most of the campaign regarding direct mail and digital advertising was pre-planned and executed in advance, there were opportunities to act quickly and capture moments as they arose. For example, in the beginning of the campaign the two incumbents, Cox and Mendell, were slated to be the only targets.
But as the election progressed, one of the mayoral candidates, Caroline Sullivan, attended a fundraiser for her campaign with Hillary Clinton as the host. This may not have raised eyebrows initially, but because of the candidate’s connections through her lobbyist husband, she was able to host high-dollar fundraisers out of state; this one, hosted by Sec. Clinton, took place in Manhattan. It was a perfect opportunity to create a low-cost, high-reward attack via social media. We turned it around within hours of the article being posted.
We knew Caroline Sullivan was ill-defined, having served an uneventful term as a Wake County Commissioner years earlier. For some voters, the only knowledge they had of Sullivan going into Election Day was that she raised money for her Raleigh municipal election from high-dollar donors in Manhattan.
In the final weeks of the election, the Granny Flats Facebook page, which was the hub of the campaign social media, reached more than 60,000 people and had nearly 20,000 views on videos. Contextualize those numbers with the actual turnout of the election: Somewhere close to 55,000 voted in the mayoral election. More people saw the ads and posts on the Facebook page than voted in the election.
Direct Mail and Media Relations
The quick start to the campaign, and relative frugality in assembling the pieces to begin, meant that by mid-year we were under budget. We were able to reallocate some of the funding that went unused to launch a mailer outlining Councilor Mendell’s negative votes. With filing over a month out, we put pressure on Councilor Mendell to try and persuade her against seeking reelection. In tandem with the social media efforts, we also designed and distributed the first piece of direct mail for the 2019 cycle.
The strategy for Councilor Mendell was clear: As a fluke victor in 2017, she did not have majority support within her own district. Her record since her victory only made her reelection more difficult. By aggressively targeting Mendell early and often. By painting a politician purely through their negative positions, it creates a hole for them out of which it is difficult to escape. Every dollar they spend to combat negative highlights is a dollar that cannot be spent to spin their campaign positively. A candidate can exhaust their war chest only to find themselves treading water.
Ultimately, Councilor Mendell decided to seek reelection. However, given the early efforts made and the foresight of the TGA to act preemptively, she sustained negative hits that would continue to plague her throughout the campaign.
Using polling data from before, in line with trends we could see developing in the election as key issues, we created six mailers to target incumbent councilors Mendell and Cox in late September, in the two weeks prior to the October 8 election. These were designed and created to highlight negative votes and actions taken by both of these incumbents. One of the mailers in particular, “David Cox thinks you should shut up,” garnered heaps of media coverage.
The Raleigh News & Observer, the local paper of record, printed the story the Monday prior to the election. By pursuing negative lines of attack, TGA was able to underscore the downsides of incumbent candidates while allowing the challengers to remain above the fray, focusing on their own positives and differentiating themselves from their opponents.
Between the various outlets who covered the story, thousands of dollars in free advertising was captured at no cost to TGA. In fact, because the mailers were well-researched and backed by citations from the very outlets covering the story, the negative messages about the incumbents were repeated and bolstered by the validity of the press.
The News & Observer has a distribution of 75,000 and IndyWeek has close to 45,000. In the final days of the election, Raleigh voters were spoon fed heaps of negative coverage on the incumbents. While the incumbents had to fight back the negatives, the challengers were able to clean their hands of any involvement, since independent expenditure groups cannot coordinate with campaigns. No mention of the challengers is in any of the negative mailers.
In the wake of the negative mailers and the press coverage, we worked quickly to provide support to our client, the government relations director for TAA, who was the face for the campaign to the media. The mail landed on a Friday afternoon, and by candidates were beginning to condemn the image depicted. We worked around the clock that weekend, keeping an eye on the news coverage and the reaction from Raleigh politicos and business leaders. By the end of the weekend, the targets of the mailers had overplayed their hands and were receiving attacks on social media for their apparent hypocrisy. Many of the incumbents were running negative campaigns, and their cries of foul for the mailers fell on deaf ears.
By the time media reached out for comments, we had prepared a stock statement for the client to use and he delivered it to any reporters’ inquiries. The news coverage rebounded to our benefit, too. In every instance where the story was covered, the press spilt far more ink describing the negative claims we made about the incumbents than they did on the image of the mailer itself. Even those who may have been turned off by the mailer were force-fed more negative messaging about the incumbents.
While the negative ads were deployed against the incumbents, we designed and mailed four positive mailers surrounding challengers in Districts A, B, D and E. Each underscored the positive positions that each challenger took with regard to an issue that resonates particularly with Republican voters, who otherwise had little in term of options between an entirely Democratic slate of candidates. We focused on property rights and sent mailers to likely Republican voters in each of the four districts in the final week of early voting.
Each of the TAA supported candidates in the four districts were bolstered by the property rights mailer, including Patrick Buffkin in A, Brian Fitzsimmons in B, Saige Martin in D and David Knight in E. Only one of the four would go on to lose.
Taking Stock of Results
Entering election day, we were confident in the odds of David Knight to overtake Stef Mendell in District E. While Cox presented a steeper challenge, pouring resources into the At-Large race in the hopes of forcing Russ Stephenson into a run-off with Johnathan Melton would also give us the desired outcome. With the Council dividing between 5-4 votes in favor of the NIMBYs, taking two seats would flip the balance; it didn’t matter where the two came from.
As results began trickling in, it was clear that the results were moving in our favor, and considerably so.
The mayoral candidate endorsed by TAA, Mary-Ann Baldwin, led the vote count by the end of the night. Her biggest competitor, Caroline Sullivan, limped into third place, nearly 18% behind. We were confident that Baldwin could easily best Charles Francis, the runner-up in 2017 and now again in 2019, in a head-to-head runoff.
But the results in other districts began to paint a picture. Almost uniformly, the challenger candidates, all supported by TAA, were outpacing the incumbents. In District D, held for years by a Crowder, now Kay Crowder and formerly her husband, the challenger Saige Martin was surging ahead. Patrick Buffkin, TAA-endorsed and running in the open District A, was pulling ahead of his opponent as well. All told, by the end of the night only one candidate supported by TAA did not win his race. Bold names were endorsed and supported by TAA.
In the Mayoral race:
- Mary-Ann Baldwin – 38%
- Charles Francis – 31%
- Caroline Sullivan – 20%
- Zainab Baloch – 7%
- Justin Sutton – 2%
- George Knott – 1%
In the At-Large race (top two win):
- Nicole Stewart – 34%
- Jonathan Melton – 23%
- Russ Stephenson – 19%
- Portia Rochelle – 12%
- Carlie Spencer – 6%
- James Bledsoe – 5%
In District A:
- Patrick Buffkin – 53%
- Sam Hershey – 36%
- Joshua Bradley – 10%
In District B:
- David Cox – 54%
- Brian Fitzsimmons – 45%
In District C:
- Corey Branch – 63%
- Shelia Alamin-Khashoggi – 23%
- Wanda Hunter – 11%
- Ricky Scott – 3%
In District D:
- Saige Martin – 47%
- Kay Crowder – 33%
- Brittany Bryan – 11%
- April Parker – 8%
In District E:
- David Knight – 69%
- Stef Mendell – 30%
In an election where only two seats were needed to tip the balance away from the NIMBYs, three were won. The lone NIMBY, David Cox, was left powerless as the old guard gave way to the newly elected, pro-growth councilors. What’s more, in races where the runners-up could have called for runoffs, all three declined. Charles Francis, Russ Stephenson and Kay Crowder all opted against a costly and, likely quixotic, runoff. The momentum was clearly on the side of change, and every candidate rode that wave into election night. In no small part, the money and influence exerted for the first time by TAA made the prospect of runoffs unattractive for those entitled to them.
In fact, the one loss was a marked improvement over the past election results. Remember: David Cox defended his seat with 68% of the vote in 2017, and that was against the former incumbent. In 2019, his vote share dropped 14%, to 54%. The vote count separating Cox and Fitsimmons was fewer than 700. Fitzsimmons improved upon his last attempt, too. In 2013, Fitzsimmons ran against then-incumbent John Odom, losing 59%-35%. He picked up 10% more votes than his last run and kept the 2019 race neck and neck until the very end.
The clearest takeaway from the 2019 municipal elections is to start early. Typically, municipal races are sleepy exercises and don’t begin in earnest until the summer. Filing doesn’t even occur until mid-year. But with the clear consensus that 2019 would be a change election, and with no coattails of a popular mayor for incumbents to ride, challengers entered early. Candidates began committees and solicited donors as early as February.
Third party groups started early, too. TGA hired Targeted Persuasion after a proposal in April, and work began in May. Early victories in direct mail and targeted advertising helped set the narrative for the race and kept incumbents underwater. The early work and success showed interested donors that the TGA was both serious and influential from the start. This allowed our client to solicit checks from donors who may have otherwise sat out, and the momentum only continued growing into the fall. The campaign both gave our client their desired outcome (and then some), but also boosted their influence in the region for elections to come. Now, instead of saying, “Who is the TGA?” prospective candidates will ask, “When can I meet with them?”
Already tenuous holds on office were winnowed by a barrage of negative, and importantly, factual messaging. When the targets of ads went to dispute the claims, they had no recourse. All the direct mail and digital advertising was backed up by articles from reputable sources like the Raleigh News & Observer and IndyWeek.
All told, the campaign plan worked as intended. We depicted the incumbent councilors as out of touch, self-serving and wrong for Raleigh. On election day, the voters agreed. Entering the new decade, these new councilors will not only benefit the community, but will be difficult to remove. Incumbency advantage is hard to overstate; by making investments here, in the election where it would count, TGA secured a local government that would be amenable to their concerns and priorities, saving countless hours and dollars in headaches and negotiations.