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June 10, 2011 02:06 AM UTC

Inside Hancock's Blowout Win

  • by: Colorado Pols

Denver Mayor-elect Michael Hancock significantly outperformed a poll we released earlier in the runoff election, and it’s a consensus among most who we’ve talked to that his margin of victory was larger than just about anyone had honestly predicted. While the final results are basically in line with an internal poll released by the Hancock campaign at the same time as our own, maybe presciently, we think there is more to the story.

Former state Sen. Chris Romer certainly did lose this low-turnout election, as opposed to the Hancock campaign having definitively won it. We do believe that there was much more momentum for Romer early in the runoff election than at the end, and even though it was close to the final result, we think the snapshot taken by our poll at that time was a more accurate view of the race then than Hancock’s internal poll. So what happened? A couple of things, actually:

First of all, Romer had a significant likability disadvantage that he never really tried to resolve. Chris Romer is a testament to the self-destructiveness of being a personally stiff and unlikable person, even though every other factor in a campaign may work in your favor. Romer’s stuffy, canned “class president” demeanor in debates and on the campaign trail gained him nothing with apolitical voters who didn’t care about his last name, and once voters understood that they didn’t like him very much or relate to him, that family legacy became a major disadvantage. Romer seemed only peripherally aware of this, and to the extent that he did understand, he didn’t seem to care. Romer certainly had his supporters, but those folks backed him more because he seemed likely to win than because they genuinely believed in him as a candidate; when Romer seemed to fade in the last two weeks of the campaign, those supporters faded right along with him. This personal lack of appeal is also a reason why many voters worked harder in their minds to rationalize Hancock’s various gaffes than they might have otherwise.

On the other hand, the Hancock campaign skillfully defused the issues lobbed at him by Romer and his allies. It’s just as important to understand why they did this as how: the hits on Hancock over his vote to raise city council pay, and later on his repeated creationism gaffes, could have indeed done severe damage to Hancock in a liberal town like Denver. But instead of answering any of these charges on their merits, Hancock’s campaign kept to a simple, boilerplate line about “not engaging in negative campaigning.” Hancock’s team diligently repeated the claim of Romer running a negative campaign, and it eventually stuck with a news media that wasn’t paying that close of attention to the race.

This strategy allowed the Hancock campaign to blunt basically any charge leveled against him, while ensuring that Hancock never had to respond to the facts of what he was being accused of. The critical moment when this strategy prevailed, and quite possibly the end of any chance that Romer ever had, came when Romer decided to pull an ad running against Hancock over the pay raise vote. As soon as Romer conceded this, he gave the “negative campaign” canard–and it was a canard, as the Denver newspaper managed to admit one fleeting time–all the legitimacy it needed to become a part of every report on this race. Romer did not run a negative campaign by any serious measure: the attacks he made on Hancock were backed up by Hancock’s own words and votes. But by not combating the “negative campaign” charges, Romer let them stick.

Rather than pulling his own campaign ad, which was mild at most, Romer should have said, “There’s nothing wrong with pointing out Hancock’s own statements, and there’s nothing wrong with this ad.” Pulling the ad brought nothing positive for Romer, and it began a retreat in which his campaign became hesitant to attack Hancock when it most needed to be aggressive.

There are some other pieces to the story we’ll circle back with in future posts, but these two facets–Romer’s unrecoverable lack of personal appeal, and Hancock’s ability to turn the daily news cycle into a consistent debate on his terms–were the key factors in Hancock’s big win.


21 thoughts on “Inside Hancock’s Blowout Win

  1. Most people have never met either of these guys. I stick to what I said at the beginning of the race: Denver loves an underdog. Just ask Hickenlooper, Webb, Pena….

    1. Hancock wasn’t an underdog. He was President of the City Council.

      This was COMPLETELY about personalities. That’s how Hancock sold the negative garbage. Romer is a jerk with a stupid voice, so of course he’s making things up! Apparently Denver loves a victim.

      1. I may not agree with your assessment of Hancock but this is absolutely about likability and personalities. The Denver Post has a great write up (I think it was today) that said damn near the exact same thing. Voters do not like Romer. Voters thought Bush was a great guy to have a beer with. That’s an awful comparison to make but it’s also an unfortunate truth that voters go with the guy they like.

  2. as Romer’s campaign did when it comes to your “negative campaigning canard” theory.

    It wasn’t just a canard. Some of it WAS negative and there is one incident in particular that stands out for me–the lie about Hancock’s stand on women’s choice. That was just a down and out lie that got rolled out less than 72 hours after round one.

    It was clear that Romer’s camp had mapped out a negative campaign strategy (what other choice did they really have running against someone that people liked more than their own candidate?) But that was a major backfire. Romer came off looking like a liar who would go to any lengths to smear the other guy and he rolled out plenty of people (ie. Theresa Spahn) to perpetuate what turned out to be total bs. That backfire only served to take the sting out of future gaffes that they really could have turned into an advantage, like Hancock’s creationism comment which I found pretty disturbing.

    If you come straight out of the gate lying, people are less inclined to believe you when you actually tell the truth.

    Having your 3 strategy advisers abandon ship on the same day the Governor of the state calls you and 12 hours later, your “negative” ad comes off the air only adds to the perception that your campaign is coming apart internally. It may not be true but it’s all about perception.

    As to your point of Romer’s likability factor, I think you have hit the nail on the head. How do you move up in the polls when people just flat out don’t like you? I honestly don’t know the answer to that so I give the Romer staff some credit for running his campaign the way they did because they really didn’t have any other viable alternatives.  

    1. But as a whole, this was not a “negative campaign.” There was nothing here where you would flat-out gasp at what you saw. We agree that the “choice” attack was a mistake, but overall this was a very tame, sleepy campaign on both sides.  

      1. The perception od anti-choice, creationism, and secure communities would attract it.

        The map of heavy Romer votes reflects the Westside, though the Latino vote must have splintered, too,

      2. Negativity has more to do with tone and demeanor than it does with facts, as well as whether the critical hit pieces are balanced with a fair number of “Vote for me because…” ads. For the runoff, I can’t say I recall a single one of the latter from Romer.

        This election was more like a Democratic primary than a general election, meaning that the standards for what constitutes “negative” are probably not what they would be in a statewide race. Liberals just don’t like the nasty messages like conservatives do.

    2. Agree.

      In politics, as much or more in any other area of life, perception is reality.

      And agree – lie to start and the tone is set.

      As for Romer’s “likeability”  – I don’t know.  I do know that for whatever reason, he looks right through or past everyone. Even on tv.  Contrast that with a candidate like Bill Clinton- who had  a rep for connecting with everyone in a room, and whether he was or wasn’t he didn’t make you feel like he thought he was the smartest guy in the room all the time.

      Anyhoo- congrats and good luck to Mayor Hancock. I had nothing to do with this election and didn’t even pay that much attention. But I am glad it’s over.

  3. When are you going to get over your bad poll? Enough already.  It is interesting to think that the race was ever actually close, but it really wasn’t. There are good polls and bad polls in every race.  You (RBI) produced a bad poll.  The Hancock team had a good pollster.  Find one for your next poll.

    1. was also a lot larger than either of the campaigns thought it would be, right up until polls closed. You’re right, it wasn’t close after the first week, but no one was projecting a 16 pt win.

  4. It’s cheap hack bullshit to never mention the appeal of Hancock’s story — his biggest edge in a race featuring few real policy disagreements — and instead declare  that Hancock benefitted just from (a) a “canard” that Romer was negative campaigning (I see it as a fact, not a canard), and (b) “answering any of these charges on their merits” (false — I saw a debate where Hancock persuasively answered the pay raise attack, at a time when I wasn’t sold on Hancock yet).

    Seriously, it sounds like Pols is a failed B-level political operative bitter that s/he isn’t “in” with the Hancock team.

  5. Guess what: Chris Romer has a compelling personal story to tell, too.  He is a successful businessman and public servant.  He has made major contributions to nonprofit education groups. He’s a good father and husband.  Etc. Etc.

    I don’t think that story was communicated to the public.  As Nancy says, most people haven’t met the candidates.  They get their information from ads and literature drops.

    Telling Chris’ story, ideally in a creative/humorous way, would have made a huge difference.

    1. The pay raise ad probably ran heaviest when voters were paying the most attention, but 100,000 of those who voted in the runoff also voted in the May 3 election, and in the run-up to that, Romer was running plenty of ads about just the things you say he should have put before voters.

      “creative/humorous” ads have to match the candidates — just look at Boigon’s, which were, in someone’s mind, creative and humorous, but fell flat. Romer’s life story and education background ads wouldn’t have cut through any better if there’d been parachutes involved.

    2. I don’t think we’re going to see another “cupcake” campaign in this state again.

      It’s a great thing to portray yourself as cute, and quirky, and genuine when that’s what you actually are . . .

      But, to attempt to portray yourself as cute, and quirky, and genuine when you’re the actually the incarnation of craven self-interest, only makes you look more craven.

  6. This was a thoughtful analysis and great reflection on what was quite a race!

    My question though, if you’d be so kind to answer, as I can’t figure out the answer –

    Let’s be honest – negative campaigns are effective – and they’re made even more effective when the ‘attacked’ campaign takes the tone of “We’re running a clean campaign, based on issues, with no mud” — in other words, think of John Kerry and the swift boat attack – Kerry took the higher road and got DESTROYED

    On the other hand, when attacks were levied against Bill Clinton he forcefully attacked back, which was clearly effective

    My point and question – to me, Michael Hancock ran the “I’m taking the higher road” campaign and somehow won??? To me that was a shock

    So, I ask – how did Michael Hancock win the race, by perpetuating such a theme?

    Is America truly changing and getting more agitated over negative politics?

    Is Denver different from everywhere else?

    Was Chris Romer just such a disastrous candidate that my question is irrelevant to begin with?

    The best explanation I can come up with is twofold –

    First, Denver does have a great ‘community’ spirit and I could see how negative attacks backfire in a big way, when dealing with a community that is so tight knit

    Second, Colorado hates political dynasties and I almost think there is nothing Romer could’ve done to win, so perhaps my question is irrelevant to begin with

    Anyways – I would love a response from CPols and anyone else who wants to weigh in

    1. With the exception of those folks who owed him favors, Romer isn’t popular among the progressive activist base who do the heavy GOTV lifting in a race like this.  When he didn’t crack 45% in the first round, his chances hinged on a “June Surprise” that either never happened or happened too late.

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