Is there an advantage in winning mayoral primary?

Jul 7, 2013

There will be a primary election for Cincinnati mayor on September 10.  How much it will tell us about who will ultimately become the new mayor of the city on December 1 is an open question.

We do know this – it will be one of the two top vote-getters in the primary, who will face each other in the November election.

There are going to be four candidates on the ballot – Roxanne Qualls, John Cranley, Jim Berns and Sandra Queen Noble. The fact that more than two candidates filed petitions and came up with the requisite number of signatures (500 registered Cincinnati voters) requires a primary; and requires the city to shell out about $400,000 to conduct it.

Let’s be realistic here.

Most people who have come anywhere within sniffing distance of Cincinnati politics would probably be willing to wager large sums of money that those two top vote-getters will be Qualls and Cranley.

They have the money; they have the organizations; they have the track records of running in and winning elections over the past few decades.

The other two have none of those things.

We don’t have a whole lot of history to go on here as to whether winning the primary is an advantage in the fall.

Cincinnati’s system of direct election of the mayor has only been around since 2001; and, of the three mayoral elections since then, only two have required primaries.

The first was on Sept. 11, 2001 – the day of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Cincinnati went ahead with its mayoral primary anyway, although only 15.8 percent of the electorate  showed up. Courtis Fuller, the  WLWT news anchor, was one of two major candidates, the other being another former WLWT news anchor – former mayor and congressman Charlie Luken..

Two minor candidates were also on the ballot, but Fuller and Luken ended up taking 90 percent of the vote between them. Fuller, a first-time candidate, beat Luken fairly convincingly, with 17,091 votes to Luken’s 12.077.

But, in the November election, when the turnout was about 37 percent, Luken mopped the floor with Fuller, winning by nearly 9,000 votes.

The only other mayoral primary was in September 2005, when the field was a bit more crowded. Seven candidates were on the ballot. Four of them were considered serious candidates – then-State Sen. Mark Mallory, then-council member David Pepper, council member Alicia Reece and Republican Charlie Winburn, who was in between his first and present stints on city council.

With three well-known African-American politicians on the ballot, the black vote split; and Mallory ended up finishing second in the primary behind Pepper by a scant 146 votes.

In November, Mallory picked up most of those African-American voters who had voted for someone else in the primary and defeated Pepper by nearly 3,000 votes.

In 2009, there was no mayoral primary. No one on the Democratic side challenged Mallory. The Republicans searched and searched for a candidates and came up with a little-known Iraq war veteran named Brad Wenstrup, who went on to lose to Mallory in the general election. But Wenstrup had a respectable enough showing that he became something of a rising star in local GOP politics. Last year, he knocked off U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt in the GOP primary and is now the congressman from the Second Congressional District.

So, in the only two contested primaries we have had so far, the top vote-getter has lost the general election.
Will it happen this time?

Not necessarily.

Mack Mariani, an associate professor of political science at Xavier University, said he thinks the winner of the primary will have built a coalition of support and momentum that could carry him or her through the November election.

If Cranley is the top vote-getter, Mariani said on WVXU’s Cincinnati Edition Thursday, he can “show that he has significant strength in the primary and that will help him raise money. That will be very important.”

The same, though, is true for Qualls.

In politics, money tends to follow the likely winner.

And, even with a second-place finish, Cranley or Qualls could go out to supporters with a message: “I need you to step up now and contribute to this campaign. We have to close the gap.”

Most observers don’t think the Berns and Noble vote will be significant enough to impact the general election either way. There may well not be enough of them to help either of the two top vote-getters in the fall.

It could well be that, for the first time, the Cincinnati mayoral primary will foreshadow the result of the November election.