Campaigns likely won’t wait for fall

May 9, 2019

Fort Wayne voters won’t have to wait until Labor Day to start hearing from candidates running in the November city election.

“I don’t think we’re going to have to wait very long to get a feeling for how the two sides will campaign,” said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue Fort Wayne.

Until recently, Labor Day was regarded as the unofficial start to city election season.

The winners of Tuesday’s primary are locked onto the ballot for the Nov. 5 general election, and political parties have until June 30 to fill any remaining ballot vacancies. So far, the only uncontested races in Fort Wayne are for City Council districts 1 and 2.

Although the primary has just ended, it’s reasonable to expect advertisements and other means of communication to begin appearing sooner than they might have in previous elections, Downs said.

But as he looks toward a race against three-term incumbent Mayor Tom Henry, MedPro Executive Tim Smith will have to determine whether his primary campaign strategy will work for the general election. Smith on Tuesday defeated longtime City Councilman John Crawford for the Republican mayoral nomination. The race became contentious late last month after Smith ran TV advertisements that Crawford denounced as negative.

“Negative campaigning works, or no one would use it,” Downs said. “But we have seen campaigns go negative or challenge their opponents faster than they used to.”

Much of what constitutes negative campaigning lies in the eye of the beholder, Downs said. What might be considered negative by some might be regarded by others as simply highlighting facts.

“I think a large percentage of voters understand there has to be contrast drawn: Who am I, but also who is my opponent,” Downs said. “It’s an issue of tone. Do you do it in a factual way, or do you do it in a way that suggests an interpretation or maybe misrepresents what was said or exaggerates ramifications. That’s when you really start to move into the world of negative.”

Whatever the communication looks like, it shouldn’t be surprising if the advertising comes quickly. It’s more economical than ever, Downs said, to begin campaigning immediately after the primary. Through social media and other electronic forms of communication, candidates can reach out to voters “in a very targeted way for a fairly low cost,” Downs said.

Smith’s general election campaign strategy will be similar to his primary strategy, campaign manager Nick Lauritsen said. The campaign will combine a data-based strategy with the personal touch of running for mayor, Lauritsen said.

“We’ll be talking to voters on doorsteps, on the phone, on social media, trying to reach out to every single voter and show them Tim’s vision for the city,” he said.

It doesn’t appear that Smith’s campaign will shy away from Henry’s record.

“Everyone’s record and policy positions should be subject to the public’s purview,” Lauritsen said.

Upbeat after his victory Tuesday, Mayor Tom Henry shared his campaign’s focus for the weeks and months ahead: “Fort Wayne is on a roll. From upgrades in neighborhood infrastructure to our thriving downtown; an unyielding support of our public safety personnel to the maintenance and growth of our award-winning parks; economic development throughout our great city to a top-rated city utility : how can my message to voters be anything but positive?”

The mayor acknowledged that negativity gripped the Republican primary in the final weeks of the campaign.

“You can define a candidate without being cartoonish or attacking his commitment to leaving this city in a better position than he found it,” he said.