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With ranked-choice voting, Minneapolis mayoral race becomes Battle to Be Nice

Candidates shun any hint of negative campaigning to avoid alienating any voters who might make them their second or third choice.

Jackie Cherryhomes
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosJackie Cherryhomes

Minneapolis’ crowded mayoral race has turned into the Battle to Be Nice, and just about everybody credits the use of ranked-choice voting for the absence of anything resembling negative campaigning.

The reason: If you call your opponent a dummy, there is a very good chance the dummy’s supporters will scratch you off their list as a possible second or third choice. And the key to winning appears certain to depend on those second and third choices.

“We don’t have the negative ads to say, ‘This person is horrible, so vote for my guy,’ ” said Lynne Bolton, campaign manager for Jackie Cherryhomes. “We’re used to the system where you have two choices, and one is bad and the other is good.”

She adds: “We’ve had so much negativity. It’s a real pleasure to be involved in an election where you can’t do that. It’s self-defeating. It’s requiring people to talk about who they are and differentiate themselves.”

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It is also an election where voters must make decisions without some of their traditional sources of guidance. There is no incumbent to love or loathe. There’s no DFL endorsement, thanks to a deadlocked city convention. And there was no primary to narrow the field of 35 candidates.

So where does that leave Minneapolis citizens?

“Most of us will have a firm first preference,” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. “I wouldn’t be surprised if after two choices, people say they have no preference.”

Second choice key to victory?

He sees that second-choice vote as a potential key to victory. “You can’t persuade voters who have already made up their minds on their first choice,” said Schultz, who adds that the successful campaigns will be the ones who turn out their first-choice voters and work hard to sell likely voters to make them their second choice.

Of course, one group that’s very difficult to persuade to change are all of those voters who have donated money or time to their first-choice candidate.

“When somebody sends you money, it’s pretty clear they’re going to vote for you,” said Schultz. Without that political contribution to tie a voter to a candidate, it makes predicting second and third choices difficult.

“This is a race that is close,” said Schultz, who thinks Mark Andrew is probably in the lead at this point with Betsy Hodges coming in second. “That’s just my gut,” he says.

Don Samuels
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosDon Samuels

“It’s almost impossible at this point, given where the numbers are, that there would be a first-round victory,” said Patrick Layden, campaign manager for Don Samuels.

Layden thinks people make their second choice differently from their first. “History shows, almost exclusively, that second and third choices are based on who people can be OK with,” he said.

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That’s a positive for Samuels, Layden believes. “We’ve heard from just about Day One from everybody out there that they’d be OK with Don. He’s got a really great shot at this.”

Layden’s take on the political landscape: “The actual data we’ve gotten suggest that the conventional wisdom might not be correct. I think there’s a lot of questions out there as to what the realities of support for a candidate are, and we certainly have our opinions that are supported by internal data.”

“The first-place votes keep you in the race,” said mayoral candidate Bob Fine. He expects as many as 25 of the 35 candidates to be dropped from the counting after the first round because they would have no mathematical chance of winning.

Mark Andrew
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosMark Andrew

Four years ago, Fine was running for a citywide seat on the Park Board and finished first in the city’s first ranked-choice election.

“The second and third round I can pick up a lot,” said Fine, who bases that prediction on his service on the Park Board. “People feel good about the park system.”

In ranked-choice voting, a winner is declared when a candidate receives 50 percent of the vote plus one.

People close to the contest may not be picking a winner just yet, but some are predicting how many rounds of counting it will take to declare a winner.

“I think it is going to go all the way to the third choice on the ballot,” said mayoral candidate Stephanie Woodruff, who has been cultivating second- and third-choice votes.

“She’s going to get a ton of second and third choices,” said Paul Ostrow, Woodruff’s campaign manager. “People don’t want the same old campaign. They’re looking for something different.”

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Numerous candidate forums turn bland

New with this election has been the never-ending series of candidate forums and debates. In the past, there might have been half a dozen at most. This year, there will be about three dozen before Election Day.

“Everyone has heard all of my jokes,” laments mayoral candidate Dan Cohen, who said the forums have been predictable. “We have not gotten to the point where there have been many surprises or any rough-and-ready debate.”

Some of the forums are focused on the concerns of a neighborhood, a special interest group or an ethnic community. There have been specific forums for such issues as the arts, business, public housing and urban agriculture.

“It’s very difficult to talk about substantial issues in 60 seconds,” said Bolton. “As we add forums, we’re taking away opportunities to have those substantial conversations.”

Cam Winton
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosCam Winton

As a result, Bolton has used social media, emails and a phone bank to circulate Cherryhomes’ longer answers to some of the complex questions.

“When you have an advocacy group with a very narrow focus holding a debate, it creates an incentive for the candidates to come in and pander,” said mayoral candidate Cam Winton. “The pressure is to tell them just exactly what they want to hear, and some of my opponents do just that.”

This is as close as candidates get to sniping at the opposition, and it isn’t unique to Winton, who says he gives the same answer to a question regardless of the focus of the forum or who is in the audience.

Candidate Betsy Hodges also frequently points out that she gives the same answer to a question, regardless of who is in the audience.

The alleged target of this vague attack is Mark Andrew, who has been known to alter his response from audience to audience when answering questions.

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“We’ve got certain candidates who say, ‘I say the same thing in every room,’ ” said Joe Ellickson, Andrew’s campaign manager. “Well, guess what — people want a real human being as their mayor. They don’t want somebody who is so coached, so disciplined. They want somebody who will speak from their heart and their passion to individual issues.”

Betsy Hodges
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosBetsy Hodges

Ellickson adds: “If you’re giving the same canned answer about every issue, you are not connecting with each and every community. The issues in southwest are not the same as the issues in north Minneapolis. It’s just a fact. Interacting with people is a key element of the job of mayor.”

The Hodges campaign sees character as an issue, according to Aaron Wells, communications director. Especially when voters are having a tough time making decisions.

“The campaign should be looking to get out the character of their candidate,” he said. “Not only does this person have the right vision for the City of Minneapolis but this is a person who can actually accomplish it. This is a person who has lived the fight.”

“People are making their choices in a different way,” said Bolton of this election. A lot of the traditional guides are missing this time, and 2013 is the first real test of ranked-choice voting in Minneapolis. “My guess is the next mayoral election will be easier,” she said.