Low-turnout mayoral primary sends mixed messages
There are 201,843 registered voters in the city of Cincinnati.
Tuesday, in a primary election for mayor, 11,455 of them cast ballots.
That works out to 5.68 percent.
We are in our 40th year of covering elections; and have yet to see a candidate race where the turnout was so abysmally low.
Even on September 11, 2001, the day of the first ever Cincinnati mayoral primary and a day when the entire nation was in shock, grief and rage over the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, about 15 percent of the electorate turned out.
It almost defies belief; and makes it hard to analyze the meaning of an election where the top two finishers, former council member John Cranley (who had 56 percent of what vote there was) and former mayor and current vice mayor Roxanne Qualls (with 37 percent) earned the right to face each other in the November election. Both are Democrats.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.
First, let’s look at the turnout.
With the only other candidates on the ballot as weak as libertarian Jim Berns and independent Queen Noble, there was doubtless assumption on the part of most Cincinnati voters (those who were even aware that an election was going on Tuesday) that the result was a foregone conclusion. They saw no point in going to the polls; and so they didn’t.
Cranley’s 56 percent, said Xavier University political scientist Gene Beaupre on WVXU’s Cincinnati Edition Thursday, “is not a real number. But it does give John Cranley bragging rights.”
And, with the bragging rights, comes the ability to go to deep-pocketed Republican business people, who have no candidate of their own party, and ask them for more money for the fall campaign.
Many of them are with him on issues like Cranley’s opposition to the streetcar project and the privatization of the city’s parking meter system.
Qualls, too, can go back to her primary election donors and ask for more money. That’s the beauty of the Cincinnati mayoral election system, at least for those who finished in the top two.
They can collect the maximum contributions from donors for the primary - $1,100 for individuals, $2,700 from PACs, and $10,500 from the political parties – and then start the general election campaign with a clean slate. They can go back to those donors and ask them for more money for the general election campaign.
It may be a more difficult task for Qualls, given her relatively weak showing in the primary.
Mack Mariani, an associate professor of political science at Xavier, said on WVXU’s Cincinnati Edition that if were advising the Qualls campaign, he would give them one famous piece of advice from Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” – “Don’t Panic.”
“You go out there and separate yourself from Cranley without turning it into a mudfest,’’ Mariani said.
Both Mariani and Beaupre agreed that there is plenty of time for Qualls to make a comeback after a disappointing primary in which many assumed she would be the winner.
But, Beaupre said, she may have to change her style of campaigning.
“She has to appear more engaged and show more passion, which she does have,’’ Beaupre said.
Even with the 5.68 percent turnout Tuesday, it was clear that Cranley’s message resonated with voters. It’s basically been a twin argument – “I’m against the streetcar; she’s for it. I’m against privatizing the parking system; she’s for it.”
Republican voters are a distinct minority inside the city limits of Cincinnati. But they tend to agree with Cranley on those two issues; and there is some evidence that Republican voters helped Cranley cruise to his 18 percentage point lead over Qualls in Tuesday’s election.
Alex Triantafilou, the chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, said that his staff did some numbers-crunching after Tuesday’s election. What they found, Triantafilou said, was that turnout in some of the city’s most heavily Republican West Side precincts was a whopping nine percent. Nine percent! Imagine that.
But put enough of those nine percent turnout precincts together and it may well have made a big difference in the outcome of the election.
Triantafilou points out that both the mayoral candidates are Democrats. His party did not field a candidate; and he is not sure that, even if it did, the Republican would have finished in the top two.
“But if Republicans do end up going out for Cranley in November, it could well help our city council candidates,’’ Triantafilou said.
The GOP has only four on the ballot – incumbent Charlie Winburn, former council members Amy Murray and Sam Malone, and newcomer Melissa Wegman.
But most observers, including Beaupre, believe the African-American vote will be the key to the November mayoral election.
Qualls has the present mayor, Mark Mallory, on her side, along with several former NAACP presidents. Cranley has support from State Rep. Alicia Reece and independent councilman Christopher Smitherman.
Both will be working Cincinnati’s black neighborhoods hard.
“There’s no voter group that is more important for the door-to-door grassroots campaigning than African-American voters,’’ Beaupre said.
So, is Cranley’s sizeable lead Tuesday a harbinger of things to come, when the turnout will be considerably higher?
History says “not necessarily.”
In 2001, news anchor Courtis Fuller beat then-mayor Charlie Luken in the primary by 16 percentage points, but lost the general election by 10 percentage points.
In 2005, David Pepper edged out Mark Mallory for the top spot in the primary, but Mallory beat him in the general election.
In both cases, the primary turnout was considerably higher than what we saw last Tuesday.
In other words, having the bragging rights in the primary does not necessarily translate into taking over the mayor’s chair on December 1.