The essence of politics, local, state and national—is persuasion. How do you convince people to vote for you and all that entails—registering to vote, voting on Election Day, picking the candidates to support, etc. How does it happen? While big savvy media and political consultants can attempt to turn the process into complicated sorcery, like going to diners across America to find out what the voters are thinking, I decided to speak with someone who had done it at the most basic level—a local election.
Joseph Tursi didn’t think the mayor of Hillburn, New York, was doing a good job. It was about a month before the next mayoral election in the small village in Rockland County. A former trustee, Tursi was concerned with self-dealing and deteriorating services and infrastructure. His friends said “Joe, you should run.” And he thought “if I don’t run, no one else will.”
After talking it over with his wife, Cathy, he decided to do it. He would run against the incumbent mayor. But how to do it? Hillburn is a small village with around a thousand residents. How do you reach them? How do you persuade them? How do you get them to come out to vote and to vote for you? These questions are central to every campaign, small and large. Tursi figured it out for his race, toppling the incumbent mayor and winning by 20 points. I sat down with Mayor Tursi to discuss how he did it. How did he structure his plan to persuade and reach the voters of Hillburn and to get them to come out and vote for him?
Tursi had some previous experience in politics, having been a Hillburn trustee and having run for other offices as well. But it had been more than a decade since his last forays. He knew the technicalities of the applicable election laws regarding petitions and other requirements and met them.
So then the issue was getting his message out to the voters, starting with educating voters that he was actually running. Tursi explained ”I got the voter list, checked through the list to go knock on doors, touch base with the people I knew. But the voter list had changed a lot since the last time I ran.”
So how did Tursi reach these new voters? Facebook. “I capitalized on social media, specifically Facebook. I created a Facebook page for my campaign. I’m on Facebook and had about 700 friends—I invited them all to join that page, whether they lived in town or not. My thinking was the people next door, the people in the next town or the people in the next county might know voters in my contest. This was low-cost outreach. I even ran low cost ads on Facebook,” Tursi told me.
Tursi explained that through Facebook he could micro target to as little as a one-mile radius. He targeted a three- to five-mile radius around Hillburn, making his ads extremely targeted and cost effective.
But in the end, Tursi campaigned the old-fashioned way: he knocked on every door possible. First and foremost, using the voter lists, Tursi was able to identify the high frequency Hillburn voter and made sure to talk to those voters more than once and explain that he was running and why. Ideally, Tursi wanted to expand his universe to the infrequent voter in an attempt to use his message of change to inspire them to vote. But the short campaign time Tursi had—he entered the race at the last minute—precluded the deeper dive into the potential electorate.
Tursi carefully kept records of his voter visits, who he felt was a likely voter and who was a likely voter for him so that he could focus his Election Day efforts on insuring the turnout of his vote. (New York has only had Election Day voting though that is soon to change.) Tursi established a solid plan of voter outreach and getting people to the polls. But what was the message? In a word: change. Tursi detailed a litany of issues his predecessor had failed to address and in fact created and he told every voter he could speak to that he would change these things.
Remarkably, Tursi was able to line up the support of four former Hillburn mayors. This is a credit to Tursi, of course, but also a comment on Tursi’s predecessor. This featured prominently in Tursi’s pitch to voters as he made sure every voter he communicated with knew that these former mayors supported his run.
Having crossed the threshold of being an acceptable alternative, Tursi then made his pitch on what needed to be done and why. And he went out and knocked on all the doors himself. Candidate quality matters—Tursi is a natural-born politician. He’s articulate, charming, and connects with people. He told me the story of the first door he knocked on—a older man named Tom Lyons, an Irish immigrant who was sponsored by Tursi’s grandfather. A great storyteller, Tursi recounted the reaction of Lyons to Tursi’s approach saying “where the hell have you been, boy?”—delivering an Irish brogue to perfection.
Would this charm translate to voters who didn’t know Tursi? He visited with one family who was listed in the voter rolls but weren’t regular voters but were receptive and said to Tursi “okay, give me your pitch.”
The incumbent mayor wasn’t getting the job done: basic infrastructure needs, including a key bridge in Hillburn were in disrepair. The city parks were in terrible condition. The key services of Hillburn were budget starved—the fire department and public works were decimated.
A key moment in the campaign came at a public forum. Tursi organized a forum to answer voter questions and the incumbent mayor showed up. Tursi had by then become a real threat and his message that it was time for a change was resonating. He admitted to being a bit nervous as the incumbent mayor fired questions at him trying to find evidence that Tursi wasn’t up for the job.
But Tursi kept his cool and spoke to his issues but civilly permitted the incumbent mayor to speak his piece. Joe’s wife, Cathy, said “I think it helped us. It really focused us as the change, and the mayor acted belligerently and high-handedly. He made our point. It was time for a change. The mayor tried to belittle Joe and I confronted him on that. He really turned everyone off.”
I asked Tursi about negative campaigning and he admitted that he did criticize the mayor’s performance but never on a personal level as the incumbent mayor had done to him. Tursi insisted he stuck to public issues, including a conflict of interest the mayor had regarding certain city contracts. He never attacked the mayor as a person, but instead only as a mayor.
I asked Tursi why did he thinks he won. He responded with a story he was told by a voter after the election: “There was one gentleman, a longtime resident of Hillburn, I had knocked on his door one Sunday morning. We gave him our pitch. I asked him if he had seen my opponent. He answered no he had not. After the election, I spoke to him and he told me ‘I voted for you. You took the time to come and explain to me why you thought I should vote for you for mayor’.” Tursi continued “You had a sitting mayor who doesn’t even take the time to explain what he is doing for the city to the people he was elected to serve.”
Politics is not a science. Why candidates win is not always easily discernable. But Tursi does provide us with some important evidence: Understand and connect with voters. Talk about their concerns. Present candidates that appeal to the electorate and, most importantly, show the voters you are eager for their votes.
There are, of course, external forces that color every election and candidate quality and campaign quality can only do so much. But they are necessary for taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. Newly elected Hillburn Mayor, the Honorable Joseph Tursi, is proof of that.