The sitting mayor also performed better than expected in African-American neighborhoods such as Bond Hill and Roselawn, where Councilwoman Yvette Simpson had hoped for a wider margin of success to support her bid for mayor.
And in Cincinnati’s central neighborhoods, where Simpson’s team had hoped to rack up big wins, voters simply didn’t show up enough to help boost her to narrow the gaps.
Perhaps the most unexpected success for Cranley was his popularity with white liberal voters.
“He clearly won white liberals," said Jared Kamrass, a principal at Rivertown Strategies, who consulted for Cranley’s campaign. "That’s who decided this election.”
Kamrass points to a precinct in progressive Clifton, where Simpson won in the May primary, that Cranley was able to battle to a tie in Tuesday’s general election. He cut her margins in neighborhoods favorable to Simpson, and made real headway in swing neighborhoods.
“Forget about neighborhood by neighborhood … it required him to look at this voter by voter,” University of Cincinnati Political Science professor David Niven said of Cranley’s strategy. “And you know he was ‘The Little Engine That Could’ campaign: He kept going and going and going.”
Cranley suffered a humiliating 11-point loss to Simpson in the May Democratic primary. He was the second-place vote getter and Democrat Rob Richardson came in third and was forced out of the race.
In the aftermath, Cranley reorganized his campaign staff and decided to pour all of his energy into a ground game -- a strategy he had never really embraced in his mayoral campaigns before.
For six months, his campaign team walked neighborhoods from Mount Washington to College Hill, knocking on more than 100,000 doors.
Experts credit that ground game with Cranley’s win. Meanwhile, in the final days before the election, Simpson’s campaign knocked doors but also relied heavily on a phone banking effort to reach voters.
Political insiders say Cranley's strategy paid off.
Energizing Hyde Park, Mount Lookout voters
Cranley over-performed in his core areas of support among conservative Democrats, such as his home neighborhood of Hyde Park, and nearby Mount Lookout, where he spent a lot of time attending house parties and knocking on doors. That work paid off.
Cranley won as much as 75 percent of the vote in some precincts in Oakley and Hyde Park, where he outright lost in the primary, Kamrass said.
“These are precincts where she was getting a close second or plurality in the primary, and now she’s only getting 20 percent of the vote,” Kamrass said. “That makes a big difference.”
Cranley also performed strongly in his core neighborhoods -- Price Hill, where he grew up, and nearby Sayler Park and Riverside, as well as Hyde Park, Mount Lookout and Mount Washington.
“Turnout was high and his margins were high,” Kamrass said. Hundreds of people cast ballots at polls in those locations.
In some Mount Lookout and Hyde Park polls, turnout reached as high as 46 percent, and Cranley earned 80 percent of the vote or more in those spots.
Not a landslide for Simpson in Bond Hill/Avondale
The Cranley campaign hoped for 20 to 25 percent of the vote in traditionally African-American neighborhoods such as Bond Hill, Roselawn and Avondale, but in some precincts he won as much as 30 percent.
Ward 7, in Bond Hill and Roselawn, was a top priority for the Simpson campaign.
“As soon as we started campaigning, Ward 7 was our top ward,” Simpson’s campaign manager Amanda Ford told WCPO in a September interview. “It was our top priority for phone calls, our first phone bank for the primary was here, and Ward 7 has always been a priority for canvassing.”
Looking back to the 2005 race for mayor between David Pepper and Mark Mallory, it’s easy to see why Ward 7 is so important.
“In 2005, David Pepper was winning all night long until the Ward 7 votes came in, and they came in last,” said Xavier University political science professor Sean Comer in a September interview. “That’s what flipped the election -- 4,000 votes for Mark Mallory and 500 for David Pepper.”
These are places where Mallory was able to win as much as 90 percent of the vote. And Simpson was not able to replicate that performance, Kamrass said.
And turnout was low in those areas, making Simpson’s wins there unimpressive.
Simpson should have found a hotbed of support in Avondale, where she fought an expansion of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center -- arguing it was a bad deal for the neighbors who live there.
Yet, turnout in some of Avondale’s polling locations only reached 15 percent. Only 200 people cast a vote in Urban League of Greater Cincinnati’s Avondale location.
Cranley was able to pick up share among swing voters, people who didn’t vote in the primary, and Richardson supporters who were seeking a new mayoral candidate.
“There were precincts that were tied in the primary that tonight he won 3-1,” Niven said. “So those [Rob] Richardson votes, he found a way to get them. Those folks who didn't vote, he found a way to get them."
And Simpson, he said, had trouble growing her voting bloc. In Pleasant Ridge, for example, Cranley and Simpson were locked in a dead heat -- only separated by a few votes in many polling locations.
Among these swing voters, Cranley’s message that the city is headed in the right direction with him at the helm may have hit home.
“The underlying fundamental struggle Yvette Simpson had is that people perceive the city doing really well right now,” Kamrass said.
Nicole Dunki Jacobs, who was voting at the Pleasant Ridge Community Center Tuesday with her 4-year-old daughter, mostly agreed.
“I think he’s done a pretty good job,” Dunki Jacobs said. But she was drawn to vote on Election Day more because she worried how Simpson would run the city, citing her lack of experience.
Even as some voters filed in to cast their ballot for Simpson on Tuesday, they gave Cranley a tepid endorsement.
“I wish there would have been another candidate,” she added. “So, unfortunately, I’m not voting for him, but more voting against Yvette Simpson.”
Melanie Bauer and Douglas Comer of Oakley described themselves as regular voters who even vote absentee.
“I’d be fine with John Cranley,” Bauer said just before she cast her vote. “But I’d like Yvette to win just for a change of pace and some diversity in office.” Comer said: “I like John and he’s a good person but I’d like Yvette to win as well.”
There is a two-step way to beat an incumbent mayor, Kamrass said: Convince voters that change is needed, and convince them that you are the right person to make that change.
People may have believed that Simpson was a strong leader, but “people were not willing to believe a change was needed,” Kamrass said.