Consultant Case Study

What do you call a candidate who gets outspent 8-to-1 on television? In one rare case, you call him congressman.

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) won a special election for White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s former congressional seat this February because his campaign understood that special elections are, well, special. The campaign’s formula for victory was clear: an authentic message, delivered repetitively by a credible messenger to a clear target. While Quigley’s better-funded challengers were marshalling resources for TV ad buys, Quigley put his faith in a more targeted effort that paid big dividends on Election Day.

Quigley did not start the race as the favorite. State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz was widely regarded as the candidate to beat. The only major female candidate in the race appeared to have a clear path to victory after raising a boatload of money and picking up the support of EMILY’s List and the SEIU—the most muscular political operation in Illinois. State Rep. John Fritchey also had a number of advantages in the race: the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, the backing of several powerful ward organizations and a prolific fundraising ability. He ran an aggressive campaign with serious reform credentials.

But Quigley had something the other campaigns did not: a clear message and a plan to dominate communication with the voters who mattered most—older voters who lived on the Northwest side of Chicago, a mainly white, blue collar and ethnically diverse chunk of Illinois’ 5th Congressional District.

His opponents blew nearly all of their campaigns’ limited resources on a broadcast TV barrage in the last two weeks of the race. Quigley, however, gambled on low turnout and had a plan to target 42,000 Democratic primary voters with an early and robust 15-piece direct mail campaign. Given the landscape, The Strategy Group recommended a straightforward and simple plan—pick one medium, dominate it and get to voters with a unique message before the other campaigns could even get off the deck. What made the message unique was Quigley’s 10-year track record of fighting against the Cook County Democratic machine and the wasteful, patronage-dominated Cook County government, headed first by John Stroger and then by his son Todd, the current Cook County Board president.

The younger Stroger embodied all of the worst traits of the father without any of the political savvy. The two percent sales tax he imposed gave Chicago the dubious distinction of having the highest sales tax rate in the nation. The result was that among cash-strapped, anti-tax Democratic primary voters, Todd Stroger was as unpopular as George W. Bush. And Mike Quigley was the archenemy of the Stroger brand of bloated, patronage-dominated government funded by higher taxes on working people and seniors.

The campaign did not have the resources to mail 15 pieces to the entire 42,000-person voting universe. Since the three major candidates were all from the eastern part of the district, where there were fewer undecided voters for whom the campaigns could compete, we decided to focus on seniors in the northern and western parts of the district. Here’s how the campaign parsed out its mail campaign:

Eastern/Central, under 50: 7 pieces
North/Western, under 50: 8 pieces
Eastern/Central, over 50: 10 pieces
North/Western, over 50; 14 pieces

By dominating the demographics and regions where the undecideds clustered, we were able to have a longer conversation with these key voters before the TV campaigns began. And the campaign could drive a clear contrast between Quigley, the reformer who fought Todd Stroger’s hated sales tax, and the legislators who had supported similar tax hikes in the state capitol. Feigenholtz and the SEIU concentrated their TV buys in the last two weeks, with ads that essentially implied that if Sarah Feigenholtz won, people would get better healthcare. It was a claim that fell flat with voters.

Fritchey ran his first ad with two bickering kids dressed up like Feigenholtz and Quigley, a fight that no viewer was seeing on their TV. By the time Feigenholtz shifted her message to attack Quigley, the dye was cast. He was the reformer who stood up to Stroger, a claim backed by endorsements from both Chicago newspapers and beloved reformer Forrest Claypool, while Feigenholtz and Fritchey appeared to be typical politicians who either overpromised or just attacked.

Quigley did manage to scrape up enough money to respond to the attacks on TV over the last few days, with an extremely smart buy and spot produced by Saul Shorr, who even as a media consultant was the strongest advocate for the heavy reliance on mail. Together with pollster John Anzalone, the team had cohesion, a clear plan, and the perfect candidate to connect to the anti-Stroger, antitax revolt brewing.

As the chart shows, Quigley was outgunned on TV 8-1, but won by over 2,000 votes in a race that saw about 55,000 votes cast. The gamble to go with mail over TV and focus heavily on the Northwest side was risky—a higher turnout would have accentuated the reach of TV and likely catapulted Feigenholtz to victory. But in the end, Quigley’s calculated risk paid off earning him 12,100 votes, 23 percent of the vote in a crowded field, and the title of congressman.

Pete Giangreco is a partner at The Strategy Group, which handled direct mail for Rep. Mike Quigley’s 2009 special election campaign. In 2008, Giangreco served as the lead direct mail consultant to Barack Obama’s primary campaign.