The best grassroots campaign strategy in Cincinnati begins with a few tickets for a split-the-pot raffle.
What happens next at a summer church festival depends on the political candidate. Some head straight to the Big Six or Mug Slide games to lay down a few dollars and shake hands with volunteers working at the booths. Others find their voters in the carnival area, where tired parents wait for children on rides.
“These church festivals during the summer are huge neighborhood events in the Cincinnati social scene and they have grown into major political events for the candidates,” said Tim Burke, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. “They are things that good campaigns just don’t miss.”
Summer is a busy political season for candidates, who use church festivals as a way to meet massive numbers of voters ahead of the November election.
The season begins with the St. Catharine of Siena Church Festival in mid-May in Cheviot and continues all summer long, peaking in June with as many as 10 festivals each weekend.
“It’s classic retail campaigning,” said Vice Mayor David Mann. “You get into the zone and you go all weekend, every weekend, and you go to every event you can find.”
By September, most local candidates will have visited at least 40 church festivals.
Some candidates, like Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, hit more than 10 festivals during a busy summer weekend.
“My goal is to get to every single one,” said Portune, who is seeking re-election this fall. “I try to go to all of them, but it can be physically impossible.”
Rep. Denise Driehaus, a Democrat who is running for a seat on the Hamilton County Commission this fall, always attends the first festival of the season – adult night Friday at St. Catharine’s.
This year she volunteered for three hours in the beer booth, where she guesses she met 50 to 100 people.
“We couldn’t serve the beer fast enough,” said Driehaus, who got so busy she asked a campaign volunteer to help. Other supporters wore her campaign T-shirts as they walked through the festival crowds.
“The whole idea is to show up with an army of people wearing your T-shirts to create a presence,” Burke said.
But newer candidates, such as Republican Andrew Pappas, who is trying to unseat Portune from a seat he’s held for 16 years, don’t have that luxury.
“When I go to a festival, I’m wearing the only shirt there," Pappas said. "Other candidates have a lot more shirts out there.”
Sometimes he walks around a festival with his wife for an hour or two, or calls another Republican candidate to carpool. He usually walks a figure-eight pattern, then backtracks and repeats it, ending in the ride area where parents wait for their children.
“But you don’t ever sit,” Pappas said. “I’m trying to cover most ground I can.”
Mayor John Cranley got his church festival training in 2000 from one of the best political leaders of his time: former mayor and Congressman Tom Luken.
“He would go to festivals with me," Cranley said. "At the time I was unknown and I was 26 and I looked pretty young, so it was helpful. He trained me, he taught me to find two or three people from the parish who might me willing to walk around with me for a half hour or so and make a few introductions.”
Since then, Cranley has run for office seven times and attended at least 200 church festivals.
“Whenever I meet young new politicians … I always say to them: The most effective grassroots campaign I’m aware of is the festival circuit because you can meet so many voters so fast,” Cranley said. “In one half-hour you can meet 500 people who all live in the neighborhood.”
Most important are the church volunteers working at the food, beer and game booths, Cranley said.
“They’re obviously members of the parish. These are people who are giving back to their neighborhoods, giving back to their church,” Cranley said. “You know these are people who always vote.
“And so they’re going to talk amongst themselves about who came by,” Cranley added.
Portune agreed. He remembers a lesson from his first church festival campaign in 1992.
“I was right behind a well-known candidate who had been at this one (gaming) booth … and he won $25 and pocketed the money,” Portune said. “Everywhere I went then, from booth to booth, the word had spread and everybody was badmouthing this candidate.
“It didn’t take long for a light bulb to go on in my head. If you win, give it back,” Portune said. “I’ve won split pot before and I always give it back.”
Not everyone at a church festival actually wants to meet a politician. And the candidates know this.
“I always try to make it not about me,” said Tracy Winkler, who is running for re-election as Hamilton County Clerk of Court, and estimates attending 35 to 40 church festivals this summer. “When we go, we wear T-shirts and spend lots of money.”
But some at the festival do want to talk to candidates about issues.
When Portune attended the Holy Family Church festival in East Price Hill two weeks ago, he heard plenty of complaints about the rotting sewage smell from the Metropolitan Sewer District nearby facility.
“As a candidate, you need to know what issues to talk about that might be unique to their community,” Burke said.
These festivals also give candidates a chance to meet voters they otherwise wouldn’t get to.
“I wouldn’t run into these people otherwise,” Driehaus said. “They don’t go to community council meetings. A lot of them are parents who have kids in school and they’re busy.
“If you really want to meet people and engage and interact, you almost have to meet them where they are,” she said. “And this is where they are.”