Every political campaign, whether local, state or national, is a battle of competing narratives. The role of the media in general – this includes editorial, advertising and in the case of hyperlocal news/social sites conversation – is to serve as vehicles for the competing narratives. Candidates attach themselves to these narratives and voters choose.
The conversation on Paulding.com, a hyperlocal media site, was decisive in the local primary election in July 15th with the site being credited as being a key influence in the landslide victories of three candidates that rejected incumbents, including a well-funded two-term incumbent commission chairman who ran the most expensive campaign in county history.
Consultant’s conventional wisdom challenged
Two weeks ago I wrote here about the role of political consultants in local races. In that piece I mentioned how the incumbent county commission chairman was using a well-funded negative campaign in an attempt to win his third term. That campaign sought to define his relatively unknown opponent as a mega-developer who sought election primarily to grease the wheels for his private real estate ventures.
I mentioned how those allegations were largely an exaggeration of the consultant but that historically, with no other media around to care, much less correct such communications, such tactics were highly effective. The question was whether the presence of an active hyperlocal news/social site where conversation about the mailers was a topic of discussion could counter and neutralize this proven strategy.
I’m happy to report the direct mail negative campaign formula for victory was handed a notable defeat in Paulding County, Georgia. With that defeat is the understanding that a hyperlocal web site with reach in the 30-40 percent range is a more powerful tool in defining the narrative in a local market than targeted ‘negative’ direct mail.
So how did the challenger accomplish this task and, in the end, overcome a relatively solid record of accomplishment on the part of the incumbent?
First, the incumbent’s record of progress is one that in most places would make his effort at re-election almost assured. Indeed, earlier this spring the conventional wisdom was that the Chairman would easily win re-election.
On its face, his campaign narrative was solid. Essentially it said, “Look at my accomplishments, what we’re doing right now, I’m running for the right reasons; my opponent, a mega developer, is running for the wrong reasons (self-interest).” For a litany of his accomplishments, here is a video of the Chairman at an early March Chamber meeting presenting his State of the County address.
So what happened?
It is important to know that Paulding.com was helpful in the 2004 re-election of the now defeated chairman. He had used the site to create a narrative that characterized his opponent in that election cycle as one motivated by revenge against his ex-wife, a high-level county employee.
The chairman was accepted on the site and, with 1376 posts, was an active participant on the site from September 2003 through roughly July 2006. The self-proclaimed “Chair dude” ceased posting in 2006 because of unrelenting challenges by several folks who felt they were stuck personally with the bill for political favors he, as chairman, had performed for his benefactors.
With the Chairman now absent from the site, the posts of these individuals and others were less focused on him. Instead, their cynical commentary reinforced the well-established (in the south) narrative which paints a picture of mega developers gaining advantage by mega-marketing through their bought and paid-for good-old boy public servants. The group of gored constituents was so successful in establishing this narrative that the chairman’s consultant sought to use his superior resources to cast the challenger as the ‘real’ Boss Hogg representative of the ‘robber-baron mega-developers.’
And that was not a faint hope. The challenger, who holds a real estate license, is the older brother of mayor of the county seat. His family owns a 400-acre parcel that was zoned for over 900 homes in 2006 and had developed a subdivision in 1987. In short, he was vulnerable to the charge of being a mega-developer.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that the challenger advertised on Paulding.com (the incumbent did not). The incumbent also reached out to the group of gored constituents, two of which were personal friends and one, a long-time volunteer on Paulding.com. Indeed, the chairman’s decision to not advertise on the site as well as allegedly block it from the county’s administrative computers, was also taken as a personal challenge.
Paulding.com decisive in closing days
The belief is that this race remained competitive until the final two weeks. Two events changed that.
First, an email memo from the county’s administrator suggesting a tax increase was in the offing and the county was seeking a waiver from a state law to postpone that announcement until after the primary election was leaked. Posters on the site suggested the chairman was being disingenuous by hiding a tax increase and Paulding.com’s local news video program included comments from upset residents on that topic.
At the next commission meeting one of the interviewed citizens confronted the Chairman about the video in public session and was told that he was being played for a fool.
The video showing that exchange came across as him abusing a citizen who had the audacity to asked him about the leaked email memo. A member on the site created a YouTube video of that exchange that was viewed 1,300 times (mostly in topics criticizing the on the pcom). That video caught the eye of the head of a state ethics organization who was so outraged, he presented a litany of allegations against the Chairman the Friday before the election. Those orchestrating that presentation sought but failed to get Atlanta TV coverage but the coverage in the Paulding.com’s weekly newscast was viewed some 1,200 times before election day. Here is that news video.
The result was the decisive 70-30 landslide with the challenger defeating the incumbent.
Site had impact in other ballot contests
However that wasn’t the only landslide. A poll started on July 1 on the site was predictive in all cases including the other “landslide” races. (Pcom’s poll predicted a 77-23 outcome in the chairman’s race which was decided 69-31.) The only outcome not predicted was the six-man sheriff’s race that polling on the site suggested would be forced into a runoff. (Our poll still had the eventual winner, who avoided a runoff with 50.38 percent of the vote, polling strongest with 44 percent.)
Only one incumbent won the night; that being the coroner of 16 years who won with 65 percent of the vote. (Pcom’s poll predicted his victory with 59 percent). The two other incumbents, both schoolboard members, lost. In the one race where there was little buzz and the Pcom community predicted that winner with 52.4 percent of the vote compared to an actual 51.9 percent margin of victory. In the other, the incumbent was active on the site under an anonymous user ID (supporting the status quo including a somewhat unpopular defense of the commission chairman.) The challenger, who was public with a political membership, was simply more active, more well liked and while she held a 4:1 lead in the Pcom poll she ultimately won with only 61 percent of the vote.
Bottom line is that political contests are contests between competing narratives. In a pluralistic society – whether local, state or national – no person, politician, consultant or publisher controls the narrative. However, this case demonstrates that the community that surrounds a news/social site like Paulding.com can have greater influence on that narrative than hitherto acknowledged.
That the “campaign chest” used to create Paulding.com over the course of the past five years was smaller than the campaign chest of the incumbent chairman in this election cycle is one of those things I’m still pondering.