2019 Mayoral Race Part 2: Thinking about Dan Coffey’s independent bid for mayor.

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In the first part of today’s digression, mayoral election voting totals and trends since 1971 are examined, with eye toward the potential impact of independent candidates.

2019 Mayoral Race Part 1: Numbers, because “three’s company, two. Or four? Maybe more.”

Yesterday’s column dealt with post-primary middle fingers, black dogs and redemptive day drinking: ON THE AVENUES: Where do we go from here?

In it, I made this observation.

Precipice, meet Wile E. Gahan. Few of David White’s supporters will vote for Hizzoner. Some of them may sit out the general election, but most will opt for Mark Seabrook. Combine the corrosive trends of two-term attrition with those 300 votes Gahan lost Tuesday, and Dear Leader’s autumn ceiling is looking like 3,000 votes at most — and this doesn’t factor the chunk subtracted from the Democrats by Dan Coffey’s probable independent candidacy.

Indeed, current 1st district council representative Dan Coffey, for many years a Democrat but more recently unattached politically, is preparing his petition to run for mayor as an upper-case Independent. He finds fault with my analysis.

Roger.

Your math may be off. There are as many disenfranchised Republicans as there are Democrats. I’m not running to fulfill one person’s wishes. I’m running to take the politics out of government and giving the government back to the people. If you’re looking for a spoiler, look at one of the party candidates.

Dan Coffey

As a onetime independent candidate myself, I take Dan’s comment to heart. In looking back at election results since World War II, there were no independent candidates until 1991.

1991: Democrat Doug England (4,785) defeats Independent Phyllis Garmon (4,154) and Republican Kenny Keilman (2,344).
Total votes: 11,283
Percentage: 42 – 37 – 21

If I recall correctly, Garmon identified as a Republican and ran independently owing to some manner of a GOP internecine spat. Perhaps a reader can provide wider background.

Understanding that England, while mildly left-leaning, could hardly be characterized as “progressive” or “liberal” in any contemporary sense, it must have been a very conservative campaign, with the ultimate point being that no independent mayoral candidate in New Albany has ever performed better than Garmon did in 1991.

Garmon’s 4,154 votes and 37% are huge, and England took office in 1992 with 58% of the voters having displayed a preference for someone else.

However England (D) rallied for a convincing win in 1995, only to be crushed by Regina Overton (R) in 1999. Overton in turn was swamped by James Garner (D) in 2003, when a Libertarian candidate first appeared on the ballot.

2003: Democratic challenger James Garner defeats Overton, 5,971 to 3,893; 196 votes cast for Melanie Hughes (Libertarian).
Total votes: 10,600
Percentage: 59 – 39 – 2

Garner was toppled from within by a Democratic Party coup during the 2007 primary, from which England emerged to barely beat Randy Hubbard (R) in the fall. This beings us to 2011, and the current mayor’s easy win against a divided field, which included an independent candidate as well as a Libertarian.

2011: Democrat Jeff Gahan (4,506) defeats Republican Dale “DM” Bagshaw (1,389), Independent Jack Messer (1,024) and Libertarian Thomas Keister (88).
Total votes: 7,007
Percentage: 64 – 20 – 15 – 1

2015: Democrat Jeff Gahan (3,527) defeats Republican Kevin Zurschmiede (2,695) and Independent Roger A. Baylor (462).
Total votes: 6,684
Percentage: 53 – 40 – 7

In three of the past four mayoral contests, there have been candidates other than Democrats and Republicans. Erstwhile councilman and police officer Jack Messer achieved the highest tally for an independent since Garmon, with 1,024 votes (15%) in 2011. I achieved slightly less than half of Jack’s total in 2015, with 462.

This brings us full circle to Dan’s thought: “There are as many disenfranchised Republicans as there are Democrats.”

Yesterday I gave in to the temptation of looking at the forthcoming mayoral election as an expression of the traditional duopoly, a simple “D” versus “R” equation. However, I contradicted myself to an extent by imagining that most of White’s voters in the Democratic primary will identify with the GOP’s Seabrook as an expression of anti-Gahan sentiment.

We know the Republican Party is numerically inferior inside city limits, although there’s no real way of determining how many of New Albany’s voters are “hard” and “soft” when it comes to party affiliation.

What we don’t know at present is the level of disaffection within Republican party ranks. The Democrats certainly have left and right wings internally, and I hear rumors to the same effect about the GOP. Recently an insider told me that having a “big tent” is a fine idea until you start inviting people into it.

My guess is that Dan feels he’ll draw equally from Democrats, Republicans and whatever remains of the pool of voters who treat municipal elections as a time to vote for the person, not the party.

As I can attest, the biggest problem for an independent candidate is reaching voters. I foresee Dan knocking on quite a few doors in the coming months. Lately he’s more visible on social media. When New Albany had a newspaper of its own, there was more coverage of local elections than there is now, which is to say that nowadays he won’t get much in the way of media attention without purchasing it.

There’s not enough information to judge, at least yet, although as Garmon proved way back in 1991 it’s possible for an independent to smash the 30-percentile barrier, potentially reducing any three-way race to the theoretical status of toss-up.

This is Coffey’s challenge: get 2,000 votes and a 30-odd percentage share and go into the late innings with a chance of pulling off the indie upset — and make no mistake; for any independent to win over the power-sharing arrangement perpetuated by both major parties must be considered an upset. The deck’s stacked against independent candidates, and the parties act in concert to keep it this way.

Following is a complete essay by Drew Curtis in which he clearly outlines the problems and possibilities for an independent candidate in a nation that has long since surrendered to the two-party duopoly. Much of this applies to Dan or any other local independent candidate. Later this summer I hope to interview Dan about his platform, so please stay tuned.

Op-Ed: Taking Parties Out of Politics

In the 1800s, political parties were candidates’ social networks. Drew Curtis, founder of social networking news site Fark.com and Kentucky gubernatorial candidate, now asks if we still need parties in 2015.

Upvoted.com … Drew Curtis • October 3, 2015

Tonight at 6:45 PM, two candidates will take the stage of Newlin Hall in Danville, Ky., to debate why a Republican or a Democrat should be the next governor of our state. I’m the third guy, running as an Independent, who was not permitted to join them onstage, and I’m here to tell you why our two-party system is outdated.

When George Washington gave his 1796 Farewell Address, he devoted two paragraphs to these new things called “political parties” and the dangers they represented to democracy. He warned that if they were allowed to continue to exist, they’d subvert government to their own ends, make themselves rich, start wars to retain power, and a whole host of other things—all of which actually happened exactly as predicted.

When the Framers wrote the Constitution, America had no political parties. They’re not mentioned anywhere in the entire document.

The Founding Fathers believed in a different style of politician: citizen candidates. They wanted political office to function similar to jury duty. Citizens would serve in government positions for a limited term, transfer the office peacefully to new citizens, and return to private life.

Yet when we register to vote we are required to choose a party. And as I’ve discovered running as an Independent, the parties have made it nearly impossible to attain office without their support.

Note that I said near-impossible. Here’s why it’s possible now:

Political parties exist because they had to—in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, there was no other possible way to get elected. There was no alternative method any normal person could gain enough notoriety and voter support to win an election in the pre-digital age.

In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, parties built huge power bases run by regional bosses that retained control of votes by providing welfare-like services to individuals that weren’t technically bribes (but actually were). If you were poor and needed blankets for your children, you could go to the local Democrat or Republican office and get them—with the implicit expectation that you would vote for the party in the next election.

Political parties founded nearly all newspapers. Incidentally, this is why many towns had two newspapers—one for each party. They controlled the votes, they controlled the media, and they controlled access to the ballot.

In Kentucky, for example, if you simply run as a Democrat or Republican, you only need two signatures to get listed on the ballot. If you don’t, you need 5,000 valid signatures of registered Kentucky voters. And they check all of them by hand. And if you somehow miss the 5,000 mark, you don’t receive the opportunity to make up the difference, you start completely over at zero. I gathered 10,000 signatures just to be sure. It took months to do this and all our early resources.

So what’s changed that makes Independent runs possible?

Political parties are 19th century social networks. Now we have new social networks, and 21st century social networks transcend the limits of a two-party system.

Social networks are communities built around an atomic raison d’etre at their core. For example, Fark is built around news with a humorous context. Reddit is built around the proliferation of all ideas, news or otherwise. And political parties are built around the goal of getting individuals elected so that parties can retain power, enrich their friends, and maybe—if they get around to it—actually fixing social ills.

Kentucky actually has a surprisingly strong recent history of Independent candidates running for Governor. For the past three decades, Gatewood Galbraith ran for Governor, first as a Democrat, and later as an Independent. Sadly, he passed away in 2012.

In 2011, Galbraith received nine percent of the vote—which is interesting because most of the televised debate criteria for the 2015 election requires 10 percent in a poll. I refer to this as the Gatewood Exclusion Criteria because I don’t think that number is an accident.

I’ve spoken with people who were involved in Galbraith’s previous campaigns before deciding to run for Governor because I wanted to be sure that the problems he encountered were ones that were either out-of-play or problems that I could overcome somehow.

My conclusion was that Galbraith had three main issues that held him back from success at the polls—all of which can now be solved through effective use of social media:

Time Management
This isn’t actually a party-related issue—it’s a logistics issue. I’m fortunate that as an entrepreneur, I am well aware that there is an infinite amount of work to do at my job. It doesn’t matter how much I accomplish in any given day: Work is never finished. The same goes for running for office, but it’s even worse because ideally, if you had the time, you’d personally sit down with each and every voter and talk to them. There’s no way to do this. I have been executing some interesting strategies via social media that go a long way toward solving this. However, that’s a write-up for a different day, post-election. In a nutshell: Simply being busy doesn’t correlate to actual progress. Effective use of time is paramount, and social media can magnify your impact.

Media Coverage and Signal Strength
Galbraith ran for office during a time where newspapers, radio, and television could (and did) function as information-gatekeepers. People involved with his prior campaigns said that local media refused to give him coverage because he didn’t place ad buys with them (incidentally, I’m not having that problem in 2015. Although there is still reluctance for media to acknowledge a third candidate in the race, I think this is due to habit more than anything else).

Galbraith couldn’t afford to advertise—he wasn’t able to raise enough money to buy ads because he didn’t have the media signal strength to reach donors. While there were probably other non-merit-related reasons why media chose to not give him coverage, the main point here is that media-gatekeeping mattered because he had no other available option. There was just no other effective way to get his message to the public.

Today, however, we have social networks. From the beginning, my strategy has been to encourage everyone to boost my signal. If you like what you hear, tell 10 people. Then tell them to do the same. Like Galbraith, I’d absolutely make advertising buys, but it turns out that most political donors give to campaigns to buy influence—and I’m not selling it. Oh, and, by the way: Any US citizen can donate to the campaign at drewcurtis.com/donate (hint, hint).

Framing Damage
As for Galbraith’s third problem, he had no way to counter framing attacks. If you’ve ever noticed how political candidates dodge questions, fail to provide specifics, and spend all their time attacking their opponents, then you’re already wise to the actual point of debates—which is hitting your opponent with negative ways to frame them and their ideas with the hopes that something sticks that changes voters’ minds.

During his first campaign, now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won elected office by successfully framing his opponent as someone who never showed up to congressional votes—which was true, by the way. His opponent really did have a terrible congressional attendance record. Voters soon came to perceive the incumbent as a terrible elected official and switched their votes to McConnell instead.

But Galbraith’s most famous issue of choice was the legalization of pot. It’s almost a mainstream concept in politics today, but in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was seen as weird and wonky. This made it easy for opponents to brand him as the Crazy Pot Guy. And with no other way to counter the framing in mainstream media, it stuck.

All three of these barriers to success for Galbraith are now possible to overcome via social media. I’ll be writing a book on specific strategies post-election because we’ve still got a month to go in my race.

However, I believe a disruption is coming to electoral politics. If I don’t manage to pull off a disruption this November, it’s clear to me that someone else will manage it very soon. We’re seeing cracks appearing already within the parties themselves—nontraditional candidates are faring far better than traditional ones even within the parties on both sides of the aisle, with Donald Trump wreaking havoc among Republicans and Bernie Sanders steadily disrupting what seemed like a preordained win for Hillary.

I’ve been asked the question, “Do you think it will be possible for someone to get elected solely through social media?”

I would argue that social media has always been the only way to get elected, we just didn’t realize parties were 19th century social networks. What’s different now is we have more than two choices of social networking to use. By 2020 at the latest, I expect to begin witnessing Independent candidates making serious inroads as a result.

Some other useful numbers.

1971: Democratic challenger Warren Nash defeats Republican incumbent Garnett Inman, 9,097 to 6,180.
Total votes: 15,277
Percentage: 60 – 40

1975: Republican challenger Robert Real defeats Nash, 9,264 to 4,763.
Total votes: 14,027
Percentage: 66 – 34

1979: Real defeats Democratic challenger John Stein, 6,637 to 3,801.
Total votes: 10,438
Percentage: 64 -36

1983: Democratic challenger Charles Hunter defeats Real, 6,148 to 5,888.
Total votes: 12,036
Percentage: 51 – 49

1987: Real defeats Hunter, 6,005 to 5,467.
Total votes: 11,472
Percentage: 52 – 48

1991: Democrat Doug England (4,785) defeats Independent Phyllis Garmon (4,154) and Republican Kenny Keilman (2,344).
Total votes: 11,283
Percentage: 42 – 37 – 21

1995: England defeats Real, 6,573 to 5,628.
Total votes: 12,201
Percentage: 54 – 46

1999: Republican challenger Regina Overton defeats England, 5,512 to 4,205.
Total votes: 9,717
Percentage: 57 – 43

2003: Democratic challenger James Garner defeats Overton, 5,971 to 3,893; 196 votes cast for Melanie Hughes (Libertarian).
Total votes: 10,600
Percentage: 59 – 39 – 2

2007: England defeats Randy Hubbard (Republican), 4,017 to 3,741.
Total votes: 7,758
Percentage: 52 – 48

2011: Democrat Jeff Gahan (4,506) defeats Republican Dale “DM” Bagshaw (1,389), Independent Jack Messer (1,024) and Libertarian Thomas Keister (88).
Total votes: 7,007
Percentage: 64 – 20 – 15 – 1

2015: Democrat Jeff Gahan (3,527) defeats Republican Kevin Zurschmiede (2,695) and Independent Roger A. Baylor (462).
Total votes: 6,684
Percentage: 53 – 40 – 7

New Albany population:

(1970): 38,402
(2010): 36,372
(2017 est): 36,461

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