Incumbent politicians seeking reelection ramp up efforts to earn media attention in order to create "top of mind" awareness with voters. Campaigning directly from office is a well-established no-no, but the ability of a sitting officeholder to drench the media with a firehose of press releases, availabilities and advisories is a long-enduring perk of incumbency.
A survey of the last four Seattle mayoral races shows the trend and suggests some practical limitations to the tactic, at least in Seattle. The data also show that this year's mayoral challengers are leaving the earned-media playing field to the mayor, so far. Whether intentionally or by accident, the challengers appear stuck in "stealth mode" when it comes to making news with their visions, policies or proposals.
Using press release data for current and previous mayors from the city website, Crosscut looked at press release output in the nine months prior to reelection for mayors Mike McGinn, Greg Nickels (in 2009 and 2005), and Paul Schell (in 2001). We adjusted for some outliers in the data: September 11, 2001, for example, generated a flurry of emergent press releases unrelated to election issues, so those were factored out. We also adjusted for the fact that two election cycles ago Seattle moved its primary from September to August.
There is still some fuzziness in the data; social media, blog posts and other dissemination tools blur the lines of what constitutes a press release. Still, we compared releases that were cataloged on seattle.gov to those issues on campaign websites, or things that seemed most release-like, such as personal position statements from candidates. We excluded third-party postings such as clips about the candidates from other media. And we excluded releases from the incumbents' separate campaign websites, because that data becomes mostly unavailable once the campaign sites are dismantled post-election.
That said, some trends pop out.
First, incumbents significantly increase production of official press releases in the run up to a primary. Mayor McGinn's communications operation provides a case in point: The mayor's office has averaged more than 16 press releases per month in this pre-election period.
Second, incumbents seem to pause about a month before the primary (July or August, depending on the year) and then dramatically ramp up their press release output in the final month — the 'home stretch' — of the campaign.
There is one notable exception to the homestretch trend: the 2009 campaign of former mayor Greg Nickels. Its earned media efforts peaked four months out from the primary and decreased month after month to almost half-peak levels by the time the primary arrived. A reasonable explanation is that, knowing a primary win was unlikely, the campaign's media machine wound down. In 2005, Nickels' press release output soared into primary day. His 2009 curve traces the wind leaving the incumbent's sails.
Third, the challengers in the 2013 campaign are mostly staying off the earned media playing field, at least to date. The number of releases from the major contenders combined is onesie-twosie across the board. Either their strategy is to break out later in the campaign when voters are paying more attention, hoping to play against the incumbent, or they don’t have a strategy at all.
The incumbent advantage seems huge at first glance. A mayor can do the smallet things, issue a release, get some pickup from blogs, tweets, some "likes" on Facebook, maybe even a major media story, just because he's the mayor and his official moves are presumed to matter by default. In contrast, a challenger has to make genuine news with innovative proposals or policies in order to earn media exposure. It's harder for challengers to get noticed, but not impossible. Even offering a simple reaction to the incumbent's action can get a challenger's views incorporated into news stories in the same media cycle.
The earned-media tactic doesn't always work, however. Of the four re-election campaigns we examined, the sitting mayor won re-election only once (Nickels in 2005). So for an incumbent, a spray-the-area-with-press-releases-and-media-availabilities tactic doesn't automatically translate into votes or victory.
For challengers, the calculus is different. Campaigns can be tough, but the basic strategy is simple: people need to know who you are, need to like you, and support their gut on points one and two by finding policies or positions of yours that they agree with. At the top of the list is simply having people know your name. That's whyearned media efforts — making news — is essential for an ambitious challenger.
Without spending huge sums on the usually cheesy last-minute "voter contact" flurry (direct-mail fliers, newspaper inserts, robo-calls, radio and TV ads) an insurgent challenger could build a solid support base by making news early. That's done best by staking out clear, compelling positions on topics that voters care about and then letting voters — and the media — know about them.
Of course, the press release strategy can be risky for challengers, especially with so many in this year's race. The nail that sticks up is often the one that gets pounded down.
So far, Seattle's mayoral challengers are playing a wait-and-see game. For voters, that makes for a plodding, conventional campaign.
But there's still 85 days left until the primary.
To read all Crosscut's mayoral race stories and profiles, go to The Mayor Games page.