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Dynamics of Minneapolis mayoral race unprecedented on many levels

Ranked-choice voting has prompted few candidates attacks. And there are more debates and forums, fewer lawn signs — and extensive use of social media.

University of St. Thomas communications professor Kevin Sauter: “Maybe this is the harbinger of things to come where politicians are not going to use the filtering device of the traditional media and try to shape and control the message completely through social media.”
MinnPost illustration by Corey Anderson

On many levels, this year’s Minneapolis mayoral race feels — and looks — different than any previous candidate campaign for leadership of the city.

For starters, the use of ranked-choice voting in the first mayoral race with no incumbent in the mix seems to have eliminated the traditional option of attacking your opponent.

And it’s even hard determining who your chief opponents are because of the city’s biggest field of mayoral candidates ever — 35, all vying to be one of voters’ top three choices.

There are other differences this time, too.

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Fewer lawn signs. And many more candidate forums and debates, but not much new gets said.

Candidates turn to social media

Social media have become the communication avenue of choice, but they haven’t replaced face-to-face conversations. The candidate on your doorstep remains a powerful tool.

Candidate news conferences, a staple of past campaigns, are on the decline, too.

It’s clear that ranked-choice voting is changing the tone of the entire mayoral campaign.

“The strategy is quite complex,” said mayoral candidate Dan Cohen of the voting system that lets voters lists a first, second and third choice for mayor. If a candidate attacks an opponent, he or she risks alienating that candidate’s supporters so much that they wouldn’t consider listing the attacker as their second or third choice.

That reality, Cohen said, “makes it difficult for candidates to be critical of other candidates.

“Everybody is super-polite to everybody else,” said Cohen. “As a result, these debates are like joint press conferences rather than real true debates.”

“Likeability might become more of a factor,” according to Kevin Sauter, University of St. Thomas communications professor. “Wouldn’t that be interesting if that was the first notch against negative advertising and negative campaigns that have been so prominent in the last 20 years?”

Also, this is the first open-seat election in 20 years, when then-Mayor Don Fraser decided to leave office and was replaced by Sharon Sayles Belton. She had a campaign staff of 10 and a phone bank, and computers were not yet on every office desk.

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News conference numbers decline

Even 12 years ago, when R.T. Rybak defeated Sayles Belton, the news conference was about the only option a candidate had to speak to voters without buying advertising. Most candidates held a news conference once a week.

This year, many of the 35 candidates have not held any news conferences, or perhaps only one, probably to announce their candidacy.

“They can’t control the news conference as much as they can control their own message through social media,” notes Sauter. “Maybe this is the harbinger of things to come where politicians are not going to use the filtering device of the traditional media and try to shape and control the message completely through social media.”

Patrick Layden — campaign manager for Don Samuels, who has hosted several news conferences — has a different view: “One of the reasons there have not been many news conferences is because not many [candidates] have much to say. There’s a question of how much you put yourself out there and subject yourself to reporters’ questions.”

Layden adds: “I would say there is also, probably with a few exceptions, a lack of substantive policy in this campaign, so there’s not a lot to talk about. A few people you would expect to be hearing something bold or visionary from are not going there.”

Winton the exception

Independent candidate Cam Winton is the exception to the “no news conferences” trend. And he usually has a gimmick to attract reporters and photographers.

It started with Winton standing in a pothole to deliver his plan for rebuilding city streets. Then there was a bus-ride news conference to demonstrate that a person could get from point A to point B without a streetcar. Recently he used a live tortoise and a bunny as symbols of how he would speed up city procedures for obtaining a building permit or business license.

“My P.T. Barnum-esque news conferences bring in print media and radio. Traditional journalists like a show, and I give them a show,” said Winton, who supplements the “show” with a detailed explanation of what is not working and how he would make changes.

“I actually have something to say — I have a point of view,” said Winton. “With respect to my fellow candidates, most of their press conference efforts have been to acknowledge that a problem exists.” Sometimes, he said, their solutions to those problems are lacking.

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He cites as an example the recent news conference where mayoral candidates Cohen and Jackie Cherryhomes and former Gov. Arne Carlson expressed concern about the Minnesota Orchestra and the locked-out musicians. They had some ideas for breaking the deadlock, including a plan to spend $6 million of city tax revenue, to settle the conflict or to form a committee to bring an end to the problem.

“That’s not a solution — that’s a hope and a dream,” said Winton, which is about as close to being critical as anyone comes in this election year. “I think my press conferences have conveyed messages people listen to.”

Frequent forums but few detailed answers

There have been countless forums and debates, frequently three or four a week, but with eight higher-profile candidates usually invited to speak, there are limits on what gets said.

“In the forums you get 60 seconds to answer an incredibly complex question,” said Lynne Bolton, campaign manager for Cherryhomes. “Candidates have to resort to buzz words and jargon and are not really able to give an answer at all.”

Short answers — sometimes simply yes-or-no answers — combined with the unspoken ban on attacking your opponent can produce a forum that is short on substance and leaves would-be voters confused about the differences among candidates.

“Things like Twitter and Facebook actually allow voters to ask questions and get answers,” said Bolton. “One of the things about Twitter and Facebook is they allow the campaign to engage with people — an incredibly diverse group, particularly younger people, people who do shift work, who don’t live on a 9-to-5 schedule and people with accessibility challenges.

“I think communication styles are changing and you ignore those things at your own peril,” said Bolton. “As the population changes, you can’t rely on just the traditional methods, you absolutely cannot.”

Joe Ellickson, campaign manager for Mark Andrew, see those changes, too.

“Four or five years ago, Facebook was for the young people. It’s demographic was definitely below age 34, but we find more and more that older people are getting on to Facebook,” he said.

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“You have to focus on all the basics of the campaign — those don’t change — but social media allow you to promote that to a broader audience more quickly,” said Ellickson. “It allows you to have your own press release out there and write your own campaign story.”

Facebook ‘lawn signs’

He sees real advantages: “When you advertise on social media, what you’re doing is putting a lawn sign on their Facebook page. You’re putting up the candidate’s face and your logo, and every time they are scrolling through the page, they are seeing your message.”

All the major campaigns use and value the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

Aaron Wells, communications director for the Betsy Hodges campaign, notes: “Older, traditional forms of media are one-way conversations with the public. I think, certain paid media, in a sense, there’s no way getting around the fact that it makes it more difficult for somebody to talk back to you. You watch a commercial at home on your television, and I’m not sure how you express yourself if you think it doesn’t represent the record.

“If we put something out there [on social media] and somebody disagrees with us, they can tell us and we can try to get on the same page with them,” he said. “I think Facebook is a lot better than a billboard.”

“We tweet something out to our supporters, people re-tweet us and start a conversation with people they know — which is great for the campaign,” said Wells. “It seems to prompt a much more engaging conversation and a two-way conversation.”

Online ‘convrsations’

“I don’t know that I would call it a conversation,” said Sauter of such exchanges. “You’re reading words, you’re applying meaning to them without the supplements of vocal and facial expressions, and eye contact and body language. That can lose some of the meaning or alter the meaning.”

He also points to the public nature of the exchange and the static nature of the written word on a computer screen. Such exchanges can be “fraught with danger,” Sauter believes. “You can offend, disrupt, move or change the tenor of what’s going on in your campaign by a simple misstatement, or a right statement that is misinterpreted, and it never goes away.”

“The illusion of intimacy can be created through social media,” he said, noting, though, it just might be an illusion. “We overlay our sense of meaning on another person’s words.”

Campaigns via computer screen or cell phone might have some flaws, but those who are campaigning are willing to take the risk.

“A conversation through a screen is less effective than a face-to-face conversation,” said Winton. “The actual choice is you can have a conversation through a screen or not at all, because it would be impossible for me to have face-to-face conversations with the tens of thousands of people around the city that I’ve had conversations with on Facebook.

Winton had spent more than $12,000 on Facebook advertising, according to his campaign spending report more than a month ago. That advertising can route potential supporters to his campaign, which he calls “a bargain at 10 times the price.”

“In this social media era, a real metric for support is the number of Facebook ‘likes’ you have,” said Winton, who claims currently to have the most “likes” of any candidate. “I take that as a real heartening sign of just how well voters of Minneapolis are receiving my message.”

“Can you use it to count votes?” asks Bolton, referring to Facebook. “No, I don’t think you can, but you can use it to gauge where people are and gauge what people want to talk about.”

“I came late to Twitter,” she said. “I was a late Facebook adopter.” Bolton, who is now comfortable with using social media, said: “I really believe the more communication people have with each other, the better off we are. I don’t think it’s the numbers that are so valuable, but it’s the engagement and the conversation that’s really critical.”

Social media broaden the field

The use of social media also has given campaigns a low-cost method of reaching out to possible supporters. And it allows some to compete in an arena where they could not have survived as a candidate four or five years ago.

“I’ve only spent about $2,000 and yet I’m still invited to all the debates,” said Stephanie Woodruff, who is part-owner of a technology company in Silicon Valley and a big fan of Facebook and Twitter.

“If we were back in the old days, where we had to purchase radio and television time, there’s no way I would be able to run,” she said. “The ability to touch so many people — and get that gathering and that following with little or no money — is very powerful.”

“We’re obviously leveraging social media to the max, but we’re coupling that with targeted door-knocks based on precinct data,” said Woodruff. “Once you get to people, on their doorstep, you want to drive as much traffic as possible to your website, and you hope that they would share it with their network. That’s very powerful.”

Woodruff likes the option of being able to target her ads on Facebook to chosen demographic groups, rather than buying advertising and spending money that also reaches people in the suburbs.

“Its so powerful, compared to the old days of putting an ad in the newspaper,” she said. “You have no control over who is going to pick up the paper that day and read that ad.”

Mayoral candidate Bob Fine bought half-page ads in a neighborhood newspaper when he was running for the Park Board. He kept waiting for someone to mention the ads as he campaigned. No one ever did. This time around, he is using social media.

“Younger people — under 40, all my kids — don’t get the newspaper,” he said. “Minneapolis has 10 percent of the population of the metro area, so if you’re doing television and radio, you may be spending a lot of money to reach that 10 percent that you’re probably reaching in other ways.”

“Four years ago, I was told you had to have a web page or you’re not going to win,” said Fine, who ignored the advice and won a citywide seat on the board. “I didn’t use electronic media, and I still did well. I took first place.”

This time, he is using social media but also working to get his lawn signs out and door-knocking.

“Face-to-face is still incredibly important to build that relationship with people, to build trust. To shake a hand is incredibly important,” said Rachel Engh, Fine’s campaign manager. “You can’t replace face-to-face with 140 characters.”