Tuesday, November 15, 2005 | When Jerry Sanders thanked his campaign staff and volunteers for bringing him a victory in the mayoral election last week, he probably should have thanked some other people: the anonymous people who helped spread the concept of absentee voting.
Sanders walloped rival Donna Frye in the race to persuade absentee voters to send in their ballots in support of him. So big was his lead after those votes were counted that he needn’t worry the rest of the night about the outcome.
While he still probably would have won the election, it would have been a much more suspenseful night had he not brought home the absentee votes so definitively.
As local political consultants adjust to the changing realities brought on by the Internet and other innovations in communications, they’re also becoming savvy at influencing the voters who can’t or won’t take the time to vote on Election Day.
Those absentee voters made their mark on this and other recent elections.
When the county registrar released the first results of the mayoral election last week, shortly after the polls closed, Sanders, the former police chief, had about 17,100 more votes than his rival Frye, a city councilwoman.
Those were all absentee ballots sent in days, if not weeks, before Election Day. They accounted for more than one-third of all the ballots cast.
Now a week later, while stray ballots are still being calculated, Sanders’ lead has only leapt to 24,700.
So, while Sanders won 59.3 percent of the absentee voters, the people who showed up on Election Day did so with considerably less fervor. They supported Sanders with 51.6 percent of the vote.
“Understand that there really were two elections,” said political science Professor Steve Erie, from the University of California, San Diego. “Sanders decisively beat Frye in one and it was nearly too close to call on Election Day.”
The distinctions highlight not only the difference in the political persuasions of the people who vote absentee but also the difference in how the two campaigns targeted those who preferred to vote from home.
Sanders’ campaign aimed for the absentee voters with targeted communications almost immediately after those voters requested the special ballots.
Frye’s campaign didn’t.
And it showed.
Sanders’ campaign aides agreed that the absentee voting was a crucial part of their success.
“Absentee chasing” as it’s called, is the strategy involved with tracking the people who request an absentee ballot and then sending that person specifically a pamphlet in the mail. It’s a costly process. But Tom Shepard, the lead consultant in the Sanders’ campaign, has been doing it for years.
And he’s not the only one.
“Every campaign does that if they have the money,” said Scott Maloni, a vice president at Shepard’s firm and an aide to the Sanders’ campaign.
Frye’s campaign did not target the absentee voters with similar “chasers.”
“We didn’t have the money to do that,” said Nicole Capretz, a longtime aide to Frye and the leader of her mayoral campaign. “It’s a very expensive process. It’s all about money. It’s that simple. It was a question of resources the entire campaign.”
Sanders easily beat Frye in the fund-raising category, raising $1.2 million to Frye’s $487,000.
Conventional wisdom holds that absentee voters are generally more conservative; however, those demographics have changed as absentee voting becomes more popular with each election.
Jennifer Tierney, a consultant who helped engineer former Mayor Dick Murphy’s successful campaigns, said that targeting absentee voters the way Sanders did is not a cheap effort.
“It’s very resource intensive,” Tierney said. And she said it’s not always helpful to chase absentee voters weeks before the election.
She said she and former mayoral aide John Kern, who was the architect of Murphy’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004, closely watched how absentee voters actually made their choices.
“What we discovered is that most of the absentee ballots get turned in on Election Day,” Tierney said.
If absentee voters wait until the last minute to select their candidate, the costly absentee-chasing mailers could have the same effect as other, less costly mailers that arrive in the final days of the election, she said.
The Frye campaign chose to spend its campaign cash on one final mailer blitz in the closing days of the campaign.
However, because of the results of the absentee vote and other campaign strategy issues, some in San Diego political circles have questioned the tactics chosen by the Frye camp. Erie, who supported Frye’s campaign, said he thinks she could have won had she allocated her resources better.
Frye’s campaign used “amateurs” as consultants, he said, when they should have employed the “pros.” And that might be Frye’s biggest problem.
“She could have won. She needed to have spent more time with her political consultants and campaign organization than she did with her financial recovery team,” Erie said.
Please contact Andrew Donohue at