Lehman stayed true throughout: expert
By BOB BRUTON BARRIE EXAMINER November 4 2010
Jeff Lehman won the Barrie mayor’s race the old-fashioned way; he banged on doors, he shook people’s hands, talked to them and answered their questions.
Sure, Lehman used the technological bells and whistles of modern political campaigning, such as automated polls and a telephone town hall, to help outpace his opponents on Oct. 25.
But his adherence to campaigning basics, the tried and true ways, was what worked best for him.
That’s the assessment of Dr. Michael Johns, political science professor at Laurentian University’s Barrie campus, who served on Lehman’s campaign team, although in no specific role.
“At the end of the day, all that other stuff can help a candidate to win,” Johns said of polling, town halls and all-candidate debates. “But banging on doors was still the key element to the mayor’s campaign. You have to go and go for a long time, because the city is so large now.
“You have to be out every day and you have to keep it up. If you don’t do that effectively, the rest of the stuff won’t matter.”
Lehman agrees with Johns’ assessment.
“The most important thing was talking to as many people as possible at their door, or at meetings in their neighborhood or community,” Lehman said. “That part of campaigns hasn’t changed. I started knocking doors in May and we just kept going every day until and including last Monday (Oct. 25).
“I had a really incredible group of volunteers that showed up time and again for months to help with this through the summer and the fall.”
There was another reason why Lehman needed to meet voters in person.
“When Jeff declared his candidac y (in late February), 85 to 90% of Barrie residents didn’t know who he was,” Johns said.
Joe Tascona, Rob Hamilton, Mike Ramsay and Dave Aspden, the incumbent mayor, all had name recognition on their sides.
Lehman had to get his name, and his face, out there too. There were also other obstacles to overcome.
“The other candidates ran on their experience, but that is a double-edged sword,” Johns said.
Tascona served on city council in the early 1990s when property taxes didn’t increase, and he promised the same if elected mayor. But Tascona was strongly rejected by city voters when he ran for re-election as Barrie MPP in 2007.
Hamilton was a very effective Barrie mayor from 2003-2006, but not a good enough politician to be re-elected.
Ramsay is a long-time city councillor, but has never been mayor. Aspden has been mayor for the last four years, leading one of the more dysfunctional city councils in recent memory.
Johns also said it helped that Lehman ran a positive campaign, staying away from some of the mud-slinging that went on between the other candidates.
“It was about the issues, not the personalities,” Johns said. “It wasn’t personal with him. That’s not what people want.
“I think he sensed the importance of staying on message.”
Other candidates were not so successful.
Hamilton, for example, tried to run on his record as mayor — bringing new industry to Barrie, creating good jobs — but was unable to shake the negative implications of being a downtown bar owner.
He finished a distant third, despite having what Johns called “a very good team.”
Tascona kept pounding home his promise of no homeowners’ tax increase for four years, and to cut wasteful spending at city hall.
But in the end, not enough voters believed Tascona could deliver the goods.
Johns recalls visiting a Barrie home with Lehman where a man was impressed that he wouldn’t promise not to raise taxes.
Lehman wasn’t content to rely just on door-knocking, despite its importance.
Johns said Lehman’s telephone town hall meeting — essentially a very large conference call — was also an effective campaign tool.
“It was so effective in getting the message across to a large group of people,” Johns said. “We had about 6,200 people sitting on the line for an hour.
“So you (the candidate) have 6,200 people to yourself, for an hour. It’s just a remarkable opportunity. You can’t get that with a TV or radio ad.”
“The telephone town hall was incredible,” Lehman said. “There were more than 6,000 people on that one-hour call alone. I think we were active and answered people’s questions well through social media and the Internet as well.”
Polls were also used, both to survey public opinion and perhaps influence voters.
“The science of polling has changed as well. It’s much easier to do accurate polling,” Johns said.
Lehman’s campaign team was criticized for its ‘robo-polls’, automated telephone surveys which offer voters touch-tone choices, and for releasing the results during the campaign.
“They’re cheaper than human polls,” Johns said, “and they are fairly accurate.”
Lehman’s camp released results from two robo-polls; the first showed Tascona with a sizable lead, the second showed Tascona and Lehman in a virtual deadlock.
Both may have convinced voters it was a two-horse race, which could have brought the anti-Tascona or anti-Hamilton vote to Lehman.
Almost every way of getting Lehman’s message across was used.
“Two elections ago, the idea of a TV ad would be unheard of. Now it’s something to consider,” Johns said. “Mayoral candidates need to have some sort of presence. When you have the extra money, you can do that.”
But not everything worked for Lehman’s campaign team.
“Well, our signs weren’t great, they were hard to read,” he said. “And we had more than one event where only a few people showed up, particularly early on. But that happens.”
Johns said the campaign was an uphill climb for Lehman, because Tascona had the early lead — having registered in the first few days of January.
“I think he was the frontrunner from the very beginning, but I don’t know if his support went up,” Johns said. “I think he started way ahead and was slowly brought back to the pack.
“The frontrunner is targeted by all the other candidates and that caught up to him at the end of the race.”
Lehman said he believes the tide began to turn in late September or early October, when all the candidates had put their platforms out, there had been a few debates, and the town hall call had been held.
“It seemed like there were a lot of undecided folks who started to really respond to what I was talking about. We started hearing a lot more support at the door and (had) many more sign requests,” he said.
Johns said he believes the election campaign turned in Lehman’s favour about two weeks before election day.
“There was a much more positive response at the door,” he said. “Many people knew who he was, but had not met him. They had more positive things to say.
“The message resonated, to win as convincingly as he did,” Johns said.
But Lehman doesn’t think there was a single defining issue in the mayor’s campaign.
“I think the election was about who presented a vision and a plan for the city, and who did the voters want to lead council in making it happen,” he said. “I think they were looking for a renewed sense of purpose and clearly wanted a change.”
Johns said the mayor’s race, and the entire municipal election, show how Barrie has lost its small-town political mentality and replaced it with a medium-sized one.
More money was being spent by the candidates on polls and advertising, and voters had more choices.
“The mayor’s race had four or five legitimate candidates, candid at e s who had a legitimate chance of winning,” he said. “They were all collecting as much information as possible, because it looked like a very, very close race.”
And the campaign changes Johns saw this time will grow again by 2014, when the next city election is held.
“What I am impressed with is the growing maturation of the political process in Barrie,” he said.
Eight people ran for mayor and voter turnout increased by 10% from 2006.
“More people were aware, interested and invested in this election,” he said.
Both Johns and Lehman said they were surprised by Lehman’s margin of victory — nearly 4,000 votes.
“I don’t think anyone on our team expected the margin to be what it was,” Lehman said. “I’m humbled by the results, it is a huge honour and it will make me work that much harder to pursue the priorities that I set out in the campaign.”