Lake Research Partners just came off of a successful re-election campaign for Houston Mayor Annise Parker. Research for Mayor Parker was critical in informing the strategy and direction of a campaign that won a landslide re-election in what once looked to be a tough fight.
Early polling showed that it would be hard to grow Mayor Parker’s popularity, because it was as high as could reasonably be expected. Her personal favorable ratings were in the high 60s and her job performance ratings were in the high 50s. For an incumbent already elected twice, those were remarkably high ratings.
However, Houstonians were very open to a change in leadership. Attorney Ben Hall appeared capable of delivering a compelling message for change; and there was a real threat that he could spend millions of his own dollars in the campaign. An online summer message board study confirmed how difficult it would be to turn out a large number of new voters (new in terms of mayoral elections), underscoring the necessity of winning in the existing electorate and trying to shape it in Mayor Parker’s favor to the extent possible. Looking back, the campaign’s three greatest strategic imperatives were:
- Protect Mayor Parker's image and popularity. Mayor Parker has consistently been very popular, both personally and professionally. The campaign had to protect that, and preserve her sterling reputation among the people of Houston.
- Define Ben Hall. Ben Hall posed a real, credible threat to Mayor Parker going into the 2013 election. Houstonians’ openness to change and Hall’s personal wealth combined to make him a threatening challenger. To win, and especially to win without a runoff, Mayor Parker’s campaign had to define Hall on its own terms.
- Create a more favorable electorate. The campaign would need to increase turnout among key pro-Parker constituencies, such as women and Latinos. Research in the spring showed that increasing turnout among these groups in a big way was likely not feasible and that Mayor Parker would need to win the returning voters, while trying to shift the electorate in her favor to as large an extent as is possible.
The campaign was successful in each achieving each of these goals. Our research showed that we could continue to buttress Mayor Parker, but her ballot numbers did not change much. The key was to protect the Mayor’s image. The campaign then needed to pivot to defining Hall so that he could not grow his base and to insure that undecided voters, who did not move over to the Mayor based on the positive messaging, would move to support her once Hall was disqualified.
Research played a key role in equipping the media, mail, online, communication, and field teams with the messaging and targeting advice they needed to win. The path to defining Ben Hall on the campaign’s terms was made very clear by analysis of survey data: the fact that Hall had failed to pay taxes for many years was a damning vulnerability for him. Similarly, polling identified the best field targets for making the electorate more favorable to Mayor Parker: Democratic women and Latinos. Survey data also underscored which of Mayor Parker’s many strengths to communicate to voters, such as her commitment to education in Houston.
Mayor Parker, the first out lesbian to lead a major city, ended the campaign with extremely high personal and professional ratings, her popularity did not take a hit from the negative campaigning on either side. Parker was able to strengthen her position by drawing a strong contrast with Hall and utilizing a truly innovative communications plan in which the campaign's television, online, mail, radio, and field programs integrated seamlessly. The campaign was also able to alter the electorate in ways that worked to its benefit, through expertly synergized field and online communications. A robust, innovative research plan helped make all of this possible and made sure that every strategic decision the campaign made was data-driven. On Election Day the campaign saw the results: a resounding win, with 57% of the vote, for Mayor Parker.