The Journal Gazette
Thursday, November 07, 2019 1:00 am

Elections expert says negativity backfired

Downs: Lack of consistent messages affected strategy

DAVE GONG | The Journal Gazette

If recent remarks made by some local politicians and political observers are any indication, the contentious, often dark tone of Fort Wayne's 2019 municipal election colored the way voters saw their candidates. 

Negative campaigning works in many instances, but what matters more is if it's done right, Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics said Wednesday.  

“In the primary, the benefit that came from aggressive campaigning then was that he was delivering a message that was anti-establishment, anti-incumbent,” Downs said of Republican mayoral candidate Tim Smith's campaign ads. “It's a message that would resonate with more conservative members of the party. That's why it worked there.”

Many of the Smith campaign's TV spots, social media advertisements and direct mail flyers projected an image of rampant crime, irresponsible spending and out-of-control borrowing set to ominous musical tones and color palates. Mayor Tom Henry's campaign also ran an aggressive campaign, criticizing Smith for what the incumbent mayor claimed were twisted or distorted facts and taking aim at the MedPro vice president's Fort Wayne residency. Henry won 61.21% of the vote to defeat Smith on Tuesday.

The City Council races were not immune to the aggressive tone.

Republican candidate Taylor Vanover, who was defeated for the District 5 seat by incumbent Democratic Councilman Geoff Paddock, released a mailer shortly before the election claiming Paddock was a failure and criticizing the two-term councilman for the city's violent crime rates and neighborhood infrastructure issues. Paddock won reelection to a third term with 74.3% of the votes cast.

Negative campaigning is a tactic that could have worked for Smith in the general election, Downs said, but it required consistent messaging. 

“You can't tell people in a commercial that things are terrible and turn around as a candidate and say, 'I like what's going on downtown,'” he said. “It can motivate people who are offended by that to go out and vote and it can turn off supporters, ... because they don't like the negative message that is not believable.”

A mailer the Smith campaign sent to voters late in the campaign made use of recognizable national conservative terms, labeling Henry as a “Swamp-guy,” an apparent reference to President Donald Trump's 2016 “Drain the Swamp” mantra. That move could have been viewed as an act of desperation by some Fort Wayne voters, Downs said.

“I think the reason that people don't think we're in a swamp here is a testament to elected officials going back 40 to 50 years,” he said. “It's hard to find a City Council member or mayor in the last 40 to 50 years who would make you say, 'Wow, we really screwed up with that person.'” 

Speaking to reporters Tuesday night, outgoing Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, supported Downs' assessment, stating that Smith's tone was “all wrong” and that voters didn't believe Fort Wayne is as bad as the Republican campaign made it out to be. Crawford, who lost to Smith in the May Republican primary, also said he would have lost against Henry as well because of the divisiveness earlier in the year. 

Downs said Wednesday that Crawford has a valid point, but offered an alternative view.

With Crawford at the top of the Republican ticket, Downs said, it would have been harder for Henry to take the majority of the credit for Fort Wayne's improvements in recent years. Crawford, a longtime council member, cast deciding votes in some instances and led the charge on important issues such as helping the city restructure its finances.

“I think he would have been able to take some of (Henry's) claims and make him share the credit for those things,” he said, noting that while the Republican Party would have remained divided, that tactic might have swayed some of the city's independent voters to support a change. 

There's no denying that the local Democratic Party had good luck Tuesday at the top of the ticket in the City Council races, gaining two seats for a 5-4 split between Republicans and Democrats, respectively.

Councilman Glynn Hines' 20 years of name recognition helped the ticket, as did Michelle Chambers' 2015 City Council campaign and brief stint as city clerk, Downs said. The work of Democrats in other district races, successful or not, also helped raise the profile of fellow candidates, particularly those in large races, he said. A strong candidate on the mayoral ballot didn't hurt either.

“The reality is we talk about coattails as top-down, but here we have an instance of both,” Downs said. “There were good coattails from the mayor, but also district council and at-large council candidates who ran good campaigns that helped other Democrats.”

Tuesday's election results don't change the fact that negative campaigning can work, Downs said. But they may change the parties' understanding of how and when to go on the attack. Downs added he would be surprised if in the 2020 primary, political candidates didn't reevaluate their use of negative ads. However, in a primary election where a small number of votes can sway the outcome, the negative side of campaigning is going to come back into play. 

It's going to be a “hot” year when looking at state-level elections, the governor's race or how Indiana could play in the federal campaign landscape, Downs said. 

“I think that party officials and some leaders have been a bit more conscious this time about thinking about ways to keep people engaged from 2019 to 2020. They often end up rebuilding the structure every year,” he said. “There may be a little more effort to try and keep people together.”

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