When Tim Tanner walked out of his Mt. Washington home on an early August evening to head to the golf range, he recognized the familiar face of a man he had never met standing in his driveway.
“Mayor, what a surprise,” Tanner said, enthusiastically extending his hand.
John Cranley, dressed in a navy T-shirt and khaki shorts, looked far different from the suited-up mayor Cincinnatians are used to seeing at City Hall. But he was still easily recognizable to Tanner, and everyone else he approached that night, as he recapped his political achievements on doorsteps around the neighborhood.
“What he’s done for the city over the last four years has been tremendous,” Tanner told a reporter. “Its very hard nowadays to create balance between what’s good for the citizens and what’s good for the business of the city, without one suffering for the other. He’s done the best of anyone I’ve seen."
Cranley smiled, shook Tanner’s hand, told a campaign aide to drop off a yard sign there, and minutes later he was making the same pitch to Tanner’s next-door neighbor.
And so it goes for Cranley. Four days a week all summer, walking miles through neighborhoods from Price Hill to College Hill, trying to charm one voter at a time.
His goals are ambitious. He plans to reach every likely voter in the city of Cincinnati (who doesn’t live in a high-rise or gated building) at least once before the November election. Voters who make up Cranley’s base of support, and voters who could be “persuaded” to vote for him, will be visited three times.
And Cranley isn’t doing it alone. He has the help of political allies, old friends, and a small army of young volunteers and paid staffers who are each expected to knock on 20 doors an hour, rain or shine.
“It’s clear based on the primary that I could lose or I could win,” Cranley said. “And I want to win.”
His ground game is aggressive because it has to be.
After a stunning loss in the May primary to Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, Cranley revamped his entire campaign and switched out high-level staff. He realized that if he wants to win, he actually has to put in face time with voters – something he has never done in a large-scale way in any prior mayoral election.
“I think (a ground game) is very important and it’s the one thing John would be first to tell you, he did none of in the primary,” said Hamilton County Democratic Party Chair Tim Burke. “I think John has learned his lesson.”
Stomping for votes
There is simply no better way to win a vote than to stand on someone’s front porch in plain clothes and ask for it.
“No TV ad can beat that; no mailer can beat that … when a candidate has face time with a voter, its the best possible way to win a vote,” said Kevin Tighe, founder of Stratis Campaigns.
It’s also a chance for Cranley to demonstrate that he may actually be a likeable guy.
Cranley’s critics have blasted him over the years for being a bully, screaming at those he disagrees with and letting his ego get the better of him.
But when Cranley is standing on a voter’s front porch complimenting their flower pots or asking what school their children attend, he suddenly seems like a nice guy.
“I think he’s been misrepresented sometimes,” said Joshua Campbell, who lives down the street from Tanner in Mt. Washington. “I think he’s done a good job.”
Campbell owns Django Western Taco in Northside. He’s a registered Republican, an entrepreneur who works seven days a week and lives in a modest house.
While Campbell doesn’t agree with all of Cranley’s choices -- such as when he declared Cincinnati a ‘sanctuary city’ earlier this year -- he’s still voting for him.
Campbell is exactly the kind of voter that Cranley expects to win in November: a Republican business owner who pays taxes for what he considers to be city needs, such as replacing the dilapidated Western Hills Viaduct.
“I believe government should take care of the basic functions of a city,” Campbell said.
So Cranley’s campaign message hits an easy mark with Campbell.
Cranley is touting a list of achievements, focusing heavily on paving roads, adding more police and fire, and bringing in economic development and jobs to the city.
On doorsteps he is repeating a message of experience, stability and get-the-job-done toughness. A consistent theme: Voters can sleep easy at night with Cranley at the helm.
“You know what you’re going to get with me, and people believe the city is moving forward,” Cranley said. “It’s important when we face serious challenges in the coming years to have someone you know can get the job done. Conversely you never know what you’re going to get with Yvette.”
As a moderate Democrat, Cranley will likely do well in the more conservative areas of the city, such as Hyde Park, near where he lives, and Price Hill, near where he grew up.
Simpson will no doubt win the majority of the city’s large African American vote, Burke said, but Cranley still needs to pick up a share of it.
That’s why Tighe expects to see Cranley first walking neighborhoods like Westwood to shore up his base, and then expand into places where he could sway voters, such as Bond Hill and Evanston.
“John’s general strategy ought to be to go back to where he did very well 2013 to remind voters why they supported him in the first place, and then to eat into Council Member Simpson’s base as much as he can,” Tighe said.
Other key neighborhoods are College Hill, Madisonville, Oakley, Kennedy Heights and Pleasant Ridge, because they are diverse neighborhoods that have seen big population increases, Tighe said.
“College Hill is usually the swing,” Tighe said. “It’s the second-largest ward in the city, with lots of voters, and a very eclectic neighborhood.”
On the campaign trail
What Cincinnatians are concerned about depends largely on the kind of neighborhood they live in.
In thriving areas, people are more concerned about streets and development. In worse neighborhoods, the big concern is crime.
In Mt. Washington, Cranley heard a mix of both topics.
The heroin epidemic hit the neighborhood hard a few years ago and overdoses were common in nearby Stanbery Park. But more police on patrol here has dramatically cut crime and drug use, many neighbors said.
“I’ve lived here since 1988, and he’s the first mayor who's ever done anything to the streets,” Tanner said, pointing to his newly paved street, sidewalks and curbs.
Tanner’s neighbor, Emily Arnold, said she doesn’t mind paying taxes as long as she sees a benefit from it – such as the nice park nearby where she can celebrate her son’s first birthday.
Arnold hasn’t decided who will get her vote for mayor this fall.
Yet when Cranley met her, he quickly honed in on what was important to her. It turns out Arnold works for Kroger. In June, Kroger announced plans to build its first Downtown Kroger store since 1969 – a deal Cranley has been chasing for many years.
“Are you excited about the new Kroger deal?” he asked.
“Growing our economy is very important to me,” Arnold said.
Cranley even tries to make an impression on the voters he doesn't meet. If no one answers a door, Cranley writes a handwritten note and leaves it in the door. He mentions their porch flower pots or garden so people know he was actually standing on their front doorstep.
As summer ends, Cranley will scale back his ground game in order to participate in more debates and evening campaign events. And his campaign is now moving into the next phase – digital and mail advertising.
After that, the television advertising will begin with all new ads and a new theme, said his campaign manager, Chandra Yungbluth.
“Our ground game is just one part of overall strategy,” Yungbluth said. “You can expect a really comprehensive look at what our vision for the future of Cincinnati looks like.”