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Charlotte mayoral candidates urge voters to cast ballots

After all the debates, TV ads and mass appeals, it has come to this: Charlotte’s mayoral candidates cajoling voters one at a time to cast their ballot.

That’s what brought Republican Edwin Peacock to Jessica Henrikson’s door in Madison Park on a drizzly morning Friday.

Printouts on his clipboard showed the 32-year-old school administrator is a reliable Republican voter who had yet to cast a ballot. Could he count on her? he asked.

“You’re gonna get our vote,” she told him.

With Tuesday’s election around the corner, Peacock and his Democratic opponent, Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, have turned to their ground games.

“It’s one of those rain, sleet, snow, shower things,” Cannon said after knocking on doors in Plaza-Midwood Friday, as the clouds began to clear. “It could have been steadily pouring, and I’d still be out here.”

Each candidate is trying to win the city’s first open-seat mayoral election in four years, and only the second since 1995.

They’ve argued over taxes and spending, the Panthers and the streetcar. But they know at this point, the election is less about issues and more about numbers – and getting their supporters to the polls.

So with the help of their state parties, they and small armies of campaign workers have knocked on doors and called people they’ve identified through a matrix of data as probable voters likely to support them.

They’ll continue right on through Election Day, even offering rides for those who need one. Dozens of drivers are on stand-by. Hundreds of volunteers for each campaign will be working at the polls.

Cannon starts with a built-in advantage.

Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 in Charlotte. Two years ago, they not only re-elected Mayor Anthony Foxx but swept the city council’s four at-large seats, ousting Peacock. Last year, Democratic President Barack Obama carried Mecklenburg County by 100,000 votes.

“In my opinion this is a base-Democrat versus a base-Republican vote, with a small piece of pie of unaffiliated,” says Democratic strategist Dan McCorkle.

Adds Republican consultant Larry Shaheen: “All Patrick has to do is turn out his base.”

“The battle … is whether or not Patrick can turn out his Democratic base in greater numbers than Edwin can turn out moderates and unaffiliated and the Republican Party can turn out Republicans.”

The early vote

Even optimists don’t expect voter turnout to climb much higher than 20 percent, if that.

In 2009, when Foxx won his first term over Republican John Lassiter, 21 percent of registered voters went to the polls. Two years later, just 16 percent did. This year, a 20 percent turnout would mean just over 103,000 voters.

Both campaigns have emphasized early voting.

Through Thursday, turnout at the 15 early voting sites was running slightly ahead of 2009 levels, though some experts say that may not signal a higher overall turnout. Democrats who hold the edge in registration had it in early voting as well. Just over 9,000 Democrats had voted compared to less than 3,800 Republicans and around 2,900 unaffiliated voters.

Since North Carolina started early voting a decade ago, Democrats have outperformed Republicans. That has been true in state races and in Charlotte’s last two city races.

While Democrats won the early vote in state races – including the last two presidential elections – Republicans won the Election Day vote. However that hasn’t been the case in Charlotte, where Foxx won both the early vote and Election Day vote.

Peacock hopes he can reverse the trend.

He pointed to the printouts on his clipboard, which include a Google map showing the houses of likely Peacock voters.

“That’s where this data becomes gold,” he says. “Because we continue to pursue those who indicated they were with us and haven’t voted. That’s how we shorten the gap.”

Targeting voters

The key for both campaigns, especially in a low-turnout election, is identifying their most likely voters and making sure they get to the polls.

For that they collect data from the elections board. They’ve also gotten help from their state parties and people such as Ernie Thurston, a one-time Harvard physics major who makes a living crunching numbers for political campaigns.

From his home in Asheville, Thurston helps candidates like Cannon identify likely supporters. Cannon’s campaign has paid his company nearly $32,000 this year for direct mail.

“Targeting is important,” Thurston says. “It is basically the people whose past voting history shows that they are reasonably likely to vote this time.”

His “A+” list is made up of people who voted in the primary. Of those, he says, 87 percent are likely to vote in the general election. “A” voters are those who voted in the last two city elections and the last presidential contest; 82 percent of them can be expected to vote.

The state parties are helping the Charlotte candidates identify supporters.

Both parties micro-target their voters with sophisticated databases that include not only detailed voting history but personal information gleaned from public records and consumer data banks.

Republicans use the data to classify would-be supporters as high-, mid- or low-propensity voters. So do Democrats.

“We certainly have that kind of sophisticated software that we’re employing in Cannon’s race,” says state Democratic Party spokesman Micah Beasley. “The name of the game is turning out folks likely to vote.”

As Brad Overcash, Mecklenburg County’s GOP chairman, puts it: “You want to target people you know are highly likely to vote and be supportive.”

Cannon campaigned in Plaza-Midwood along with an aide who carried his own clipboard of targeted homes. But Cannon veered from the list, stopping in a barbershop and greeting random passers-by like Barbara Barnes, who was walking her dog just off Thomas Avenue.

“I’m Patrick Cannon,” the candidate said. “I’m vying for mayor of Charlotte.”

“Oh for goodness sake,” replied Barnes, who plans to vote. “I’ve seen your ads. I’m impressed.”

GOP pushes ground game

Democrats use get-out-the-vote strategies honed in Obama’s 2008 campaign. Laying the groundwork for the 2012 campaign, Obama campaign workers helped Charlotte Democrats again in 2011. That year, Foxx’s campaign made over 200,000 phone calls. That was 10 times the number made by his Republican opponent, Scott Stone.

This year Republicans have mounted a bigger push, making more than 120,000 voter contacts, Overcash says.

Along with helping Peacock, they’re looking ahead to next year’s U.S. Senate campaign. GOP canvassers – including Peacock himself – don’t just urge people to vote in the mayor’s race, they ask for opinions about Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.

This weekend the GOP expected at least 30 volunteers working on Peacock’s behalf. Many gathered at party headquarters at 9 a.m. Saturday before scattering to neighborhoods around the city.

Later, at least 20 Young Democrats from across the state were expected to converge in west Charlotte to work for Cannon. State YD President Sam Spencer of Davidson says the group is also buying online ads encouraging young people to vote.

Both sides don’t plan to stop until their supporters vote, even offering rides on Election Day.

“We don’t put a lot of stock in voter demographic statistics until people actually go cast their vote,” says Cannon spokeswoman Colleen Brannan. “It’s our job to get them to the polls.”

Candidates tout personal touch

Walking in Plaza-Midwood, Cannon approached Republicans as well as unaffiliated voters like Stephanie Agniel.

“I just want to ask for your support,” he said.

“You’ve got it,” she replied.

Both candidates say they get a boost from the personal campaigning.

“It’s easy to see what it means by … the responses that people (give),” Cannon said. “That’s true whether they support us or not.”

Peacock marched around Madison Park on Friday morning, clipboard in hand and the determined enthusiasm of the Fuller Brush salesman he used to be at age 14.

“If we’re going to pull it off, I’m going to point more to this kind of activity than to any debate performance,” he said.

Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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