Last May, I was approached by Alex Jensen to help him with his campaign for an at-large city council seat in Sioux Falls. I felt that we needed a different kind of elected official in that position and agreed to serve as his campaign treasurer. For the first six months of the campaign, our primary goal was fundraising. We received contributions from a couple hundred individuals and set a local fundraising record. The election began to heat up in February when the incumbent announced their bid for re-election. We setup a big campaign consisting of direct mail, online advertising, billboards, radio advertisements and other efforts.
Toward the end of March, the election was in flux due to COVID-19. The South Dakota State Legislature passed a law that allowed municipal elections to be combined with the June 2nd party primary. The city council unanimously passed an ordinance to delay the election until June. That delayed candidate forums and a lot of our campaign efforts by about a month and a half. It also created a lengthy window of absentee voting where people could vote in person downtown or via mail. The South Dakota Secretary of State sent out absentee ballot request forms to every voter in the state, significantly increasing the number of absentee voters and voter turnout. When the election finally came on June 2nd, I think pretty much everyone was ready for the race to be over. However, it was not quite over yet.
While Alex had won the vote, he had won it by a margin of just 109 votes. Under South Dakota state law, candidates can ask for a recount if they lose by less than 2% of the vote. Our opponent asked for a recount, which we did not oppose. The recount occurred on June 24th. Some ballots were thrown out because they did not receive the precinct stamp, likely due to a large number of new poll workers. The final result had Jensen winning with a 97-vote margin. He will start his new role as a city councilor sometime in July after the city council has canvassed the results for a second time.
While I had volunteered with some campaign efforts before, such as the effort to eliminate payday loans in South Dakota, Paul TenHaken’s mayoral bid and the Vote Yes for Schools campaign, this was the first race that I had a significant campaign role.
Here are some of the lessons that I learned from the campaign:
- You have no idea what’s effective until election day. There is really no such thing as polling in local elections, so you do not know how you’re doing throughout the race. There are some tea leaves that you can read, such as volunteer support, campaign contributions and social media activity, but you really do not know where you stand until election day. You do not know whether or not billboards, radio, television or direct mail made the biggest difference. You just know what the final result is on election day. Instead, you just have to follow best practices that you learn from seasoned campaigners and hope that you are doing all the right things.
- Engaging in social media debates is not worth it. I had quite a bit of fun supporting my candidate in the Sioux Falls Politics Facebook group, but it likely did not make much of a difference on election day. The people that participate in forums like Sioux Falls Politics largely already have their mind made up about what candidates they are supporting. While the campaign had a Facebook page that Alex updated regularly, he largely stayed out of the heated and sometimes vitriolic discussions online.
- It is very difficult to beat an incumbent. We ran what was by all accounts, a solid campaign. We raised a bunch of money and had a highly visible media campaign. We put signs all around town. We bought billboards. We did direct mail. We had ads on the radio and even had a commercial on television right before the election. Alex did well in the candidate forums. He got great endorsements throughout the campaign. He called likely voters and went door to door every weekend until COVID-19 made that a non-viable strategy. Despite having one of the most well-organized campaigns in city council history, Alex still only won by 97 votes. It shows just how difficult it can be to unseat an incumbent.
- Some people will not like you no matter what. I was surprised how much negative emotion was directed at me during the campaign, especially from people that have never met me in person and really have no idea what I am all about. I was verbally attacked during a city meeting. I received anonymous hate mail. My name was dragged through the mud on social media and on local political blogs. It was just nasty. When you are involved in politics, some people will unfortunately make their mind up about you based on what they think you represent before ever even meeting you.
- It is amazing what you can do with data. Any candidate can purchase a list of registered voters, their political party, their voting history, and their contact information from either the county or secretary of state. With some effort, you can also marry that data with employer data, donor lists and other information to create highly targeted mailing lists, email lists and calling lists. Political parties will often create these lists for candidates, but we were on our own since this was a non-partisan race. Thankfully, we had ten years of voting data to work with and came up with a model that allowed us to reach 80-90% of people that were likely to vote in the election while mailing just 30% of the electorate. We probably had the best data game in city council history, but it is hard to know how much of a difference it made.
- Politics attracts people of all kinds. Outside of my family, friends, and church acquaintances, most of the people I interact with are part of the downtown business community in some way. Getting involved in local politics helped me understand that the business community is kind of a bubble. There are people from all walks of life with different worldviews, religions, political ideologies, and opinions about our city that get involved in local politics. Many are well-reasoned people that come from a different walk of life. Unfortunately, there are some others that see a conspiracy around every corner and are always looking for a way to reveal the corruption that they think exists in Sioux Falls. If you were to attend a couple of city council meetings or watch them on TV, you would see what I mean.
- Politicians will ask you to do what is best for them, not for you. I felt that Alex acted with the highest level of integrity during the campaign. He never once asked me to do anything unethical, underhanded or anything that would be frowned upon if made public. However, there were others that asked me to speak up about other races, to make campaign contributions to other candidates, to try to get on committees and to engage on other issues that would have been exclusively to their benefit. When you are active in politics, you really have to filter this kind of requests and make sure that any political request is beneficial for yourself, the candidate you support and your community as a whole.
The Alex Jensen for Sioux Falls campaign was my first major endeavor into state and local politics, and I am thankful that we were successful in our efforts. It was a great learning experience and showed me what it really takes to win a competitive election. I don’t currently have any plans to run for office myself, since running MarketBeat is a full-time job and I’m plenty busy with my family and other organizations I volunteer with (Faith Baptist, Startup Sioux Falls, Zeal, Sioux Falls Seminary, etc.). I do hope to find a local candidate (or candidates) in the next cycle to support and volunteer with, because I care about the future of my city and its leadership and because running political campaigns can be quite fun.