In order to defeat Measure A, the No on A campaign had to convince voters to go against their instincts. The campaign asked San Diego County voters to oppose giving themselves a voice -- in this case a vote on future residential projects -- and instead leave those decisions with elected representatives.
This presented a significant challenge. Measures that claim direct democracy or to “give the power back to the people,” have a certain curb appeal with voters, but No on A was able to overcome the odds. It wasn’t because of a reliance on traditional campaign strategies supported by a massive war chest. No on A won because of solid research and creative, hefty investments in digital and TV ads, sharp public relations, an unmatched coalition, smart decisions, a big push at the end, and a Hail Mary.
No on A did not have the financial resources necessary to mount a traditional campaign, and it also was forced to adjust to the fact that it had an enormous voter universe to cover. There are 1.8 million registered voters in San Diego County. The No on A campaign raised and spent $1.7 million -- not a lot of money when you need to talk to nearly 2 million voters. So the campaign eliminated direct mail and door-to-door outreach -- expensive and traditional voter contact tactics.
All politics is local, they say, and the NO side leaned into that, leveraging personal relationships to help land endorsements. San Diego turns bluer by the day, it seems, so No on A set its sights on the Democratic Party endorsement as well as labor endorsements. Democratic voters were expected to turn out in higher numbers than in past primary elections, so this had to be a bipartisan effort to succeed.
No on A also had the benefit of exceptional clients: the Building Industry Association of San Diego County and local, state and national REALTORS®. They established the vision and set the goals, and then they let the campaign team do its job, supporting the team along the way.
The campaign’s initial poll, completed in May 2019, showed Measure A was at 49% YES, 27% NO and 24% UNDECIDED. The writing was on the wall: voters wanted to vote on projects, and Measure A was expected to pass. It would take a substantial effort from the No on A campaign to win.
"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much." – Helen Keller
The first thing the No on A campaign had to do was personalize itself with positive messengers. In order to compete with Yes on A, the NO campaign needed community leaders, working families, and other trusted voices from both sides of the political aisle to believe in our messaging and serve as ambassadors and spokespeople.
The prospect of that wasn’t easy. The YES side had a significant head start. It spent considerable time and money on their signature-gathering effort to qualify Measure A and that solidified support from the environmental groups. Moreover, it had the benefit of a ballot question approved by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors before the NO campaign existed. The ballot question favored the YES side because it lacked specifics and essentially only asked voters if they wanted to vote on future residential projects.
Manolatos Nelson Murphy Advertising & Public Relations (MNM) and the team it assembled to defeat Measure A started working on the campaign about a year before Election Day, but that work was limited to planning and research. Because of a lack of funding, the No on A campaign was not able to start building its coalition and talking to voters until September 2019, five months before the March 2020 election. The NO campaign knew no matter how much money it raised and spent it would not win if the race was between environmentalists and wealthy developers, a narrative the local media had bought into before the campaign began.
Through countless phone calls, meetings, community presentations, and an aggressive advertising strategy, the campaign worked hard to dispel the shiny myths that surrounded Measure A, like: “It gives voters a voice,” “It stops sprawl,” “It protects the environment,” and “It’s good for affordable housing.”
It wasn’t easy, but No on A was able to assemble a historic coalition that included public safety organizations; affordable housing experts; business organizations; labor groups; taxpayer, community and rural advocates; and both the Democratic AND Republican parties.
The battle lines were drawn.
“Good content isn’t about good storytelling. It’s about telling a true story well.” - Ann Handley
Even though research successfully tested messages No on A’s consultants developed, and the team knew the chords it needed to play to win, it had to be careful how it talked about housing.
San Diego County voters care about housing, but many of them do not support building more homes or apartments. It’s a tricky thing, but the nuance is critically important with voters. The majority care a great deal about our housing affordability crisis, meaning they feel homes and apartments are already too expensive and they do not want to put even more housing out of reach for young and working families.
Measure A would have made homes and apartments more expensive, and its loopholes and exemptions meant it would not have protected our rural lands or given voters the control it promised. Those factors, if repeatedly explained to voters, would doom the measure. So would exposing the out-of-town billionaire owners of the Golden Door Spa -- a $10,000-a-week hotel in North County -- who drafted the measure, paid to put it on the ballot, and bankrolled the YES campaign all in an effort to keep affordable homes and apartments away from their luxury resort.
The NO campaign faced another challenge: weight of message. It identified the right messages, but it did not have the money it needed to repeatedly reach voters.
Fundraising was a challenge from the start and did not loosen up until the campaign was nearly out of time. With less than two months before Election Day, the campaign was on track to raise about $1.2 million of its $1.5 million budget -- which was slashed early on from $2.5 million because of a lack of donations. How do you reach 1.8 million voters enough times to persuade them with a budget on life support? You break the traditional rules of campaigning, and you do it as methodically and thoroughly as possible.
The decision was made that the No on A campaign’s voter outreach would rely solely on a robust digital program, a limited but targeted TV buy, some slate mailers and public relations.
When you eliminate door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, direct mail and other traditional campaigning methods, it means your soundbites have to truly be soundbites, no longer than 30-seconds or a couple lines of copy with a graphic, as the digital media and TV bible dictate.
Enter IVC Media, the digital media firm MNM hired to direct No on A’s online communications. By establishing a unique and eye-catching brand from the inception of the logo, to a combination of photographs blended with custom-designed illustrations, IVC created a digital footprint that represented in a creative way the negative impacts Measure A would bring to our region.
The colors and the artwork broke through the clutter and represented the severity of the measure while evoking a feeling of “proceed with caution,” to communicate one of the campaign’s primary messages: behind Measure A’s politically convenient messaging were loopholes and exemptions and out-of-town billionaires that would harm our region and our neighborhoods. “Measure A is not what it seems,” the NO side warned voters. “It won’t do what it promises.”
The campaign created a total of 8 highly-produced videos used across multiple platforms, focusing on all the general and micro-messages identified from polling and focus groups as being important to target sub-groups within the massive San Diego County voter file.
Every video was supported by a number of graphics and earned media (stories, op-eds, columns and related news coverage) through a retargeting campaign. Every voter who watched or engaged with a No on A video then received a combination of graphics, display and/or video ads, as well as earned media posts, to validate claims and further drive the conversation and boost awareness of the measure in a very competitive electoral environment. The environment grew even more crowded when presidential candidates like Mike Bloomberg started buying all of the available TV advertising time and crowding the digital arena across San Diego County, targeting many of the same voters No on A was trying to reach.
The digital media campaign had two main functions throughout the campaign:
The first and most important was voter outreach. In the absence of a direct mail program and canvassing operations, the digital campaign had to hit every voter in the selected universe enough times and through different mediums (pre-roll video, display, social media, etc.) to create awareness lifts that would transform into NO votes.
To accomplish this, IVC Media and MNM ensured all content was distributed cross-platform so it would reach voters across multiple channels. High propensity voters were targeted to ensure every dollar was spent on known and likely voters.
To make up for the fact that the bulk of the No on A’s TV ads would not start running until mid-February, or a couple weeks after voters started voting by mail, and that voters’ online habits vary widely, the campaign secured one of the broadest digital buys for a countywide measure -- using over SEVEN different platforms, including a heavy internet-connected TV buy to get “big-screen” broadcast quality impressions. It did all of this with one goal in mind: “If you’re online, and vote often, you WILL see our ads.”
The second function of the digital campaign was to create a public relations pattern in which every endorsement and earned media opportunity was given a breaking news effect by posting it on the campaign’s website and sharing it on social media, targeting supporters, engagers, and viewers of the campaign’s digital content. This allowed the No on A campaign to:
All told, No on A’s digital campaign reached a total of 700,000 high propensity voters more than 20 million times with different optimizations, including 1.1 million video views.
With both sides campaigning hard, the No on A campaign decided to do a last-minute poll 17 days before Election Day to see how voters’ opinions had moved, which messages were working, and how the campaign should focus its big late-money TV and digital advertising buys.
The poll was not encouraging.
“YES remains substantially ahead in the Measure A vote (40% to 27%, with ONE-THIRD undecided) and those who have already voted are lopsidedly in favor of the measure 58% to 41%,” the campaign’s pollster wrote in a memo to the team. “On the other hand, while NO has not budged since May, YES has come down significantly from 49% back then...While the likelihood of our side prevailing is relatively small, the NO side could pull this out. We have seen other situations in which our side was drawing dead, but that’s not the case here.”
Bottom line: the No on A campaign’s limited voter contact had started to move voters and the campaign’s heaviest spending period was about to begin. Its ads would be up on TV, all over digital, and on slate mailers. To win, the campaign needed to sow enough doubt to ensure the remaining undecided voters voted NO, and it had little time and limited resources to achieve this. A strong close was necessary.
Calls went out to supporters, many of whom responded by chipping in to help the campaign raise a lot of late money, and with time running out, No on A surpassed its adjusted $1.5 million budget goal by $200,000.
Additional broadcast, cable and Spanish TV spots were purchased through Election Day. As more money came in, No on A moved to purchase more TV but it was blocked from doing so because the presidential candidates had bought all remaining time slots. So the campaign invested its remaining funds in digital advertising, significantly increasing its digital budget the final two weeks of the race.
Digital Bonus: One of the unsung benefits of social media is the almost immediate feedback received in real time from voters. Having done many campaigns in the past, the digital team has developed recon tools and experience that allows it to get a read on the electorate and the messages that work better than others.
Towards the end, when both campaigns were spending heavily online, the digital recon made it apparent that:
“There is nothing as sweet as a comeback, when you are down and out, about to lose, and out of time.” - Anne Lamott
With two weeks to go before Election Day, the NO campaign learned the troubling news that the YES side had just received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Golden Door Spa. Up until this point, the YES side acknowledged the controversial Golden Door Spa funded the effort to qualify Measure A but insisted the spa’s billionaire owner was not funding the YES campaign. Yes on A used the Golden Door dollars to match No on A’s TV buy dollar-for-dollar and to compete with the NO campaign online.
Instead of giving up, the No on A team held firm and finished strong.
The No on A campaign also believed the YES side made a mistake by adding an affordable housing message to their “Trust People, Not Politicians” TV ad. Affordable housing was a message the NO campaign had owned. How could an anti-growth measure be good for affordable housing?
What did the NO side do? It doubled down on its affordable housing ads with the goal of ensuring voters understood that if Measure A passed, it would make it harder to build homes and apartments, driving up the cost of all housing in the middle of a housing crisis. It also produced a hard-hitting response to the YES TV ad, highlighting their false claims and billionaire hotel owner. That response was live on internet-connected TV three days after the YES TV ad started airing.
More importantly, the No on A campaign took a significant risk. MNM and IVC decided to shift the campaign’s final and hefty digital spend to exclusively target likely Democratic voters with affordable housing as the main message. It cut the cord with all other voters. A Hail Mary.
Success rested on the shoulders of Democratic turnout, which at that point, based on mail-in ballots, was the lowest it had been in a presidential primary in a few cycles. Were Democrats holding on to their ballots in anticipation of any ripples in the Democratic Presidential Primary field? Or were voters confused/uninformed about California moving primary elections from June to March?
The late vote tally would tell the story.
The risk paid off.
March 3, 8:24 PM: The first results were in. The YES side was winning by 7,000 votes: 51 to 49 percent. While not a perfect start, the NO side felt confident because these early mail ballot voters had not seen No on A’s TV ads or its late digital push and early voters tend to lean Republican. Many of them had voted in early February. No on A’s bets were hedged on Election Day Democratic voters and late mail-in ballots, also by Democrats. The campaign was confident “the trend would be our friend” and that the first batch of votes would be its worst. It was right.
As the poll votes and late ballots came in, the vote difference grew tighter. The NO side closed the gap and pulled ahead for good in the pre-dawn hours the morning after Election Day.
It was obvious to the campaign that its late strategy and tactics paid off. In the end, No on A officially defeated Measure A by 16,096 votes, 51% to 49%.
Like the No on A campaign, your campaign can succeed in November without an expensive door-to-door ground game and large events. But it will take resources, smart decisions, solid research, coalition building, public relations, and a heavy investment in targeted and cross-platform digital advertising.
MNM and IVC are here for you and your team. We would be happy to help. Call or email us anytime.
Please stay safe and well!