There were a few lessons to be learned this week for campaign operatives and political junkies in Maine.
1.) A financial war chest does not necessarily win an election;
2.) Voters in small communities become weary of aggressive campaigning that lasts for more than two or three months; and
3.) Negative campaign tactics still work, despite the fact that most people will say negative campaigning is a turn-off.
Lewiston’s mayoral race, in which Robert Macdonald won a third term, garnered national media attention. Tuesday’s run-off results were reported by media outlets across the country, including NBC News and the New York Times.
Although Ben Chin, a progressive Democrat, got the most votes during a five-way race for the mayor’s seat in the November 2015 election, a runoff election was required by the city’s charter because he did not capture at least 50 percent of the vote.
Democrats tend to favor run-off elections and/or a concept known as ranked choice voting, but Tuesday’s results bit them in the ass, when Republican Macdonald came out on top, 53-47 percent over Chin.
What would have otherwise been a small community election became amplified when the campaign took an ugly turn in October.
Several signs that featured a caricature of an Asian man were hung on buildings in Lewiston. Those signs contained a blatantly racist message: “Don’t vote for Ho Chi Chin. Vote for more jobs not more welfare,” according to the Lewiston Sun Journal.
Is cash really king?
Because of the national attention, Chin’s campaign was able to raise a whopping $87,800. Maine Democrats wanted to send a message and large amounts of money poured in from all over Maine and across the country. Chin, the political director for the Maine People’s Alliance, was able to turn on one of the state’s biggest political machines.
In total, Chin’s campaign raised roughly 15 times more than Macdonald’s campaign, which raised $5,800.
By contrast, in the city of Biddeford, a typical mayoral campaign raises somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000. This year, however, Mayor Alan Casavant raised a paltry $1,270 and spent $818 of it to secure a third term. He got 2,494 votes at a cost of roughly 33 cents per vote.
Chin garnered 3,826 votes; spending nearly $23 per vote. Macdonald, on the other hand, garnered 4,398 votes; spending roughly $1.32 per vote.
Chin edged out second-place finisher Macdonald in November, but Macdonald won Tuesday’s runoff, despite being outspent roughly 15-1. Why?
Almost every one I speak to about this race has a different theory, but I think voters were turned off by an incredibly aggressive campaign that was raising so much cash from outside of the city.
It was a bit over the top.
According to the city of Lewiston’s web site, 33.5 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots in the November election. That number dropped slightly on Tuesday, when 32 percent of the city’s voters cast ballots during the runoff election.
By contrast, slightly more than 30 percent of voters in Biddeford cast ballots in that city’s 2015 mayoral election.
Mayoral campaigns in cities like Biddeford or Lewiston usually have a shelf-life of between two or three months. Tuesday’s run-off election added another month to the process. I heard stories of voters being weary of door-knocking and incessant telephone calls.
Sometimes, too much of a good thing (grassroots campaigning and cash) can be a bad thing.
One friend of mine recently speculated that Lewiston’s voters are conservative (and perhaps just a tad racist). He failed to explain how Chin, a progressive Democrat, came out on top in November if a majority of Lewiston’s voters are bigoted or conservative.
In fact, Lewiston, which is a lot like Biddeford, has historically been a bastion for conservative, traditional Democrats (mill workers and Franco-Americans).
Macdonald, a former police detective and Vietnam War veteran, is a blunt speaker and has a propensity for being “politically incorrect.”
When you consider all these factors, it’s no wonder that a small Maine city’s mayoral race attracted national attention.
It was a campaign that defied conventional wisdom, and it offered some lessons for all of us.