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The Non-Campaign for Houston Mayor

Keeping up with the DVR project mentioned earlier, I recently made it a point last week to clear out some space on the DVR by catching up on logging some TV newscast ad placements by political folks.

You'll recall that as campaign finance reports came due back in July, we had a sense of which candidates would have enough money to do any kind of significant voter communication. With four candidates closing the period with over $1M in the bank (and Ben Hall writing a big enough check to himself to have $800k), some folks were excused for their over-exuberance in expecting a flood of campaign advertising. And you would have thought that more than one candidate would make news by going up on television sooner rather than later.

No dice.

There's an operating truism in most campaigns that you won't meet enough people in-person to win an election. There's just no way. If you knock on doors, you're lucky to get a 40% rate of people opening their doors. If you make phone calls, you may get somewhere between 5-25% rate of people answering and/or listening to what you hope is a meaningful pitch for your candidate. If you make the rounds at all the events, forums, other people's fundraisers that you can crash, or National Night Out events, you run into the same 500 people (or however many people you want to attribute) throughout the city that attend such events. All in all, these points of contact aren't nothing. And every campaign should do these activities. But that sets the floor for how many people you actually see one-on-one. There just isn't a path available that ends up with these methods of outreach touching enough people to meaningful swing an election.

That reality seems to go out the window in City of Houston elections, though. Without a doubt, every candidate goes home late at night, worn out from the schedule they've put themselves through. Campaign staff - also presumably - works as late as possible either running a phone bank; scrounging up volunteers; writing copy for screening committees that will scan them and news departments that will largely ignore them; and staffing a candidate for the sheer joy of peddling push cards to event attendees who have already made up their minds for whom they'll vote. From a campaign's perspective, it's very easy to convince yourself that there is a very real campaign going on.

Except that, in Houston there isn't much of a campaign going on. For anything. With four Mayoral candidates showing seven-figure bank accounts and the promise that multiple candidates in an open seat election would lead to a hefty increase in voter turnout, I'm not convinced.

There are really two methods of communicating with voters that, to me, demonstrates a visible campaign: mail and television. I haven't seen a single piece of mail in my own mailbox. By all means feel free to drop a comment if you're seeing anything in yours. I'm informed that mail is dropping in my own Council District, but for whatever reason, I'm not getting any.

Granted, my residence is an apartment. Those doors don't exactly get knocked on a lot. And I have no idea which databases have my current cell number, but I'm not terribly eager for a phone pitch for any candidate anyway. The long and short of this is that it's not like I live in an area where you can tell it's election season simply by walking the dog and counting yard signs, volunteers knocking on doors, or sending annoying phone calls to voice mail every weekend.

What is more unavoidable, however, is mail and television advertising. In this regard, Stephen Costello is the only candidate who has run any semblance of a functional campaign so far. And that's all courtesy of television ads. And that's all reliant up an ad buy that has been fairly weak in the past two weeks.

So, I've been recording the following newscasts:
- Channel 2 - 6am news
- Channel 13 - 6pm news
- Channel 11 and 13 - 10pm news

Here's what the ad placement has looked like through Sunday:

2015 Houston Mayoral Ad Spending through 9/20/15

Three caveats:

- Sylvester Turner apparently went up on television as of yesterday.

- I'm conveniently ignoring cable advertising (news or otherwise). Apparently Bill King has bet his entire television advertising to date on cable. Costello's buy has been supplemented with cable, and Turner's purchase will also be supplemented with cable. Cable isn't nothing, but what is generally unknown is what cable outlets are purchased. It may very well be that either a campaign or ad buyer may see fit to buy just Comcast. But Comcast's share of market has been in decline since I bought it for candidates back in 2008. And the overall dollar amounts I'm seeing for candidates so far doesn't suggest their putting an enormous priority on it. Long story short, I view these buys as "something," but not a game-changer in terms of how much presence they have. And for the record, I've not seen a single ad placed on anything I've recorded from basic cable (which isn't much).

- My selection of newscasts is not designed to be exhaustive. It is simply a cross-section. The selection of any particular channel at any given time is debatable. I just wanted to cover those three parts of the day and ensure that I covered the big three channels. Sorry KRIV!

I'm certain that the remainder of the campaign will get more crowded on the airwaves and in the mailbox. But my point in declaring this year's campaign a bust is that we've now less than a month away from Early Voting. We know about what percentage of voters will cast their vote early. And the level of communication with voters has been about as minimal as can possibly exist.

The net result is that the large and diverse field running for Mayor will do next-to-nothing to drive up turnout - in and of itself. the real campaign will be the runoff and that's a much shorter campaign. And it will probably have a quiet period right after November 3rd as campaigns look to find a second round of funding to get back in gear.

It's also worth noting that there is nothing on television promoting the HERO proposition. That's even more concerning. I believe the anti-HERO narrative has enough strength through word-of-mouth networks and right-wing radio to boost turnout against the proposition. But there is simply nothing happening to counteract that. I hope I'm ultimately wrong, but I wouldn't want to bet big at this moment on Prop 1 passing in November. That one doesn't have a runoff to extend the conversation another 4-5 weeks. So November is a much harder deadline.

There are a lot of challenges that campaigns - even those with $1M on hand - have in running a visible and viable campaign. In short, $1M really doesn't go very far in a city like Houston. That has a lot to do with why we know precious little about city council candidates or candidates for Controller. But the side effect of that big field of candidates is that the money seems to be spread fairly thin among the top-tier candidates.

Maybe the 30-day finance reports will shed some new light on what campaigns are doing well, what they're doing right, or which candidates shouldn't be trusted with the city's budget based on how they're operating their campaign budget. In the meantime, most of the voters will just wait for a campaign to say something meaningful to them. A lot of time has ticked off the clock already, though.

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  1. I learned essentially nothing from this information, except things I already knew: that there is too far much emphasis placed on how much money a political campaign has raised, that you don’t subscribe to cable (good for you!), and that you don’t really know who you’re voting for yet.

    For the record, I do not watch local news, have seen a couple of Costello ads — one was on CBS Sunday Morning and the other possibly during an NFL game — on the satellite channels I do watch, and that Costello should have all the name recognition he needs after three consecutive cycles on the citywide ballot as a winner.

    Oh, I do know who I am voting for, and it isn’t Costello. And if i had half of his money, I’d bet it all against him making the runoff.

    It’s going to be a low turnout municipal election, like always, the political junkies like you and me are going to be the lonely ones at the polls (remember, no photos of your ballot posted to Facebook; that’s a violation of the law!), and whoever turns out their supporters will move on to the second round.

    Then the real campaigning will begin. See, that wasn’t hard, was it?

  2. “I learned essentially nothing from this information, except things I already knew: that there is too far much emphasis placed on how much money a political campaign has raised, that you don’t subscribe to cable (good for you!), and that you don’t really know who you’re voting for yet.”

    To begin with, I do have cable (it’s mentioned in this very post) and I’m about 90% certain of who I’m voting for (mentioned many, many moons ago).

    The point that I make about how much cash on hand candidates have is that, by not advertising prior to the 20th, I believe the richest of campaigns have made a mistake. It’s an opinion. Anyone can agree or disagree. And that’s independent of whether anyone is a political junkie, has managed advertising budgets for campaigns, or qualifies as more normal than either of those two categories. I’m just grateful that there are more of the latter and believe that they deserve to hear from candidates.

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