On Sept. 24, less than two weeks before Charlotte’s Democratic runoff, members of Mayor Dan Clodfelter’s campaign team knew he was behind when they dialed into a conference call with their pollster.
The subject: Going negative.
Until then, Clodfelter’s campaign against Jennifer Roberts had been positive. Both had stuck to their message. But in the works were two mailers designed to contrast the candidates. Both criticized Roberts’ record as chairwoman of the county commissioners.
But not everyone was on board with a move that would change the tone of an otherwise civil campaign. So the call went out to pollster David Beattie, president of Florida-based Hamilton Campaigns.
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Do we want to win or be nice?
Clodfelter adviser Cyndee Patterson in a campaign email
The campaign needs to show voters why she’s the wrong choice, Beattie said, according to notes from the call. He’d read hundreds of academic studies, he added. Negative ads worked. “There is a higher recall for negative information,” he said. “There is not a polite way to criticize her record.”
Some Clodfelter advisers agreed. “Do we want to win or be nice?” Cyndee Patterson, a former City Council member, wrote in an email.
It’s a question that hundreds of campaigns will ask as they head into a crowded election year when some will see drawing distinctions as the difference between winning and losing.
Clodfelter’s mailers dealt with Roberts’ record on education – as a county commissioner she voted on the school budget – and on Mecklenburg County’s flawed, 2011 revaluation. Beattie predicted the reval piece would be the most effective.
I don’t think it moved the needle one bit.
Clodfelter strategist Dan McCorkle
By North Carolina standards, the ads were hardly vicious. But they changed the tone of the campaign. Worse, they didn’t appear to have the desired effect.
“I don’t think it moved the needle one bit,” says Dan McCorkle, chief strategist for the mayor’s campaign. “It almost certainly didn’t pick up any votes for Clodfelter.”
The veteran Democratic strategist says he was one of the few voices against the mailers.
“You normally take weeks or even months to build a negative on a candidate,” he emailed the campaign the day of the conference call. “This looks like a last-minute ‘Hail Mary’ because we don’t have a clear vision. I think it’s a turnout buster. …
“We have still not given enough of a compelling, positive reason to vote for Clodfelter in a low turnout runoff,” he went on. “To (a loyal) Democratic voter it’s like okay, Jennifer is bad. But do I care enough to vote for Clodfelter?”
McCorkle says the pollster may know campaigns, but he didn’t know Charlotte. “We shouldn’t have to rely on a pollster in Florida to tell us what people in Charlotte need to know,” he says. The mailers, he adds, were out of character for Clodfelter.
Beattie declined to talk about the campaign, citing confidentiality. Clodfelter could not be reached. Patterson defended the decision.
“There is plenty of data … that says that this works,” she says. “For the very few people who think it hurts their feelings, I’m so sorry. But the campaign consultants Dan hired said this works.”
Clodfelter lost this month’s runoff. McCorkle thinks he knows one reason. “We let the campaign get led by outside consultants,” he says.