The Yes side was slow in getting out of the starting blocks and that gave the Vote No campaign an opening to define the campaign on our terms— it was about what was best for the students and the future of public education in Idaho.
The gist of our message was that these laws were a top-down, one size-fits-all mandate imposed by politicians in Boise who were intent on silencing the voices of teachers in the discussion of how to improve Idaho’s schools.
We still faced the challenge of getting our message out in a complex media environment. Large parts of rural Idaho, particularly up north, were populated by people with satellite dishes that do not show local advertisements. So we ran a very robust social media campaign that invested heavily in banner ads and pre-roll videos on targeted websites.
Idaho has some 800,000 registered voters and approximately 643,420 Facebook users. Turnout is typically high in a presidential year (higher than 80 percent), so Facebook became an important platform for driving our message. We deployed multiple Facebook pages to appeal to specific segments of the electorate. In addition to the Vote No page, active discussions took place on the pages of Idaho Conservatives Voting No on Props 1,2,3, Students Against the Luna Laws and Idaho Businesses for Responsible Education Reform.
We engaged with voters from across the political spectrum—from Tea Party supporters to liberal Democrats. We preempted the traditional Labor Day campaign kick-off of radio and TV ad wars by running banner ads and pre-roll web videos produced by Winning Mark in August. We had reserved spaces on relevant “hyper local” websites in anticipation of a back-to-school campaign aimed at the parents of school-age children.
We used the Google Display Network and embedded YouTube videos in “promoted posts” on the timeline and sidebar of Facebook users. One example: For years, many Idaho teachers had been spending hundreds of dollars of their own money to buy supplies that the schools failed to provide. As parents shopped online for school items for their kids, they saw a banner ad that asked, “Guess who else is buying school supplies for your kids?” Answer: Teachers. We collected Internet Protocol addresses, used geographic (zip code) targeting and overlaid it with demographic data from our polling to run a strong online program right up to Election Day.
Our online activities yielded great results. A typical three-week program resulted in over 631,000 impressions and 2,000 likes on Facebook, 56,880 views and 1,800 clicks on YouTube and 865,000 impressions on the Google Display Network with a click through rate of just less than 1 percent.
The viral sharing of our social media exceeded our expectations. By the conclusion of the campaign, we had reached 479,165 people on Facebook—75 percent of all the Facebook users in the state. Not straying from the message, a large part of our messaging strategy was the use of local messengers to talk to the media and to voters—parents and many teachers who were viewed very favorably. They appeared in our TV ads and pre-roll web videos.
For example, we had a mom who delivered a simple but poignant message about her daughter: “Until she was five, I was Kelsey’s first teacher. Now I rely on the strength and dedication of Idaho’s teachers to help Kelsey learn. But since the legislature passed Props 1, 2 and 3— over 1,800 Idaho teachers have left teaching. I want my daughter to get a great education but the Luna laws and their top down mandates are driving away some of our best and brightest teachers. Nothing’s more important to me than Kelsey’s education. Props 1, 2 and 3 are just too big of a risk.”
Many teachers felt like they had a target on their backs. Polling showed they needed to be loud and proud, and that was an important part of how we delivered our message. Our volunteer phone banks were staffed largely by teachers.
As the election drew near, we conducted telephone town halls that targeted men and voters from rural and low-range communication areas. This format gave us the chance to have more in-depth discussions about the three propositions. Knowing that part of our audience was suspicious of this “union fight,” conversations were led by a local parent or teacher.
When our campaign was attacked for allegedly being a pawn for the teachers’ union, we didn’t bite the bait. We focused relentlessly on what these laws would mean for Idaho’s students, and reinforced what we learned from our polling—Idaho’s elected officials were seen as the chief culprit. They had been underfunding public education for many years. This in turn put a greater burden on local taxpayers to make up the difference, and they didn’t like it.
Republicanism in Idaho is streaked with Rocky Mountain libertarian beliefs. These voters don’t like government. But they like teachers. Making it harder for teachers to do their jobs didn’t make sense to independent, but fair-minded conservative voters. By having teachers tell their personal stories of the conditions under which they worked and pointing to the “brain drain” of a growing number of teachers leaving the profession, we struck a responsive chord. It was important that we had genuine conservative support. When critical comments appeared on the Facebook page of Idaho Conservatives Voting No, responses came from a Tea Party activist who also posted links to his writings on why he opposed the laws.
We were also able to take advantage of some strategic missteps on the part of the opposition. We fully expected the other side would see what we saw in our polling—Tom Luna was toxic—and that he would eventually be put on the bench. But it never happened. Luna’s performance at a widely-covered October debate drew moans at one point from the sellout crowd. Our side was ably represented by retiring Democratic state Rep. Brian Cronin and the head of Idaho operations for Strategies 360. Cronin made a forceful case for how the Luna Laws were shaped by a fiscal crisis and not a need for education reform. He called the laws a plan for doing “education on the cheap” and denounced them as a “bait-and-switch con.”
The other side made an initial effort to sell these laws as an essential part of a 21st century education for Idaho’s students. But as things heated up, they resorted to warning voters of the undue influence of the teachers union if the laws were rejected. The most overt union-bashing came from Frank VanderSloot, a very wealthy entrepreneur and a national finance co-chair for the Romney campaign. He underwrote much of the advertising by various groups supporting the Luna Laws.
VanderSloot’s company, Melaleuca, ran a number of full-page newspaper ads denouncing the “union bosses (who) have declared war on education reform.” The ads were loaded with a lot of copy and fine print. VanderSloot had money to burn.
By the end of the campaign, he had spent nearly $2 million on radio, TV and print. Mitt Romney made a late appearance in a VanderSloot funded spot. It was an excerpt from a Romney speech where he castigates the teachers unions for standing in the way of education reform.
The election results weren’t even close. Propositions 1, 2, & 3 were overwhelmingly rejected. 57 percent voted “No” to restricting the rights of teachers in Proposition 1. 58 percent voted “No” to linking teacher performance to student test scores in Proposition 2. 67 percent voted “No” to the laptop and online course mandate in Proposition 3.
The “No” vote on Prop 3 garnered more votes than Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, which received 65 percent of the vote in Idaho. By running what one commentator called “a smart, disciplined campaign” and capitalizing on the widespread popularity of teachers, we were able easily to overcome the union-bashing of our opponents.
Those who are intent on trying to curb the influence of public employee unions should heed the lesson here. Be careful going after teachers. They are beloved.
David Williams was the general consultant and campaign manager for the Vote No on Propositions 1, 2, and 3 campaign. He is the founder and President of Southpaw Associates.