Cranley Won In A Cakewalk In 2013; This One Will Be A Lot Tougher

Jul 30, 2017

That Cincinnati mayoral primary in which the incumbent, John Cranley, lost by 10 percentage points to Council Member Yvette Simpson is now in the rear-view mirror.

Immediately after it was over, Cranley and his campaign vowed to mend their ways and spend more time and effort engaging voters one-on-one and ramping up their grassroots efforts, instead of depending solely on dumping a small fortune into 30-second TV ads which, frankly, many voters tune out as background noise.

Campaign commercials come on the TV – time to jump up and go to the fridge to build a Dagwood sandwich.

It's just not as effective as it used to be, these massive TV buys – about $800,000 for Cranley in the primary campaign alone. And, in the end, two of every three voters who bothered to turn out (a dismal 11 percent of the electorate) voted for Simpson or the third candidate, Rob Richardson.

Ed Koch, the late mayor of New York City, was famous for riding the subways and walking the streets of the five boroughs, asking people coming to and from work a simple question: 'How am I doin'?

So, if Cranley were to stand at bus stops and streetcar stations (well, maybe not the streetcar; he's never been a fan of that), and ask the same question, he'd probably get an earful of complaints and his fair share of compliments.

As to how his campaign is doing, with the election now 100 days away, that depends on who you ask.

He is still raising boatloads of money. Simpson is doing better on that score too, but she will be outspent by a huge margin by a candidate whose campaign expects to raise over $2 million.

"At the same time he was losing the primary, his fundraising began ramping up because there were a lot of supporters out there who were concerned and wanted to help even more,'' said Pete Witte, a Price Hill small business owner and head of POWR PAC (Partnership of Westside Residents), which is expected to endorse Cranley and a slate of city council candidates next week.

Witte, who had a cameo role in Cranley campaign videos during the primary campaign, told WVXU that Cranley did the right thing by overhauling his campaign operation not long after the primary.

He's added nearly a dozen full-time and part-time staffers, the most notable of which is Chandra Yungbluth, who replaced Cranley's long-time friend and aide Jay Kincaid as campaign manager.

Kincaid will still have a big role to play in the campaign – he'll likely be making decisions on when to make TV ad buys and how much, will be dealing with the news media, and, of course, will continue his role as one of Cranley's closest confidantes.

But Yungbluth, a former executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, has a reputation as an organizer of grassroots campaigns, which is exactly what Cranley needs in what could well be a very low turnout election.

Yungbluth most recently ran Brigid Kelly's successful run to win the Ohio House seat formerly held by County Commissioner Denise Driehaus and she worked for former Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, among others.

"The effect of these changes has been pretty substantial,'' said Witte, who also frequently consults with Cranley. "They have a campaign that seems now to be working like clockwork."

David Niven, associate professor of American politics at the University of Cincinnati, said re-tooling the campaign operation is fine and needed to be done, but he believes Cranley still has serious campaign message problems to deal with.

"The train was definitely derailed for Cranley after the primary,'' said Niven. "It's hard to be in worse shape than he was after the primary."

Now, Niven said, the task for Cranley is "fundamentally making a case for his administration. He has been unusually good at getting people mad at him who should like him."

He needs to be more like the John Cranley of 2013, who ran and won the mayor's office against Roxanne Qualls after starting out as the decided underdog.

"In 2013, he was so clearly in control; he was always on message,'' Niven said. "He was effective in simplifying his message. He did a great job in that campaign of being in control."

His opposition to construction of the streetcar in the 2013 campaign was "exhibit A" in how he controlled the debate – even though, after winning the election, construction of the streetcar went ahead despite his objections.

The hardest thing for Cranley's campaign to do this time around is "deciding who is the Cranley voter. Who should he be going after? Cutting into her strength among African-Americans? Making the pitch for the white, more Republican-leaning voters on the West Side? It's tougher this time. It's not as clear-cut as four years ago."

Witte said he thinks the biggest challenges for Cranley "are things that are out of his control – the racial politics, the Ray Tensing situation, Donald Trump."

The 11 percent turnout in the primary tells Witte that there were a whole lot of white, mostly West Side, conservative Republican voters who either weren't aware there was an election going on – there was no Republican candidate on the ballot – or that perhaps some of them were still angry at Cranley for declaring Cincinnati a "sanctuary city" after Trump issued his travel ban.

"That didn't go over well with a lot of conservatives,'' Witte said.

But, in the end, those voters will get over it and come out to vote for Cranley because he is seen as the more moderate candidate in the race, Witte said.

"And we hope to get as many of them out as possible,'' Witte said.

But Niven doubts that focusing on white, conservative voters is going to work.

"There's simply not enough of them in the city,'' Niven said. 

The bottom line is Cranley's new staff is going to have to go 24/7 for the next 100 days finding every conceivable Cranley voter out there and convincing him or her to either vote early or come out on election day.

Not impossible, by any means. He is the incumbent; he has the advantages that come with being the incumbent; and he will certainly have the money to spend.

But it's not likely to be nearly as easy as 2013, when he won with a whopping 16 percent margin.  It seems the odds are long on replicating that kind of win. If he wins at all.