Final weeks: Inside the mayoral strategies

Outsiders say McGinn, Murray have to get sharper. Is the mayor turning Seattle-nice?
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Mayoral candidates Mike McGinn and Ed Murray debate during the League of Women Voters/ Allied Arts Forum at the Cornish Playhouse on Sept. 30, 2013.

Outsiders say McGinn, Murray have to get sharper. Is the mayor turning Seattle-nice?

With three weeks until Election Day, Mayor Mike McGinn continues to trail challenger Ed Murray in terms of poll numbers and campaign contributions, while a sizable portion of the city electorate remains undecided about which of the two candidates should be the next mayor. As the race nears its end, both campaigns plan to dump thousands of dollars into television commercials and to make tens of thousands of phone calls in a final push to woo voters and shore up support.

Both campaigns also suspect that that the race is closer than the most recent lopsided poll numbers suggest. And local political operatives who worked on past, unsuccessful, mayoral bids said there's a chance that voters who are currently undecided could blindside either of this year's candidates late in the race. They also suggested that if McGinn wants to catch Murray, he should tweak his debating style and possibly his message.

In a new KING 5 poll released on Monday, 52 percent of voters said they would vote for Murray, 32 percent said they would vote for McGinn and 15 percent said they are undecided. John Wyble, a consultant who works for McGinn's campaign, estimated that the mayor was between 5 and 7 points behind, while one of Murray's consultants, Sandeep Kaushik, said his candidate has a solid lead, but that he doesn’t “doubt the race is a bit closer than 20 points.”

Both consultants said that so-called “robo-polls” that use auto-dialing and voice recordings, like the one released on Monday, are commonly skewed. Kaushik said they tend to overlook some of McGinn’s supporters and Wyble said they rely too heavily on landlines to be accurate in Seattle. In the most recent poll, 92 percent of the respondents were surveyed on landlines. KING 5 Television had SurveyUSA, a New York-based company, conduct the poll, asking 557 eligible respondents multiple choice questions about their voting preferences. The poll had a +/- 4.2 percent margin of error.

While the polling margins are uncertain, there is no question that McGinn is behind. In the coming weeks, his campaign is planning to dial-up thousands of voters to ask for support. “We believe in phones,” Wyble said. “We did 150,000 phone calls in the primary.” The campaign, he said, will also purchase online banner ads and television commercials. McGinn’s first TV spot aired last week. The minimalist ad features a softly lit close-up of McGinn against a black background, as he talks about his record as mayor. Near the end of the ad he says: “When our grandchildren ask us what we did on climate change, inequality and education, I want to say we did everything possible.” Wyble says the campaign will spend at least $80,000 on television commercials. 

“We will do more than that,” said Kaushik, referring to the $80,000 figure but declining to specify a dollar amount. Murray’s first commercial will air later this week. In that spot, a voiceover asks who supports Murray and then an array of his endorsers — including former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, four city council members, police officers and firefighters — reply with a resounding “we do.” The commercial ends with photos of same-sex couple wedding ceremonies as the voiceover mentions Murray’s work on the state’s marriage equality act, which passed last year. In addition to television buys, Kaushik said the campaign will send out direct mail and make “as many as 100,000 phone calls,” before Election Day. (Both commercials are posted at the end of the article.)

“The contribution limits for these races are very low and that means you really have to have a strong ground game and put together a focused volunteer effort,” Kaushik said.

Even with the $700 contribution limit, Murray has managed to sock away plenty of campaign cash compared to McGinn. As of Oct. 7, Seattle Ethics and Election Commission filings showed that the Murray camp had deposited $607,576 in the bank, while McGinn’s campaign had dropped $379,997 in donor funds into their account. Based on those figures, this year's mayoral contest is about $29,800 away from becoming the most expensive since at least 1989 — the oldest year for which electronic campaign contribution records are available. The amount of money donated to candidates so far in the 2013 race — including primary contenders — is $1,924,125. To date, the Seattle mayor's race with the most contributions was in 2009, when donors ponied-up $1,953,921.

“In a mayor’s race money isn’t always the ultimate way to tell who’s going to win and who’s going to lose,” said John Arthur Wilson, a public affairs consultant, who worked as an advisor for Mark Sidran during his unsuccessful 2001 bid for mayor against Greg Nickels. “Especially in a race that’s going to tighten.” In the 2001 race, Sidran lost to Nickels by 3,158 votes, even though he raised $730,931 in campaign contributions — $188,962 more than Nickels’ $541,969. Sidran's superior fundraising, Wilson said, was trumped by Nickels' well-organized network of organized labor and environmentalist supporters, who helped seal his win.

“One of the things I thought everyone underestimated last time,” said Charla Neuman, who worked as a campaign consultant for Joe Mallahan, McGinn’s 2009 opponent, “was the percentage of undecided voters, they always looked for who was ahead and it almost became irrelevant.”

As for the characteristics of those undecided voters this time around, Wyble, McGinn’s adviser, said they are not concentrated in one part of the city, but that they do tend to be under 50 years old. “There clearly is a divide we’re seeing on the phones between people who are younger and want to see more emphasis on transit, more emphasis on education and on affordable housing.” he said “And people who want to drive downtown and park and go to Nordstrom's.”

According to Kaushik, that Seattleites who remain unsupportive of either candidate have traits that are typical of undecided voters. They are mostly “people who pay less attention to the day-to-day back-and-forth of politics, they tend to be lower frequency voters,” he said, adding that geographically “they’re all over the map.”

If McGinn wants to win, Neuman and Wilson both think that he’ll need to be less timid on the campaign trail. “You have to stop being Seattle-nice and go for the throat,” Neuman said. “Being the smartest guy in the debate is not what wins a campaign.”

Wilson said McGinn should be selling himself harder as someone who will fight for common people, and as a result sometimes rubs others the wrong way. “Instead he kind of milquetoasts it,” he said. Knocking a line McGinn used twice during last week's King 5 debate, he added, “'I’ve been to 153 town meetings’ — big whooping deal.”

“Cruise control,” is what Wilson thinks is the biggest risk for Murray. “On one hand you don’t want to make some giant flub,” he said, adding later that, “Ed tends to be too cautious, I don’t want you to light your hair on fire, I don’t want you to start swearing at the mayor, but for God’s sake close the deal.”

“The trouble is, with 20 percent still undecided you still have a healthy chunk of the electorate that’s grazing,” Wilson said. “They haven’t settled on Murray or McGinn.”


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