Homespun local elections may fade

It was only a matter of time before modern campaigning - data driven, strategic, marketing slick - trickled down to our local elections in southeastern Connecticut. It appears to have happened with the election of Mayor Deberey Hinchey in Norwich.

Day Staff Writer Claire Bessette dissected the campaign that culminated in Mayor Hinchey's Nov. 5 election, in a March 2 front-page story. The election was unlike any other in city history.

Mayor Hinchey faced long odds in confronting two strong challengers. In the Democratic primary, she faced a city councilor, Charles Jaskiewicz, a former Board of Education chairman long active in the city's political and civic life.

After defeating him, she went up against incumbent Mayor Peter Nystrom. Though he is a Republican in a Democratic city, Mayor Nystrom had repeatedly demonstrated his ability to get votes in successful runs for council and as a state representative.

How did Mayor Hinchey win? She raised a lot of money and spent it well.

This is not to diminish her ability as a candidate. Mayor Hinchey is likable. Her vow to work full-time as mayor, despite its part-time pay and description, certainly appealed to some voters. Though she and deposed Mayor Nystrom were not far apart on issues, she capitalized on voter discontent with the city's struggling fortunes, tied to the economic malaise in the region generally.

It is questionable, however, if she could have ousted the incumbent by running a traditional campaign.

Candidate Hinchey raised $66,000 during her primary and general election campaigns. Almost all of it went to hire The Vinci Group, a Manchester-based campaign-consulting firm run by Mike Farina and Democratic state Rep. Geoff Luxenberg.

The consultants analyzed the data to target potential voters most likely to support the candidate. Targeting voters and getting them to the polls has always been a key ingredient for successful candidates, particularly in local elections, when turnouts are usually pitiably poor. However, in this age of sophisticated computer-assisted analysis, such efforts are becoming more science than seat of the pants.

The consultants helped Mayor Hinchey target which neighborhoods to visit, pre-called residents to learn their concerns and help the candidate prepare for their questions. Analysis showed emphasizing that the candidate was a woman - potentially the first woman mayor - would gain votes. There were follow-up calls to likely supporters and reminders to vote.

Absent was the typical investment to flood the community with campaign signs. The candidate expended no time glad handing at festivals because there was no assurance the glad-handed were voters. You did not see her standing on busy street corners with supporters waving and holding signs.

Target your voters, find their concerns and address them, then get them out on Election Day.

Mayor Nystrom ran a traditional campaign, raised a bit more than $10,000 and loaned his campaign $2,600, spending that would have stood him well in past elections, but not this one.

The former mayor says he was hurt by the candidacy of Libertarian William Russell, who received 388 votes, more than the 272 votes the incumbent finished behind Mayor Hinchey. While many of Mr. Russell's votes would have likely gone to the Republican incumbent, not all would and some of those voters may have stayed home without a Libertarian choice.

Seeing a candidate spend more money than the job is worth - Norwich pays its mayor $45,000 - may be a new phenomenon locally, but at state and federal election levels it is expected, and so hardly shocking.

No one should fault Mayor Hinchey for doing what she saw as necessary to win. She played within the rules. If she were not a good candidate, the money would not have mattered.

However, something will be lost as this trend grows. The 2015 New London mayoral election will be interesting to watch. In civics' class, students learn elections provide a clash of ideas, with voters setting policy direction by their choices. That seems nobler than having marketers packaging policies as if they were products, identifying only the consumers likely to "buy," and getting them to the "store" (voting booth).

There is something wonderfully Americana about lawn signs, and local politicians waving from street corners or visiting festivals even though many of the people in attendance may not vote. But that's not sophisticated. Progress, such as it is, marches on.

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