“It is impossible to overstate the depth of the challenge we face.”
Those were the first words from the lips of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s (D) soon-to-be departed primary election pollster at a March briefing. He wasn’t kidding.
Quinn was enjoying a double-digit lead in the primary before being attacked on a controversy surrounding early prison release. At the time, the response of Quinn’s consulting team was, essentially, a non-response. They lost that double-digit lead, and barely survived the primary.
It was no way to enter a general election campaign.
What’s more, over the next seven months, just two of the 32 public opinion polls released showed Governor Quinn in the lead. And just about every major political prognosticator pronounced our campaign dead in the water. At one point, Nate Silver—the political prediction guru at the New York Times—gave Quinn only a 9.4 percent chance of winning the election.
So how did the pundits and insiders have it so wrong? How did the Quinn campaign get outspent by over a million dollars on TV in the last eight weeks and still pull off a victory? And how did Quinn win, while the Democratic candidate to fill President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat lost?
From the start, we knew this wasn’t a conventional race that was going to be won with a conventional game plan and the campaign’s media strategy was structured around that reality. From our vantage point, Quinn’s upset victory over Republican state Sen. Bill Brady came down to four key factors: a focus on character and values, good timing, engaging on social issues and a willingness on the campaign’s part to break the rules.
Character & Values
Pat Quinn is a man of deep integrity and a skilled leader. He has been a passionate fighter for working families his entire life. As governor, Quinn was faced with some tough governing decisions after ascending to the post following the impeachment of disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Throughout the race, Brady tried to use Blagojevich to bring down Quinn, but our research showed the attacks simply didn’t stick. Voters knew Quinn was independent from the former governor, and we even had Blagojevich saying Quinn wasn’t part of his administration. That was the good news.
But going into the job, one of the tough decisions Quinn had to make was advocating for an increase in the state income tax. It wasn’t your typical campaign platform, especially in an election year dominated by jobs and the economy. And, as it turned out, a Republican tidal wave would sweep many safer Democrats with easier races, out of office. But that’s what we were faced with.
Knowing that executive offices are often won and lost on a candidate’s character and values, we drove that debate with a series of paid media spots against Brady, always posing the same question to voters: “Who is this guy?”
By tying each policy issue and legislative vote to Brady’s values and worldview, we were able to define him as someone voters should be uncomfortable with. The spot we crafted on Brady’s support to lower the minimum wage, for example, wasn’t just about lowering the minimum wage. It was about painting Brady as an out-of-touch multi-millionaire who doesn’t understand the struggles of everyday people. It was also about Brady’s values, demonstrating how he might look at other problems should he win the governor’s office.
Contrast that to our positive spots in the final weeks of the race. They were all about Quinn’s character and values. This was our trump card. Throughout his life Quinn has worked to earn his reputation as an honest leader who was never afraid to speak up and battle special interests on behalf of everyday men and women. In an age of cynicism, Quinn’s low-key authenticity and reputation as an honest leader proved a powerful weapon. Our positive spots tried to capture that essence and remind voters that this was the guy who fought as a reformer and consumer advocate on behalf of middle-class Illinois families for decades.