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Sun mayoral poll challenges some conventional wisdom on media role in elections | COMMENTARY

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon answers a question during a Greater Baltimore Urban League forum for mayoral candidates at Morgan State University on Saturday, January 25. Dixon came in first in a Sun poll released Wednesday.
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon answers a question during a Greater Baltimore Urban League forum for mayoral candidates at Morgan State University on Saturday, January 25. Dixon came in first in a Sun poll released Wednesday. (Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun)

Since the first televised debate in 1960, when John Kennedy’s Hollywood good looks and easygoing eloquence shredded his opponent, the dour Richard Nixon, the consensus has only grown that media matter in getting elected.

So, what to make of the Baltimore Sun/WYPR/University of Baltimore poll released Wednesday? It has former mayor Sheila Dixon — the one candidate who has not run one ad on TV or in digital media — in first place ahead of candidates who have made media buys worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Is Baltimore such a peculiar place that media do not matter so much in our elections?

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And if that’s the case, how do you explain the success of former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller, a virtual unknown to much of the general voting populace here, coming in fifth in the poll? After a $500,000 media blitz over the past few weeks, Miller came in a point ahead of Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who has been in Baltimore politics almost a quarter of a century since getting elected to the City Council in 1996.

Media and money have shown that they do matter in Baltimore politics. In the 2016 Democratic mayoral primary race, a $50,000 TV ad campaign helped vault Catherine Pugh from two points behind former Mayor Sheila Dixon to nine points ahead in a two-week period starting in late February. Pugh never lost that lead. But the way Pugh got some of the money for her ad buys and laundered it into her campaign is partially responsible for why she was recently sentenced to three years in prison, according to charges leveled by federal prosecutors.

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Here are five media takeaways from the poll aimed at offering some context and perspective on the role of media in this race.

Don’t get too excited about the name recognition Miller was able to gain with half a million dollars in media.

If you go back to the Baltimore Sun poll in 2016, released at the same point in the campaign as the one this week, you will find that businessman David Warnock, a political unknown who had spent $650,000 mostly on TV advertising, was in third place behind Dixon and Pugh. Remember the TV ads of him driving around Baltimore in an old pickup truck ― the vehicle he said he arrived in 33 years before?

Warnock finished fourth in the Democratic primary with 8.1% of the vote behind Pugh (36.6%), Dixon (34.7%) and Elizabeth Embry (11.7%).

Both nationally and locally, I believe, you can buy fast name recognition with a pile of media money, but there is a ceiling that stops you well short of winning. Ask Michael Bloomberg.

There’s old media and then there’s old-old media. Dixon is strong in the oldest of old media.

We in the media tend to focus on what’s new and different, and so, it’s digital, digital, digital ― micro-targeting on Facebook and Instagram, buying ads on streaming services like Hulu.

But with Dixon, it’s yard signs, window signs, billboards and fliers. I see them in northeast Baltimore where I live. I know Dixon’s media campaign kicked into a higher gear this week, because one of my neighbors who had a Dixon sign in her front window for weeks added another sign on her front lawn near the curb Wednesday. Maybe she felt emboldened to double down on support for Dixon by the poll results.

I am only half kidding. Lawn signs matter here in local elections, especially with the older voters who can be relied upon to be at the polling places on election day (or casting votes via absentee ballot, thanks to coronavirus concerns). I look out my front door and I see lawn signs for City Council member Ryan Dorsey on the lawns of neighbors to the right and left of me and across the street. This is media, too, and the signs stay in place for weeks and months.

As for fliers, remember the war of attack fliers between backers of Pugh and the Dixon campaign in the closing days of the 2016 primary? Referencing Dixon’s plea agreement and resignation as mayor for embezzling gift cards intended for needy families, she was pictured on fliers in a photo doctored to look like a mug shot, while Pugh was accused of accepting “illegal money” as she ran for office. (Turns out not just accepting but soliciting it, according to federal prosecutors.)

Still, in 2020, it is remarkable that Dixon has not run one ad and is in first place at this point. If she goes all the way without TV or Facebook ads, we’ve got a national media story.

And let’s not give too much credit to name recognition over media.

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Name recognition might be one explanation for Dixon’s success without buying any on-screen advertising. But how do you explain Young finishing sixth in the poll?

Last month, Myles Handy, Young’s campaign spokesman responded to a question from me about Young not having any TV ad presence while several of his opponents did by saying, "I know it appears to other people that we’ve started later than other candidates. But the mayor’s name recognition is really high, and quite frankly we have that luxury. We’re not trying to spend money to become relevant.”

Clearly, name recognition has been over-rated by Team Young. So has incumbency, which is usually a big advantage. As I wrote last month, in most of the unpaid media Young gets through news coverage he is associated with negatives: mismanagement at city hall, lack of fiscal responsibility and corrupt police.

Young is on our screens now, but I am not impressed with his ads, especially those carrying the tagline: “Jack Young Cleaning Up Baltimore.” Really? Where was this dedication to reform during the Pugh administration when he was president of the City Council?

The most effective media campaigns are those that blend old and new.

Right now, the two candidates with the best mix of media are City Council President Brandon Scott and former deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah. They are both in second place at 10% behind Dixon’s 16%. Both have very strong social media presences, and are on local TV. (The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.)

Vignarajah has made better use of air time on WBFF, the local station owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, in town halls and appearances in its news programs. That has surely helped introduce him to some voters. But I believe he is also in danger of being seen as the Sinclair candidate, and that could be a problem in a Democratic primary given Sinclair’s history of involvement with Republican politicians ranging from Robert Ehrlich when he was Maryland’s governor to Donald Trump today.

What about T.J. Smith coming in right behind Scott and Vignarajah at 9%?

Smith has not had the kind of media presence during this campaign that Scott and Vignarajah have. That’s not surprising given that his finance report filed in January showed that he had only $22,000 in funds vs. $840,000 for Vignarajah and nearly $430,000 for Scott.

But both Smith and Dixon have been regulars at the mayoral forums, some of which have been televised or streamed. He also has name recognition by nature of having been spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, which put him on the local news on an almost daily basis.

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Furthermore, Smith comes across on screen as passionate and empathetic with a powerful personal story to tell about losing a brother to the gun violence that plagues this city.

One voter, a 57-year-old woman from Edmondson Village quoted in a Sun story on the survey, said when she saw Smith on TV announcing another homicide victim “it was like he was feeling it in his soul.”

Bill Clinton went all the way to the White House in part because some Americans seeing him in the media believed he "felt’ their pain.

I wonder how far Smith could go in this race with more media money.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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