Winning an Issue or Tax Campaign Takes Strategy, Planning, Volunteers
(and a little luck)
SixtyOne Celsius is no stranger to taking on difficult and sometimes divisive ballot initiative and community enhancement projects. In the past three years, the agency has taken what community leaders would naturally consider to be “easy wins,” but agency president Stephanie Alderdice points out, there is no such thing when it comes to asking voters to allow a government entity to spend their tax dollars.
“Credibility is paramount in any campaign but absolutely critical in a tax or ballot issue campaign,” said Alderdice. “Voters are watching closely to make sure all your t’s are crossed and i’s dotted. One slip-up and you’ll lose important momentum that’s hard to regain.”
The three most recent initiatives taken on by the agency would appear to all be win-win initiatives:
- Improve roads and local infrastructure with the state paying for the majority of the work.
- Construct an exhibition hall for high-value, nationally-touring exhibits at a wildly popular science museum.
- Build baseball fields to provide a facility for both local teams and to attract tournaments while using existing taxation.
CAMPAIGN: Home Run for Hot Springs, 2019
OVERVIEW: Voters in Hot Springs had the opportunity to build a region-leading baseball facility with an $8.5 million bond. The complex would fill a missing component of a burgeoning outdoor tourism segment in the community while highlighting Hot Springs' significance in Major League Baseball history. If the proposal passed, there will be no new taxes nor an increased tax rate. The project would be financed with a 30-year bond issue guaranteed by the existing advertising and promotion tax with additional project support in the form of a $500,000 grant from the Oaklawn Foundation and a $50,000 pledge from Ritter Communications.
STRATEGY: The most important component was to mobilize the sports and business community as joint partners in promoting tourism, famlily activities, and improving local quality of life amenities. The campaign sought to correct public rumors and misperceptions often associated with the A&P tax. Finally, the campaign sought to explain that the seemingly high cost for the project were associated with artificial turf and covered grandstands -- specific investments that would make the venue highly sought after for tournaments and tourists with features beyond other sports parks throughout the state and region.
RESULTS: Passed 1,126 to 712
PROMISED REVENUE: $8.5 MILLION
CAMPAIGN: Full S.T.E.A.M. Ahead, 2018
OVERVIEW: City of Hot Springs voters were asked to approve a $2 million bond. The bonds would be secured by the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission's 3-percent hospitality tax. The funds would provide the capital to expand the Mid-America Science Museum by adding a 6,000 square feet exhibition hall. The addtional space would be suitable for national touring exhibitions, Smithsonian exhibits as an affiliated institution, and revenue-generating community events.
STRATEGY: The baseline for the campaign was an engaged group of annual museum members and subscribers who have a deep (and often generation-spanning) affinity for the institution who were already energized by a recent renovation of the forty-year-old facilitiy. We focused our message on the new and dynamic educational opportunities to be offered by the expansion while explaining the tax would be borne by tourists.
RESULTS: Passed 1,003 to 520
PROMISED REVENUE: $1.8 MILLION
CAMPAIGN: Pave It Forward, 2016
OVERVIEW: In late 2015, Garland County officials were presented with a rare opportunity from the Arkansas Highway Department. If the county were able to guarantee $30 million toward infrastructure improvement projects, the state would allocate an additional $35 million in funds for the initiative. The lion’s share of the project ($54.6 million) would go toward the northern extension of Highway 270 -- also known locally as the MLK Expressway -- into Hot Springs Village, Jessieville and Fountain Lake. The remainder of the $65 million would be spent on additional road projects within the city of Hot Springs as well as other parts of Garland County. To guarantee the matching funds, a special election was scheduled for June 28, 2016.
STRATEGY: The key to success was uniting Hot Springs and Hot Springs Village together as a community of shared interests while also explaining the incredible bargain for the area thanks to matching funds from the state. Recent investments in highway projects helped to demonstrate the daily value that quality infrastructure brings to the community. We chose a leader from each area as co-chairs to diffuse any divineness and worked the plan. The campaign also sought strategic investments from community advocacy groups.
RESULTS: Passed 4,415 to 2,362
PROMISED REVENUE: $65 MILLION
“When I first started handling political campaigns, I was taught to run like you’re losing until the polls closed. That’s how we approach every campaign we handle,” said Alderdice.
Let’s take a look at some of the common denominators that SixtyOne Celsius tries to include in each of their campaigns. We say “try” because some groups or candidates are more organized than others and some are better financed.
We’re in It to Win It!
“If we sound like we overthink it, you’re right,” said Alderdice. “We fret over the details. We are totally consumed by the project until it’s over. We think that’s why our win rate is so high and why we're able to proudly say that we’ve been a part of bringing over $75 million in promised investment to the area.”
Top Ten Components of a Successful Campaign
- Establish your campaign leadership and a diverse committee of engaged stakeholders. These folks are the backbone of any campaign.
- Raise support. A winning campaign takes a robust group of recruited volunteers, and money in the bank raised to reach a wide audience. You never can have enough vocal advocates or dollars raised.
- Develop a cohesive campaign strategy. It's easy to think that your project is a clear winner on face value, but a true winner requires a strategy that carries the campaign from start to finish--with all the highs and lows in between. If you don’t have a written plan, you don’t have a plan.
- Create a news release strategy. The media is not always your friend but is necessary to communicate with wider audience of voters—especially older voters who are more likely to turn out and cast ballots. Working with the media requires focused and concise messaging. Effective campaigns require a core message than be shared quickly and digested easily by most audiences.
- Develop dynamic campaign materials. This can be as much or as little as your budget can stand and include everything from television commercials to yard signs and hand out cards.
- Launch a great website. An online presence is no longer a luxury but is an essential platform. Websites become home base for all your communications and can be updated easily with new talking points that are responsive to debates, discussions, and dialogues regarding your campaign.
- Focus on social and digital media strategy. Campaigns are won both online and offline. Social media provides a wide-reaching megaphone to your supporters to reach their ever-expanding networks. The most inexpensive and perhaps most important part of your campaign is built around a committed team who speak up and out for your project.
- Enlist speakers and support them with appropriate material. Community groups are often made up of diverse and progressive citizens interested in seeing growth in their hometowns. You should seek out magnetic supporters for your cause to engage with these groups using a clear and consistent message that helps to create additional advocates.
- Write letters to the editor. In a heated campaign, this becomes an important tool to communicate to serious voters who actually do their homework and are reading between the lines. Though your campaign requires regular headlines, it's important to not skip over a portion of the daily newspaper where locals spend significant attention listening to their neighbors to weigh in on the issues of the day.
- Have your supporters say it, show it, and believe in it. Most voters will scour a list of supporters or “againners” to see who they know and trust (or don’t). Personal endorsements are both an individual sign of commitment as well as a visual symbol of a unified group of advocates trying to make a difference.