Sitting on leads can spell trouble for campaigns

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 10, 2004

Commentary by Jonathan McElvy

Cecil Williamson and Mike Grayson have no idea what to expect Tuesday. Neither do the rest of us.

A blowout? A shocker? There’s no way to tell, and that’s the beauty of the political process – especially in small-town elections.

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For the past three weeks, I’ve asked dozens of people what they think about the Demopolis mayoral election. Consistently, I hear that Grayson will have a hard time making up the deficit and that Williamson has the edge.

“It may be too little too late for him,” one person said about Grayson.

During a phone conversation with Williamson, urging her one last time to take part in a political forum earlier this week, she indicated confidence in her lead. A public forum, she said, would not be a wise political move.

She was probably right, but that dictates the question: “Why?” Were there questions she didn’t want to answer?

Shortly after the general election, I wrote an analysis that outlined some ideas for both candidates. Grayson, I felt, had to find some advertising money and he had to pound the pavement. Williamson needed to keep to her hard-work strategy of waking up potential voters every Saturday morning.

Both candidates have held true to that prediction (it’s not rocket science). However, I also felt each candidate should avoid the pitfalls of a run-off.

“What Williamson must caution against is a tendency to expect the same turnout she received in Tuesday’s election,” said the Aug. 26 analysis.

Grayson still has a tremendous hill to climb if he’s to win the run-off election on Tuesday, but he may benefit from Williamson’s perception that she has an insurmountable lead.

When two candidates win spots in a run-off election, they’re a lot like two football teams that have been forced into overtime. And overtime, as this football-crazed land knows, has nothing to do with what happened during regulation. Both teams start overtime tied 0-0, for all practical purposes.

Voter turnout seems a good place to start. Just because a candidate wins a certain number of votes in a general election doesn’t guarantee a candidate the same number of votes in a run-off election. On a municipal level, it’s impossible to determine the methodology of voters or why they went to the polls during the general election.

Just like overtime in a football game, it’s also impossible to say that either candidate has a lead headed into Tuesday’s run-off. They started from scratch on Aug. 25, and the effectiveness of their work over the past three weeks will determine who wins.

Another interesting sports analogy can be found in the strategy each candidate has taken since earning a spot in this run-off.

Imagine a football team trailing by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Auburn fans might remember their 1994 win against LSU, trailing by three touchdowns late in the game. Auburn came back to win that game (I was in the stands – screaming for LSU), and they pulled off the miracle because LSU called some bone-head plays and sat on its lead.

Whether it’s a sports team or a political candidate, sitting on a lead and thinking you have a win in hand is a questionable strategy.

Finally, political campaigns can’t be based on what voters thought three weeks ago. President Bush trailed John Kerry in most polls just two weeks ago. After the Republican convention, Bush had a double-digit lead.

To change the perception of a nation after a few nights of TV says a lot about the way we voters think. And if a nation can change its mind, imagine what can happen to the voters in a small town.

For example, what if I started a rumor on this page that a Demopolis person had won the Florida Lottery? How long do you think it would take for everybody in the town to know?

The reason Tuesday’s election is so unpredictable is because the candidates, Williamson and Grayson, have changed their strategies in the past three weeks. Ultimately, they’ve become different candidates, and Williamson has not publicly addressed some of the rumors that have circled through town since she picked up 36 percent of the vote on Aug. 24.

In that general election, Williamson and Grayson combined to receive 58 percent of the vote. That means 42 percent (more than 1,050 who voted last time) have been forced to pick a new candidate.

There were 2,550 people who voted on Aug. 24. Depending on turnout and the effects of different campaign strategies, this race could go either way.

Jonathan McElvy is publisher of The Times. Contact him via e-mail at