CINCINNATI -- Mayor John Cranley and Councilwoman Yvette Simpson have a long summer of church festivals and door-knock campaigning ahead of them.
Simpson’s upset win in Tuesday’s primary proves neither candidate can count on loads of campaign cash and round-the-clock TV ads to win the Cincinnati mayor’s seat in the November general election.
Cranley’s campaign spent roughly $800,000 running TV and radio ads for weeks before the primary. Simpson relied more on social media and face time with voters, didn't run a single TV ad and spent just over $100,000 on all campaign expenses by mid-April, finance reports show.
Dropping loads of donor money on TV ads didn’t work out well for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton last fall. And experts say it won't work for Cranley, either.
“The same old playbook is not going to work for John Cranley,” said Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou. “I think Hillary (Clinton) learned those same lessons.”
Simpson’s strong ground game drove her supporters to the polls Tuesday, despite an 11 percent voter turnout for the race.
She crisscrossed the city Tuesday – posing for photos in Bond Hill and thanking voters at polls in Avondale. In the days leading up to the primary, the campaign dispatched volunteers into targeted neighborhoods to remind people to vote.
To keep up, Cranley might now need to shift his focus on a better ground game and selling a clear message to voters in the final six months of the race, said Xavier University Political Science Chair Mack Mariani.
Cranley’s television ads, for example, were focused less on his plans for the city and more on showing his softer, personal side – such as couch time with his wife, for example – or attacking Simpson’s record on the streetcar.
“I’d get myself out in the community,” Mariani said of Cranley’s campaign strategy going forward. “What is your vision and how are you going to articulate that for the next coupe months?”
While turnout is expected to be higher in November’s general election than the primary, voters are unlikely to show up in droves because it isn’t a presidential or statewide election year.
While Cincinnati City Council races and three countywide levies will be on the ballot, the mayor’s election will be the top race on the ticket, so Cranley and Simpson will need to work that much harder.
"City races are always a challenge. They are a challenge everywhere," said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. "It's hard to get people to focus in on city politics even though it affects their lives every day."
After Clinton’s failed campaign, Democrats across the country are leaning less on TV ads and, instead, focusing on other ways to increase turnout such as text messages or YouTube ads, said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper.
Pepper says TV ad blitzes are still important for campaigns but they need to be supported with a strong canvassing network.
“The lower the turnout, the more important those grassroots and ground game aspects of the race are,” said Pepper, who ran for Cincinnati mayor in 2001; he won the primary but lost the general election. ”If you have a good field operation, you’re identifying thousands of your voters, you’re calling them, you’re knocking on the doors.”
Simpson’s large win Tuesday – she picked up 45 percent of the primary vote while Cranley only garnered 35 percent – also threatens the mayor’s huge fundraising lead.
Now that donors see Simpson as a serious candidate, they’ll be more likely to put money on her campaign.
“That’s going to narrow,” Xavier University Political Science Chair Mack Mariani said of Simpson’s campaign money gap. “He’s still going to spend more. (But) she should have enough money in the bank to run a more conventional campaign.”
Regardless, both sides have a lot of work ahead of them if they want to win. As supporters rallied around Simpson Tuesday at her watch party, she reminded them that Cranley still enjoys many advantages in this race.
“We are still out-raised, out-endorsed,” Simpson said. “So anybody who cares about this race, let’s be clear: He’s an incumbent who has won races before. He’s not going to go easy.”