Paul Holmes 07 May 2005 // 11:00PM GMT
North Carolina has lost 180,000 manufacturing jobs in recent years. The state has many assets to recruit new business, yet there was one economic development tool that 48 other states have access to that North Carolina didn’t, the ability for local governments to use self-financing bonds to fund public projects that often are needed for economic recovery.
Making this tool available required voters to approve a constitutional amendment. What’s more, in the previous 20 years, voters had twice overwhelmingly rejected the amendment by margins of 75 percent to 25 percent. Overcoming those odds, and the state’s traditional reluctance to significantly alter the Constitution, required a unique blend of communications and public affairs strategy and execution. Capstrat provided both, but critics kept pointing to history and saying it couldn’t be done.
Two weeks prior to the election, opponents confidently predicted the issue would be defeated 70 percent to 30 percent. On November 2, 2004, after a campaign full of twists and turns, North Carolina voters went to the polls.
Capstrat faced numerous challenges with the campaign including the fact that North Carolina is generally conservative and normally opposes anything that hints of tax increases as well as in 48 other states the issue is known as Tax Increment Financing, a name that in the past had doomed the measure to failure.
With so many undecided voters, Capstrat knew people would depend on their peers’ opinion about the issue. So, the plan placed emphasis on outreach. The outreach plan included detailed plans and follow-up to organize county-by-county grassroots supporters, including suggestions for committee members, event schedules and distribution of materials. The original goal was to have committees in the 15 most populous counties. Eventually there were organizations in 56 counties. More difficult tasks within the plan were: trying to recruit assistance from various organizations across the state and establishing an African-American contact program.
Efforts included strong appeal to the faith community, NC Legislative Black Caucus and other minority leaders, as well as traditional grassroots minority organizations. Capstrat also created a web site that served as an information warehouse and the campaign’s response headquarters. The objective of the plan was straightforward, to leverage every resource to tell a disciplined message to as broad an audience as possible, and to be well prepared for countering opposition arguments at the local and state level.
The communications strategy was to define the issue campaign on our terms before the opposition and media began to use definitions of the issue that had been used in the past. That meant getting the story out early to potential supporters, the news media and mass audiences. Capstrat had to respond to attacks by opponents forcefully by focusing on jobs in the midst of a recession. The strategy of going out early became critically important when a record number of North Carolinians took advantage of early voting.
The first step was to redefine the issue as “Self-Financing Bonds,” instead of Tax Increment Financing. It tested well in research and our audience intuitively understood it. Capstrat was able to get the Amendment placed first on the ballot so that it could be referred to as Amendment One. Both the public and media liked these shorthand names.
The campaign also received assistance from the credible and active speaker’s bureau, including three former North Carolina governors, local mayors and edit boards with mainstream and minority media.
Ads featured an economic developer and a laid off textile worker talking about the need for jobs. The textile worker ad was run in those areas especially hard hit by job losses. Ads also emphasized where the issue was on the long ballot. A strong TV response ad to opposition gave voters the facts, listed newspaper and key organization endorsements, and instructed voters to look for the issue.
Most of the $1.2 million media budget was used for television in major metro areas. Cable was also used heavily to target audiences. Other advertising included minority radio and newspapers. The first burst of advertising went on several weeks out from the election to support grassroots efforts. The bulk of advertising money was spent in the final two weeks of the campaign, when undecided voters began to focus on the issue.
Amendment One was approved 51 percent to 49 percent. It won support across the state, including most cities and rural areas with large minority populations, textile and furniture areas, and every region except the far Western part of the state.
When opposition started citing negative studies in other states Capstrat was ready with strong rebuttals. It forced them to constantly change messages and hurt opposition credibility within the media. Meanwhile Capstrat was able to stick with “jobs and self-financing.” In the end, even some opponents were referring to it as self-financing and Amendment One.
Amendment One was endorsed by every major newspaper in the state, including some that traditionally have a conservative editorial policy. The campaign achieved a goal twenty years in the making, against strong odds and a history of defeat.