Municipal elections are interesting political laboratories. Since they are non-partisan, party operatives may act as advisors but typically are not involved at the same level as in partisan campaigns. Municipal elections are also smaller scale so basic campaign phenomena can be observed in a more controlled fashion. County races last week were textbook.
If Republicans have influenced local campaigns in any way, their primary influence is noting that campaigns are as much science as art. The old days of two Democrats putting up a few signs and talking to key influential voters is over and isn’t enough anyway.
Signs don’t vote. They are secondary indicators of a campaign and indicate trends of voter interest depending on how they are placed.
Influential leaders in a community are necessary campaign stops. But as races get larger and more diverse with both Democrats and Republican candidates, their influence is overrated. This is all based on political science research regarding marketing and endorsements. Look no farther than local races on how campaigns are evolving.
Owen Thomas upset longtime Lumberton Councilman Eric Hackney. Hackney has served his precinct well. The city has benefited from his experience. But Owen ran a textbook race demonstrating campaigns have changed.
Understand, are all about relationships and image. Experience matters. Platforms matter. Ideas matter. But candidates who won across the county were the ones who built an image then developed the most relationships with voters. That is textbook campaigning.
Incumbents always have the edge, but in smaller races that edge is much narrower. Incumbents sometimes have a shelf life if they do not stay fresh in voters’ minds.
There’s also this adage that the campaign that goes negative first is losing. Back to the Lumberton municipal election, negative campaign issues emerged in two City Council races. In John Cantey’s race, a challenge to his opponent’s eligibility to run was lost but Cantey inevitably prevailed. Cantey capitalized on his advantage as the experienced incumbent.
Hackney was unable to capitalize on incumbency, however. Thomas worked very hard and any negative attacks had no effect. Defining your opponent is more difficult in a municipal race where voters know the candidates personally outside the confines of campaign information. It seems Thomas’ campaign was based on old-fashioned shoe leather campaigning.
The Fairmont mayor’s race was less controversial. Both candidates agreed to an all-positive campaign. Unlike Lumberton races, the Fairmont race wasn’t about influencing voters at all. It was simply a matter of which candidate ended up mobilizing his supporters best.
Countywide, any candidate who worked hard to influence voters, identified supporters then focused mobilization efforts won. Any candidate that put out some signs without a focused team and plan lost.
Any deviation from that three-step approach of influence, identification and mobilization is an unfocused campaign. And quite frankly, you will run your elected office the way you run your campaign.
There were also some write-in campaigns. These campaigns almost never work, though the Red Springs write-in challenge actually did better than expected. Unless you’re in a small town like Orrum where three voters are going to decide the race, it’s better to just pay the fee and have your name on the ballot. Then you’ve got St. Pauls, where Donna Patterson seems to have won a council seat by one vote, demonstrating every vote does count — especially in municipal elections.
The sheriff’s race will drive the next Democratic primary. The path to victory may be narrow. Underdogs have their best shot in a full field of candidates.
Republicans will decide between Congressman Robert Pittenger and challenger Mark Harris as the driver for the Republican primary. Harris won Robeson last cycle and Pittenger has focused on securing aid for Robeson after Hurricane Matthew. The race may be tight as this round there will only be two GOP candidates.
When municipal elections end, the next cycle begins.
Phillip Stephens is chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party.