With the recent passing of my friend, Ralph Campbell, former State Auditor, I remembered that I had kept a diary of election night and the following day from his election to a third term of office in 2000. I ran the media and communications for his campaigns in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004. These are my thoughts and recollections of the events from that 24-hour period, mostly unedited.
9:15 am I went to vote at my polling place. Out of 2,500 registered I was 638. That’s considered reasonably heavy. My precinct swings Republican with a lot of white upper middle class and retirees. A high turnout would suggest a Bush victory for NC which is highly anticipated. How much that translates down the ballot it the key issue. My Republican friend who has served in high government positions told me last night that after Governor, NC has always put Democrats in Council of State and Judgeships. I suggested that the state judgeships might go Republican but he was disbelieving. He found it hard to believe that Ralph Campbell could lose to Merritt. I talked with Dick today. He reported heavy turnout in some black communities. We need heavy turnout for Ralph and Jim and the rest of the Democratic ticket. I believe that Charlotte is a key area for Ralph. Charlotte will be a strong area for Vinroot so the ticket-splitting for Democratic Candidates down the ballot will be worth watching. If we have a high turnout among blacks and if we can get close to 50% for Ralph in Charlotte, we will win this race. We placed additional media (radio) in the Charlotte market among the stations that reach the general voting population. Previously we had placed radio spots on stations that reach into the black community. This should have some impact. Last week I was feeling that we were set to lose Ralph’s race but now I am feeling a little more upbeat. I do not know why, other than I have figured out a logical method of how Ralph could win. Barlow and I both agree that we do not know what the overall heavy turnout means to our races.
Our radio ads for Ralph were all very positive in tone. This reflects the character and personality of our candidate. I detest trying to make someone do something that does not demonstrate how that person lives their life. Ralph is a very good and decent man who cares about his family and his friends. Above all he is loyal. During the last two weeks of the campaign there was significant pressure for Ralph to turn to negative advertising to take Les Merritt to task for his negative tactics regarding Ralph’s family and his leadership while in office. I was a part of these discussions and even prepared a radio ad that brought out a few problems Mr. Merritt has had over the last few years. There was heated debate but in the end we, as a team, decided that his current ads (one had Senator John Edwards, Cliff Cameron, and Burley Mitchell endorsing Ralph, the other talking about Ralph’s recent audit of the Department of Revenue that recommended a 7-day turnaround for state tax refunds) were strong enough to carry the message and Ralph felt more comfortable with them. He will not be dragged into the mud to fight. He insists on keeping it clean. I like that.
7:30 p.m. The crowd is gathering at NRH. The suite is filling up and the computers are hooked up in the war room. Dick Barnes sets up the election night procedures. Dick is a chain-smoking, guitar-playing, country-singing political junkie. He has great instincts and terrific organizational skills. He understands how to GOTV and how to organize county-by-county grass roots efforts. And he is somewhat old school but understands the need for media efforts in campaigns. Dick will get to the room in a few minutes and he’ll worry, wring his hands and agonize the entire evening. Over the last week Dick has mentioned to me on several occasions that in Ralph’s campaign he had done all he could with the resources he had which were only about $250,000, of which media was only about $60-$70,000. It’s about time for the rubber to hit the road. At 7:40 the media is predicting Easley the winner in the Governor’s race based on exit polling.
8:10pm. Gore has been declared the winner in Florida, Michigan, and Illinois. Everyone is ecstatic but I remain somewhat dubious. It’s too early to get excited or concerned about anything. The crowds are large in the halls.
9:00pm. The numbers are bouncing all over the place. We went from being down 60/40 to being up 55/45.
Throughout the evening Ralph’s total run between 52% to 50.5%. We’re nervous because we don’t know which precincts are reporting and which are not. The war room has gotten too crowded and it’s hard to think through anything logically.
11:00ish. Finally Jim Long gets a call. It’s time for him to go downstairs to the main hall to declare victory. He is leading the Democratic ticket with almost 57% of the vote. But what about Ralph? He’s only about 30,000 votes ahead with about 65-70% of precincts reporting. The media had not called Ralph’s victory but who cares. Jim Long declared Ralph the victor and we all marched down where the two of them gave victory speeches and the crowd yelled and the 25 or so TV stations did interviews and it was all very exciting.
12:00pm. We went back upstairs to the war room and began worrying again. This time, with the added pressure of having declared victory when no official victory was imminent. I decided that I had had enough and left to go home about 1:00am. I followed the returns on computer until about 2:00am when I felt Ralph’s lead was adequate. Dick stayed behind in the war room continuing to worry, although he had had a beer by the time I left.
Race is always an issue when an African-American is running. It cuts both ways. Early on in the campaign I strongly felt that we needed to put Ralph on TV, black face and all. In prior elections we selectively used his picture so as to take advantage of his not being known statewide. The problem is that the general voting population doesn’t know him and his office of State Auditor might be the lowest profile of all Council of State officers except State Treasurer. Despite the race baiting tactics of Merritt’s Campaign (he ran a print ad in the far western and eastern areas of the state with a fuzzy picture of Ralph, a black man, and a clear smiling picture of Merritt with the headline “A Clear Choice for State Auditor”) and the negative dirty tricks used against Ralph in the two prior elections, there are many voters who still don’t know who Ralph is or his African American heritage.
Merritt’s aforementioned newspaper ad probably gained a few votes for him in areas that still have a substantial population of bigoted people. But as in most cases like this, the ad served to bring out the vote in predominately black precincts. Through the black churches and the GOTV efforts, we made sure that every black person in the state saw that ad. For every vote Merritt gained with that ad, Ralph won 50 new votes.
One of the first people I called was Barlow Herget. Barlow was hired to be a campaign spokesperson, public relations counsel and overall campaign bulldog. He plays these roles quite well. Barlow is a former City Councilman and ran for Mayor and lost against Tom Fetzer in his first election bid. My observation is that Barlow is much better in a support role than as a candidate. He loves to push, fight and challenge. He’s a good debater in meetings but will never walk away mad or taking anything personally. And, above all he loves to campaign. Being from Arkansas, he’s a friend of Bill and Hillary, but we’ll leave that alone. The problem with the morning after this election is that many campaign staffers and friends were still concerned that Ralph had not won. As of 10:00am there were 32 precincts not reporting and Ralph was ahead by about 30,000 votes. I explained to several people that morning that if each unreported precinct averaged 1,000 voters, Merritt would have to win almost every vote to overtake Ralph’s lead. Similar to Jerry McGuire I asked each skeptic to repeat the words “Ralph’s won” to me over the phone. Later that day Merritt conceded the election.
Dick and I talked later in the day. He had been up until 5:00am the night before. Dick and I agreed that all the things we did were required to get this victory. Those included Barlow’s work with the media, Dick’s local organizations and GOTV in the black community, and the extra media played in the three major metro areas in NC.
(Mr. Overcash is Chairman of the Board of SharedVue, Inc., a sister company of Strategic Insights)