Eddie Cook’s campaign was approached by a polling firm offering to take the temperature of Gilbert voters prior to Tuesday’s Town Council primary election.
His interest was piqued, until Cook heard the price tag.
“It just didn’t make sense,” Cook said. “I would have rather used that money to put up signs or something.”
The rejected offer is indicative of the nature of city- or town-council elections, which, for candidates, are among the most raw in American democracy.
With almost no polling, skeleton staffs and limited advertising resources, formulating a strategy and projecting a message can be more challenging than in higher-profile races. And candidates are naked, with loads of face-to-face interaction with voters required — and no spokespeople to hide behind.
In Gilbert, veteran candidates know and rookies quickly discover — if they were not already aware — that the people with the clearest message and who put the most boots on the ground typically win in council elections. Especially in council elections.
“It’s more difficult because there is no gloss and veneer,” said Linda Abbott, an incumbent councilmember running for her third term. “When we’re running at this level, people run into me at the supermarket or high-school football game. When you run for Congress, there’s still a sense of anonymity. You’re a candidate on a piece of paper or TV.
“In a local election, every day, you’re out and about among the people voting for you.”
Former House speaker Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local. Clarity is most vital at the local level, Abbott said, because a Councilmember has a much greater ability to impact the direction of legislation.
A U.S. House member is one of 435 votes. On the Gilbert Council, Abbott is one of seven.
“The types of issues you’re addressing to people are those that impact them daily,” Abbott said, “so you’d better be sure those people know where you’re coming from.”
The lack of polling means there is little strategizing at the Council level, at least in terms of finding strongholds of support. That dynamic is especially challenging in Gilbert, where there are no wards or districts — councilmembers are elected at large to represent the entire town. That means a lot of ground must be covered.
“We talked to a polling company, but we determined that it just wasn’t cost-effective,” challenger candidate Jordan Ray said. “With 11 candidates in the race, I’m not sure if you could get an accurate read anyway. It’s not conducive to polling, even if we could afford it. The first poll, really, is Tuesday.”
Ray said that he and campaign volunteers have made more than 12,000 calls to Gilbert residents. Incumbent Ben Cooper said he has spoken at 10 major forums and several other smaller functions.
“I don’t think we’ve turned down an invitation yet,” said Cooper, who is in his first campaign after being appointed to the Council as a replacement last year. “I’ll go where anyone will have me, basically. …
“I wish all elections could be like the Council variety. The sophisticated nature of the bigger campaigns tends to overshadow who the candidates are and who we’re voting for. This is a chance to talk to voters without any spin and talk about what’s in our heart. If the voters agree, great. If not, I’m sure they can find someone else.”
While going from the couch to a council is not unheard of — Abbott was a stay-at-home mom when she was first elected in Gilbert in 1991 — being plugged into the community already doesn’t hurt.
Cook, whose campaign has about 100 volunteers, has found his status as Republican leader in Legislative District 22 invaluable in connecting with voters.
Having a sizeable roster of Facebook friends and a busy Twitter feed is becoming a prerequisite, as Abbott said she believes that social media has impacted municipal campaigns more than any other.
“You can say what you need to say on the Internet, which has taken away mail campaigns, and mail is what costs you the most,” Abbott said. “The tools have changed over the years.
“Bottom line, what has stayed consistent is that it’s about messaging and getting it out and having it resonate among the voters.”
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