5 Key Media Lessons from Mike Duggan’s Impossible Write-in Victory from Joe Slade White & Ben Nuckels
“Never thought I’d see that happen. Extremely rare. Like a unicorn”
– Detroit TV Reporter Mara McDonald on Mike Duggan’s remarkable write-in campaign victory for Detroit Mayor.
To say that we faced long odds in the 2013 Detroit Mayoral race would be the understatement of the year. For starters, Detroit had never elected a write-in candidate for mayor.
Further complicating matters, another write-in candidate somehow mysteriously appeared at the last minute, whose name just happened to be Mike Dugeon. That’s a 2-letter difference from our candidate, Mike Duggan. Duggan’s opponents would stoop to anything to keep him from making the run-off.
In order for a write-in vote to count, the name had to be spelled correctly, on the correct line on the ballot, and the circle next to the name had to be filled in. Ballot stickers to streamline the process were not allowed. This was not going to be simple or easy.
But, none of those obstacles stopped us.
We overcame the incredible odds by focusing on two critical messages: telling Mike Duggan’s story of turnaround success AND educating voters on how to write in his name on the ballot and make their votes count. We employed a variety of spot lengths to secure the most points and to drive repetition of key information on television and we ran voter-file targeted online advertising.
On Election Day, Mike Duggan won by an amazing 17-points over the candidate who was the odds-on favorite to win (and whose name DID appear on the ballot). None of this would have been possible were it not for the incredible hard work and strategic counseling by the incredible team at Turnaround Detroit and it’s great board of prominent Detroiters headed by Buzz Thomas and Betty Brooks.
Here are a few of the strategic and tactical moves we made that can help you if you ever find yourself on a write-in campaign.
1. Educate Voters On What Needs to Happen to Make Their Vote to Count.
Every local and state election has their own rules regarding write-in candidates.
Unlike some other states, the campaign in Detroit could not provide printed out stickers for voters to place on their ballots. This was going to be hard. And it had to be done precisely right. Each voter had to physically write in the candidate’s name, on the right line, spell it correctly, and fill in a circle next to the name. If any of those steps were done incorrectly, their vote would not count.
A large portion of our paid communication efforts were aimed simply at educating voters on how to vote for Duggan.
We boiled it down to, “Write In. Fill In. Mike Duggan. D-U-G-G-A-N. For Mayor.” We used this tagline – or a variation of it – on everything.
At the end of our 30-second TV ads, we showed the full mayoral voting ballot, simulated writing Duggan’s name on the correct line of the ballot, spelling the name, and filling in the circle. This repeated simulation from the point of view of the voter in the ballot box was critical as it familiarized voters with how to cast their vote.
We also ran a specialized 15-second television ad that focused solely on how to vote. We ran that 15-second “educational” spot throughout the campaign and never took it off the air.
In all our television ads, we made sure that the name “Mike Duggan” was on the screen the entire spot. We letterboxed the advertisements and had, “Mike Duggan. Democrat for Mayor” at the top for the duration of the ad. This was designed to make sure that voters were accustomed to seeing the name and how it was spelled. And the fact it was on the screen the entire time ensured we would even catch viewers fast-forwarding with their DVR’s.
Print, online, and outdoor all were primarily focused on the educational aspect of our message. Everything from our social media and digital banner campaign to our outdoor digital billboards featured a hand writing in Mike Duggan’s name along with the 3-step process to make the vote count.
After the election was over, the results showed that of the roughly 44,000 write-in votes cast for Mike Duggan, an astounding 97% of them were spelled correctly with no discrepancies in the process. As noted earlier, the other write-in candidate “Mike Dugeon” was only able to peel off 17 voters. The bottom line was that the voters knew the process and the correctly spelling.
2. Don’t forget to Persuade Voters.
Given the enormous challenges of educating voters on how to cast a write-in ballot correctly and legally, it’s easy to forget the need to persuade the electorate in order to win.
Persuasion in a write-in campaign is equally as important as educating voters on the mechanics of voting.
You are asking voters to do a remarkable thing – to make a special effort – and that requires that the voters believe the candidate is worth the effort.
We won, in part, because voters believed Mike Duggan was the only candidate who could turn Detroit around in the face of dire circumstances of bankruptcy.
In order to do both the “persuasion” and the “education” angles well on TV, we decided on a strategy of using 15-second TV ads: one ad would be solely on persuasion and the other ad would be mainly educational.
15-second ads, when purchased as bookends within a commercial pod, are half the price of a 30-second spot but with twice the points. They allow a campaign to double the frequency of their ads, and drive critical messages at the right times. So our targeted voters were seeing our 15-second education spot on how to vote at the beginning of a commercial break, and then seeing our persuasion 15-second ad at the end of the break. You can watch the educational 15-second ad at this link (http://youtu.be/XRy2V-7QhBE) and the persuasion 15-second ad at this link (http://youtu.be/tYOinQEzo0A).
In 30-second ads, we included elements of both persuasion and education.
For the final television ad of the campaign we filmed a woman actually writing in Mike Duggan’s name on a ballot as she thought out loud, in a “stream of consciousness” about why she was casting her ballot for Duggan. You can watch that “stream of consciousness” ad at this link: http://youtu.be/M6njX2_3hC8
Without a serious focus on persuasion, Duggan simply would not have won. And he certainly would not have been able to win 574 of the 614 precincts — an incredible 93% of the total vote. According to a Detroit Free Press analysis we were able to persuade voters from struggling neighborhoods like Redford and Brightmoor, to the more “stable” East English Village and Cody Roughe, described as a “diverse working-class neighborhood on the west side.”
3. Be Smart About Being “Everywhere”
Some previous write-in campaigns gave us the advice to “be everywhere.” It was good advice, but it’s really important to be smart about “being everywhere.” It’s very, very easy to waste huge amounts of money on newspapers, billboards, yard signs, etc. We worked very closely with the skilled professionals on the ground whose local experience allowed us to target with precision what made sense for billboards (electronic and static) based on expected voter density and which specialty print publications would truly make a difference.
Foremost, we needed to drive our message on television and radio. We targeted our broadcast and cable buys to the age, gender, ethnicity, education level, ideology and partisan leanings of our expected electorate. Mark Mellman and his brilliant team at the Mellman Group helped us define these categories of voters and allowed us to communicate with them repeatedly across multiple platforms.
For our digital and social media buys, we matched expected voter file lists to Facebook profiles. We delivered educational and persuasion video to these voters and we ran purely educational online banners in the weeks building up to Election Day. We even did a 6-second Vine ad that showed people how to write in, fill in the circle, and spell his name that we circulated on Facebook and Twitter. You can watch the Vine here: https://vine.co/v/hKQqHXv1XL2
On Election Day itself, we blitzed the entire city of Detroit with Google text ads that provided voters with their polling location and information about how to write in Mike Duggan’s name.
Our overall paid media mix included TV, radio, digital and social advertising, print, and outdoor.
4. Remember, you’re still playing the old game…only with new rules.
A. Anticipate Attacks
Olympic ski racers and winning race car drivers are already three turns down the course in their minds.
If we were to win this race we had to lay a foundation early on a few key issues.
We knew from our research that our candidate would be attacked as an “outsider” and for being too close to the highly unpopular Republican Governor Rick Synder. The truth was that Mike Duggan had been a committed Democrat his whole career and had fought against Rick Snyder and his appointment of an Emergency Manager. So in every ad, from the very beginning, we included the word “Democrat” on the screen.
Eventually when we were attacked on TV in the General Election, the attack bounced off us because we had anticipated the attack and had laid important groundwork early.
B. Seize Opportunities
One of the biggest, game-changing, moments of the campaign was when our opponents overplayed their hand. Early on, Mike Duggan was kicked off the ballot due to residency issues. He challenged the ruling in court and won, then later lost in another appeal. Duggan actually dropped out of the race before he decided to run as a write-in candidate.
Before Duggan was kicked off the ballot, our chief opponent, Benny Napoleon, had a 17-point advantage over us in the character trait of “one of us” in our internal polling. But once Duggan got back into the race as a write-in candidate he instantly became the underdog. We saw Napoleon’s lead in the “one of us” traits shrink to only a 1-point advantage (closing the gap by 16 points). By kicking Duggan off the ballot, our opponents actually accomplished the goal of making Mike Duggan an underdog in the race whom Detroit voters could really relate to.
We seized this opportunity in our communications to talk about how Mike Duggan was able to do the “impossible.” In our first TV ad we used the opportunity to set this frame…that Mike Duggan was able to do what others said was impossible. That Duggan was able to turn around a near-bankrupt Detroit Medical Center. And that Duggan cracked down on illegal guns as prosecutor and gun violence dropped by 20 percent. We then pivoted to, “Now they say you can’t vote for Mike Duggan. They’re wrong again. Yes we can. Fill in. Write in. Mike Duggan. Mayor.” We used that carefully constructed message framework for the rest of the campaign. Mike Duggan could turn around Detroit. You can watch our first ad here: http://youtu.be/km96xPnhtJ0
5. Turn an Opponent’s Strength into His Greatest Weakness
Our opponent Benny Napoleon was the Wayne County Sheriff and former Chief of Police of Detroit. Crime was a critical issue and we knew that we needed to take Napoleon’s crime fighter strength and turn it into a weakness. In the final days of the general election we took a single piece of opposition research from a new story of how someone had parked in then Deputy Police Chief Benny Napoleon’s parking spot and suddenly 20 Detroit police officers were taken off of crime fighting duty to guard Napoleon’s parking spot in shifts, night and day. Using a simple piece of stock film, we instantly created a spot that turned the incident into a humorous reflection on how Benny Napoleon had made his parking spot, “the safest place in Detroit.” It became a viral spot that everyone was talking about in the days leading up to the election and on election night, Napoleon even referred to the spot in his concession speech. You can watch the “Parking” spot here: http://youtu.be/GGC_0SzB9us
On November 5th, Mike won a decisive and historic victory to be the new Mayor of Detroit.