News media and political pundits are still scratching their heads over the outcome of San Diego’s mayoral runoff election on February 11. If you read the published polls, you might be scratching your head, too.
The result was no surprise here at Competitive Edge Research & Communication, and that’s not just because we conducted all the research for Mayor-Elect Kevin Faulconer on behalf of Revolvis. It’s also because people have a faulty understanding of how polls should be used.
The main objective of a campaign poll is to drive strategy, not merely to collect data. Horse race polls might be entertaining, but data means little without analysis and insight. A campaign must understand voter intentions; why opinion is the way it is. Once that’s understood, things become clearer and you are less likely to be surprised by an outcome.
From my vantage point within the Faulconer campaign, here’s what became clear to me…
First, Faulconer was a terrific candidate who appealed to voters across the spectrum. He picked up about 19% of the Democrat vote and 53% of the non-partisan and minor party vote. Some have floated the idea that the Faulconer win was merely a product of the reduced special election turnout. That analysis is fundamentally incorrect. There were 23% more voters in the runoff than in the primary. And you know what? Faulconer still would have won had turnout risen to 50%. That’s how good a candidate he was.
Second, Faulconer’s campaign team was awe-inspiring. Matt Awbrey gets it; keep your eye on him. Stephen Puetz managed the campaign and is a force of nature when it comes to elections.
Consultants Jason Roe and Duane Dichiara of Revolvis made quick, hard-headed decisions informed by Competitive Edge’s research. They made the decision to take Alvarez’s advantage – money – and turn it into his anchor. They went right after the unions on TV so that voters considered all the money labor bosses were pouring into Alvarez’s effort. San Diegans don’t want their Mayor beholden to labor (or to business, for that matter). After Faulconer endured some pummeling for his ties to big business, the counter attack showing Alvarez’s ties to big labor was more effective.
I can’t leave out the stellar effort of the independent expenditure (IE) committees that campaigned on Faulconer’s behalf. In most races the candidate’s campaign team has complaints about friendly fire. Not this time.
Third, Faulconer is not your typical Republican. Competitive Edge’s research early in the first round proved the value of minting the candidate as his own brand and the campaign made sure that came through to persuadable voters.
Fourth, Faulconer had the advantage in experience over Alvarez. Through our polling we knew that was vote determinative. The campaign made sure the experience differential was repeatedly reinforced for persuadable voters.
Finally, while Faulconer and the IEs supporting him were competing for votes in the middle of the ideological spectrum — even those on the left – Alvarez only went after his base. This strategy puzzled us. Although it met with partial success, the gambit obviously did not work well enough.
So, one campaign lesson: it’s rarely one thing that leads to a win.
From the perspective of the researcher, the value of campaign polling and research isn’t only about accurate numbers. It’s about delivering answers. The value comes from using the right methodology to gather bulletproof information and then applying advanced analytics to determine why opinions are the way they are. Good research provides insight that a campaign can act upon, and it paid off for Kevin Faulconer.