Did Cranley Learn A Lesson From The Shellacking He Took Tuesday?

May 7, 2017

It's quite the challenge to draw conclusions from an election where only 11 percent of the eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot.

Such was the case Tuesday in that sizzling hot three-way primary for Cincinnati mayor.

So sizzling hot that nearly nine of every 10 voters in the city decided it wasn't worth the effort.

It's just a race for mayor, after all.

As it turned out, the incumbent in that office, John Cranley, got a spanking from the voters who did show up, coming away with only 34.5 percent of the vote.

Yvette Simpon announced her candidacy last August with council members Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young at her side.
Credit Howard Wilkinson

That was second to Council Member Yvette Simpson, who took 45 percent, despite having been outspent on media ads by more than 60 to one. Coming in third was labor lawyer and former University of Cincinnati trustee Rob Richardson, with 20.4 percent.

The good news for Cranley: He came in second. That means he can proceed to battle Simpson head-to-head in the November election.

The bad news for Cranley: He came in second.

Eleven percent may be a small sample size, but the line Simpson supporters were wearing out on social media Tuesday night and all day Wednesday was quite accurate – 65 percent of the voters who showed up said they wanted somebody besides John Cranley as their mayor.

Cranley, in an interview with WVXU, admitted to being a bit taken aback by the results.

"It was a wake-up call to us and to the city about what's at stake and we've got to decide what kind of city we want to be moving forward,'' Cranley said.

We think it was probably a bit more of a "wake-up call" for the mayor than it was for the city, unless he was referring to what he hopes are legions of supporters out there who didn't show up in May but will rise from their slumber in November to pull his fat out of the fire.

In no way, shape nor form could Tuesday night be interpreted as a good one for John Cranley.

So, what happened here? Why only 11 percent?

"I just really don't get it,'' said Tim Burke, who is chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and chair of the county board of elections. "All three candidates were Democrats and it's inconsistent with all the energy we have seen on our side since the presidential election."

Why it happened depends on who you talk to.

Some say it was confusion among Republican and independent voters about the fact that there were three Democrats on the ballot and they thought they would have to go to the polls and ask for a Democratic ballot to vote in the mayoral primary.

Well, that's not the case. Cincinnati has non-partisan municipal elections; there are no party designations on the ballot. It's not the Democrats' fault that the Republican Party had no candidate for mayor.

Some say there were a whole lot of voters who were not even aware there was an election Tuesday.

"Honestly, I think that unless they were specifically reached out to by one of the candidates, there were a whole lot of people who didn't even know there was a flippin' election,'' said Pete Witte of Price Hill, a Cranley booster and founder of POWR PAC, a political action committee made up of west side activists.

Well, maybe. But with no less than 217,265 registered voters in the city of Cincinnati, that would amount to a whole lot of people who have been living in caves carved into the sides of the city's seven hills for the past several months.

Some say the majority of people are in a just-don't-give-a-darn mood, where they don't believe in politics or politicians.

And some say most people just assumed that the two best-known candidates, Cranley and Simpson, would prevail in the primary and they could wait until November to choose between the two of them.

But, among those who did show up, Simpson's campaign did a far, far better job of grassroots organizing - of finding voters and inspiring them to go to the polls.

Mayor John Cranley
Credit Howard Wilkinson / WVXU

And that kind of retail campaigning costs far less than the wholesale campaigning that Cranley's campaign did - $675,000 on TV and radio ads, many of them attacking Simpson, accusing her of considering the streetcar more important that putting cops on the streets.

He might as well have taken the bulk of that money and shredded it. It was a complete waste. Or nearly complete.

Simpson spent a tiny fraction of what Cranley did on ads – maybe about $10,000 on the radio. What resources she had went into the ground game.

And it worked.

Cranley says he has learned his lesson. 

"One thing we have to do is a much better job on a field campaign,'' Cranley told WVXU. "I want to congratulate Yvette Simpson's campaign; she did a good job.

"And we will adapt and do better,'' Cranley said. "We are going to be investing a significant amount of time door-knocking, listening, house parties, block groups and talking to people one-on-one and listening to what they have to say.

"We're obviously going to re-adjust our strategy."

And Simpson expects him to do whatever it takes to win in the fall.

Tuesday night, addressing jubilant supporters at the Greenwich Tavern in Walnut Hills, laid it out for them, saying "nobody believed me when I started talking about this 'power of we' thing.

"We are still out-raised, out-endorsed, so anybody who cares about this race, let's be clear,'' Simpson said. "This is an incumbent who has won races before, who is not going to go easy. We've got to raise money; we've got to have more of this energy for the next six months."

And do the same kind of retail campaigning that has brought her this far – just on a bigger budget.

Council Member Wendell Young, one of Simpson's highest-profile supporters, gave marching orders to the crowd at Greenwich Tavern, taken straight from the Barack Obama campaign playbook.

"Here's what we need from you," Young said. "Go out and find at least 10 people who will listen to you and tell those 10 people to tell 10 more. And, while they are talking, make sure they understand we need their money as well as their support.

"John Cranley has a war chest, but money does not vote,'' Young said. "People do."

Yeah, right. But money doesn't hurt.

Now, a reminder before we go further:

Cincinnati has been using this two-tiered form of electing its mayor since 2001.

There have been occasions where the candidate who won the primary lost in the general election.

In 2001, in a primary that was held on 9/11, one of the darkest days of American history, TV news anchor Courtis Fuller beat then-mayor Charlie Luken by 16 percentage points in an election where the turnout was 15 percent.

Fat lot of good that did him. In November, when the turnout was considerably higher, Luken beat Fuller by 10 percentage points.

Then, in September 2005, then-council member David Pepper just barely edged out then-state senator Mark Mallory in a seven-candidate primary. But, in November, despite spending $1.2 million, Pepper lost to Mallory – the city hall outsider – by four percentage points.

The bottom line is this: Primary results are not necessarily a predictor of what voters will do in higher-turnout November elections.

But here's a problem that Cranley faces.

He's a moderate Democrat who needs the votes of Republicans in the city to win.

Not that there are a whole lot of them anymore, but there are still enough in places like Covedale, West Price Hill, and Mount Washington to make a difference.

And, looking at the precinct reports from Tuesday's election, turnout in those Republican conclaves was abysmally low.

Asked about GOP turnout, Cranley said "I don't want to analyze that."

"All I can say is that they obviously did not vote in their normal percentages Tuesday; and that may be because they thought it was a Democratic primary,'' Cranley said. "But we are campaigning for all votes in all 52 neighborhoods."

And, he said, while some Republicans "don't agree with me on some social issues, our priorities of balancing the budget, putting cops on the streets and being fiscally responsible is a message that will resonate."

That business about "social issues" is a back-door reference to the fact that, in January, Cranley declared Cincinnati to be a "sanctuary city,'' welcoming to all immigrants.

It was an issue where there was agreement among the three mayoral candidates.

But many local Republicans didn't much like it; and made themselves heard.

"His sanctuary city thing, that hurt him with Republicans big time,'' said Hamilton County Republican Party chairman Alex Triantafilou. "Will that come back and bite him in the fall? I don't know.

"I think, in the end, most Republicans in the city will end up with him because they don't like the alternative,'' Triantafilou said. "But I'm not sure what the enthusiasm level will be."

A much bigger block of voters, though, are African-Americans, who make up about half of the city's population.

Simpson had substantial support among her fellow African-Americans, although a sizeable portion of her support came from white progressives – the white Democrats who see Cranley as too conservative and too much of a my-way-or-the-highway politician for their tastes.

The same goes for Richardson, also an African-American. His support was diverse, coming from African-Americans, labor households, millennials, and white voters from the "progressive" wing of the Democratic Party.

Simpson said on election night that she is hoping to have the support of Richardson in the fall campaign, "because with his support, we might actually make this thing happen in November."

Cranley will have to battle for his share of the city's African-American vote; and he plans to do that by touting a record of job creation and economic development projects that are being launched in some African-American neighborhoods.

Cranley will certainly have the money advantage in this race. Simpson, until it is proven otherwise, may once again have the best ground game.

It will likely be a rough-and-tumble race.

Simpson said on election night that she wants "a respectful, honest race to November."

"It's important for us to set the standard right now,'' she said. "Let's do this thing the right way. Let's make our case to the citizens and let them choose."

Sounds reasonable enough. But, in politics, the definitions of "respectful" and "honest" sometimes become very fuzzy.