San Diego Strong Mayor Initiative
Proposition D, 2010

After securing voter-approval for a 5-year trial of the Strong Mayor governance system in 2004, we were responsible for passage of the 2010 initiative to make the reform permanent. The campaign occurred amid high levels of voter frustration with the city’s continuing financial problems and a lack of understanding among many voters for the significance of the change. Initial polling showed the initiative was supported by only a narrow plurality.

Despite low levels of voter awareness or understanding of the governance change, certain messages related to the change resonated strongly with voters. These included increased accountability and a desire not to go back to a system that had been responsible for creating many of the city’s current financial problems. However, the initial polling also suggested that it would be very difficult to overcome a well-funded campaign by opponents, and several credible opponents signed the ballot argument against the initiative, including a popular council member and the president of the Police Officers Association.

We knew that there was significant correlation between support for the incumbent mayor and support for the initiative, so our communications strategy centered on highlighting the mayor’s progress in addressing the city’s financial problems, the increased accountability provided under the new system, and the consequences of returning to a discredited system that had helped create the city’s current problems. Opponents countered by claiming the initiative would increase the cost of governance, a powerful argument in light of the city’s shaky finances.

Unfortunately, campaign fundraising lagged, we were forced to cut back planned mail and television advertising, and a tracking poll completed two weeks before the election showed us trailing. Using these results to motivate donors, we were able to expand our mailing and television advertising over the final 10 days, using a new message from the head of the local Taxpayers Association to assure voters that the initiative would protect taxpayers.

On Election Day, observers were surprised when the outcome – assumed to be too close to call – turned into a 60-40 landslide in support of the initiative. The final 10 days of mail and television were credited with turning the campaign around and making the Strong Mayor reform permanent.

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