Gladys Peek sat on the front porch of her Kennedy Heights home on a summer Saturday morning, reading the newspaper and talking with her adult daughter.
Then Cincinnati City Councilwoman Yvette Simpson bounced up the porch steps and introduced herself with the confidence of a woman who had easily beaten the sitting mayor in a primary election just months before.
Within minutes, the three women were laughing like old friends, swapping stories about their favorite restaurants and shopping destinations.
“Next time you’re out shopping, just remember, I’m a size 8,” Simpson said, laughing, as she left the porch.
In less than five minutes, Simpson had collected two votes and a promise from both women to put up yard signs at their homes.
“We need a change. We need new faces,” said Patricia Roach, who lives a block away from her mother, Giles.
It’s not that these two women dislike Mayor John Cranley. In fact, Peeke admitted, “he’s not too bad.”
Simpson knows that her outgoing personality makes her a natural with voters. And she is hoping to use it to her advantage this fall.
Her intense ground game, staffed almost entirely by volunteers, is what won her the upset victory in the May primary election. She knocked on hundreds of doors, and in the days beforehand, supporters made 30,000 calls to boost turnout.
It was a humiliating loss for Cranley, who had relied on television ads instead of door knocking. It forced him to rework his entire campaign.
One of the first changes he made was embracing a ground game very similar to Simpson’s.
“The fact that somebody had to lose an election to see this was important,” Simpson said, shaking her head.
“I think one of the best things that ever happened with us winning is that now John is listening to people and maybe it’s making him a better politician,” Simpson said. “But it’s just a little too late.”
In the months ahead, Simpson is hoping the same strategy that won her 45 percent of the vote in the primary (to Cranley’s 34 percent), will carry her to the mayor’s office in November.
“We’re just doubling down on what we know,” Simpson said. “We are going to the places that already voted for us and we’re saying we need you to get out and spread the word, to be our ambassadors in your community … to tell people what we’re about.”
Her campaign is hitting neighborhoods such as Clifton, Northside, Roselawn and Bond Hill, where she over-performed in the primary, along with swing neighborhoods such as College Hill.
She doesn’t have Cranley’s war chest to pay staffers to knock on doors, so she is relying on devoted volunteers.
It’s called word-of-mouth momentum, said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. That critical force multiplier that inspires people to debate their friends and re-tweet campaign messages without being asked.
“Our campaign has always had energy because it is a people-powered campaign,” Simpson said. “You can’t manufacture that by paying people to do it.”
A winning strategy?
Before Simpson’s volunteers headed out to meet voters in Avondale and Kennedy Heights on a sunny Saturday morning in August, she gave them a pep talk sprinkled with advice.
“Listen more than you talk, and be authentic,” she told the group. “If people disagree with you at the door, don’t argue. We still serve everybody whether they vote for us or not.”
That day her volunteers reached 1,013 houses and gave out 50 yard signs.
But Simpson isn’t taking anything for granted.
“Just because we won the primary doesn’t mean we’ll win the general,” Simpson said.
She scored a big win in a primary that had dismal voter turnout. Just 11 percent of the city's voters showed up, far below the expected 15 to 20 percent.
“I think Yvette properly feels she had a huge win and it may encourage her to do essentially the same kind of campaign as she has done before,” said Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Tim Burke. “She won in an exceptionally low turnout election. So she really needs to step up her campaign.”
Turnout is guaranteed to be higher in the November general election, with an entire City Council on the ballot. And both Cranley and Simpson need their voting bases to show up at the polls if they want to win.
That’s why Simpson is walking neighborhoods this summer two to three days a week and on most weekends.
This fall she will spend even more time on her ground game, shifting away from meetings and fundraising to meet voters on their doorsteps.
“We’ll really start to shift my energy to be one on one with voters,” Simpson said.
Her goal is to reach 40,000 voters by November with either a phone call or a door knock, or preferably both, said her field director, Nelson Pierce.
People who regularly vote, and those who could be persuaded to vote for Simpson, will be contacted at least twice by the campaign, Pierce said.
Simpson will win the majority of the African American vote, and do well in progressive neighborhoods such as Clifton and Over-the-Rhine, Burke said.
But she could also pick up votes from Cranley in outer neighborhoods such as California or Sedamsville, where residents may feel left out of the city’s growth, said Kevin Tighe, founder of Stratis Campaigns.
Simpson can also appeal to people who voted for Cranley in 2013 but aren’t happy with his performance and won’t vote for him again.
People like Alton Howard, a 78-year-old retiree who watches council meetings on television each week and has only missed voting in one election his entire life.
“I’ll vote for you, definitely,” he told Simpson when she came to the door of his Kennedy Heights home. “Cranley, I used to like him but he’s not the same person he was since he became mayor.”
Likeability vs. experience
What candidates say on voter doorsteps is more than just casual conversation.
It’s their actual strategy to win, Tighe said.
“What’s most interesting to see on the doors are the specific questions that both candidates are asking,” Tighe said. “What candidates say on doors … is what they firmly believe is their strategy to win.”
Simpson is focusing on her original strategy of being authentic, a good listener and creating policy based on neighborhood needs. She wants to make City Hall more accessible by creating one or two mayoral satellite offices and spending at least 50 percent of her administration’s time in the field if elected mayor.
Simpson is also relying on her personality.
On the campaign trail, she went beyond just asking for votes. She fetched toys in the street for kids, gave hugs to elderly voters and stood on porches for long stretches.
“She has this image of being very likeable and someone you can grab a drink with, someone you can hang out with on a Saturday,” Tighe said. “But she needs to ramp up her messaging that she is also someone who can get a lot of things done.”
Cranley has been attacking her lack of experience and saying voters can’t be sure what to expect if Simpson is elected because she changes her mind and doesn’t take clear positions.
Simpson points out that she has almost the exact experience Cranley did when he was elected mayor in 2013. But she may need to do a better job of emphasizing that to voters.
“I do think she needs to focus more on her resume. She been to every major school in the region – she graduated from Miami University, got her law degree from UC, and her MBA from Xavier,” Tighe said. “It’s pretty commendable. She’s not only a councilwoman but she’s also a lawyer, and a pretty successful one.”
The ground game is crucial to Simpson because she doesn’t have Cranley’s money to spend on television ads. He raised $1.3 million in the primary and is expected to raise another $1 million for the general election.
“She’ll have some money for TV, but not as much as John,” Burke said. “A ground game with all volunteers is free, so you can impact people without spending money. That can be a very real benefit.”