Campaigns matter. More specifically, competent professional campaigns matter.
The runoff election for Denver mayor put an exclamation point on that adage. The shortcomings of the Jamie Giellis campaign and her many unforced errors earned plenty of attention from mainstream and social media alike.
But in hindsight, the quietly effective campaign for Michael Hancock made several brilliant decisions to see him across the finish line.
On May 7, Hancock’s team faced a humbling reality. Hoping to avoid a runoff entirely by earning more than half the vote, Hancock fell far short. Instead, a paltry 38.65% voted to return Hancock for a third term. In raw numbers, only 69,000 out of 179,000 ballots cast had Hancock at the top.
Those numbers could have created panic for his campaign. Instead, they appeared to buckle down and implement an incredibly effective strategy.
Unlike the May election, June’s runoff only had two candidates. As Fezzik succinctly articulated to Wesley in The Princess Bride, “you use different moves when you’re fighting half a dozen people than when you only have to be worried about one.”
No longer contending with multiple adversaries attacking him from a myriad of power bases and positions, the Hancock team gleaned lessons from the May election. First and foremost, Hancock support had a low ceiling.
Despite being the face of a thriving city with near universal name ID among Denver voters, more than 60 percent of people chose someone else. Any good campaign operative understands that combination can be deadly. People know your candidate, have formed an opinion and chose to go in another direction. Simply casting a positive image of Hancock wouldn’t sway opinions already set in those voters’ minds.
In response, Hancock’s team switched tactics due to the rocky political terrain — something Fezzik’s friend Inigo would have appreciated.
Where the May election necessarily focused on turning out as many Hancock votes as possible, the June election became a battle to deny Giellis the votes she needed to overtake Hancock.
In retrospect, the math is evident. Hancock exited the May election with a 25,000-vote lead on Giellis. More than 65,000 people voted for neither.
Giellis’ campaign interpreted those 65,000 people as anybody-but-Hancock voters who would naturally support her, not entirely unreasonable especially after she received the endorsements of the third and fourth place finishers who garnered almost 60,000 votes in May.
In contrast, the Hancock team saw something different. If the full 65,000 voted, Giellis needed to win them at close to a 70% clip. But if turnout among those voters fell, Giellis would need to win ever increasing percentages.
For example, if only 30,000 voted, Giellis had to eclipse a 90% mark to make up the 25,000-vote difference plus any added Hancock votes.
To me, that explains why the Hancock campaign turned the race into a brutal, ugly mud-wrestling match. With only one target, they unloaded opposition research, personal attacks and hard-hitting television commercials.
Not only did they have the chance negatively to define Giellis, a relative unknown as a candidate, but as importantly, the Hancock campaign dictated a race dynamic so ugly and so nasty that voters would simply choose to stay home.
Naïve leadership at the Giellis campaign not only failed to recognize the evolving environment but played right into it. She needed to be solely focused on introducing herself as a positive change for Denver, but instead spent a month relentlessly trying to trade attacks with Hancock, blow-for-blow.
She fell for the political equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy and helped pave the way for her own loss.
In the end, almost 17,000 fewer people voted in the runoff and Hancock walked away with resounding 56-44 victory.
I’m sure Hancock and his team would deny this strategy; no elected official would ever admit to purposefully trying to suppress voter turnout.
But they might do so with a knowing smile just as they turned around to walk right back into the mayor’s office.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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