Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why Borders tanked so badly, and other thoughts

Posted By on Wed, Nov 4, 2009 at 8:51 PM

click to enlarge Borders reacts to the shocker
  • Borders reacts to the shocker

Probably the biggest surprise of yesterday's elections was Lisa Borders' poor showing. Granted, various polls had showed her support waning and Kasim Reed's numbers growing. But no one I talked to had expected Borders to net only 14 percent in what was widely perceived as a three-way race. I mean, City Hall shouter Dave Walker got nearly 10 percent in the Council president's race and he didn't raise a dime!

So how did the former runoff hopeful become an also-ran? A few thoughts:

1. She didn't define herself — Easy for us to say, but it's true. Mary Norwood positioned herself as the throw-the-bums-out, anti-City Hall candidate, a spokesperson for everyone sick of business as usual. Reed cast himself as the determined outsider, criticizing those on whose watch the city had faltered and promising to restore hope to inner-city neighborhoods. Quick — what did Borders claim to represent?

As the AJC's Jim Galloway points out, Borders even studiously avoided self-identifying as black or white.

Self-definitions don't need to be accurate — remember Bush as a "compassionate conservative?" — but if they connect with an audience, they help a candidate create a base of support. What's clear now is that Borders never established her base.

2. She let her opponents set the agenda — As I'd mentioned in a post last week, it seemed Borders was making a mistake by taking the bait when Reed challenged her political persuasion.

Asserting herself in me-too fashion as a Democrat very likely undercut Borders' support in the Northside business community because, y'know, many of those folks are Republicans.

And she seemed to follow Norwood's lead early on in criticizing city government — a move that seemed counter-intuitive for the No. 2 elected official at City Hall.

3. Her campaign never seemed to gel — This is one of those intangibles because it's more about how things feel. But Borders did have some real stumbles. For starters, she first announced her formal bid for mayor in April 2007 — more than two-and-a-half years before the election — raised a small amount of money and then ducked out of the race for nearly eight months.

When Borders did get back in, in April, she was never able to catch up with Norwood and Reed in terms of fundraising. It didn't help that Borders completely replaced her campaign staff a month into the race.

But one thing I and other reporters noticed is that the Borders folks never seemed to have reliable intel about what their opponents were doing. They consistently underestimated Reed's fundraising ability and, just last week, a Borders operative assured me that Reed had run out of money and suspended his "ground game" — meaning the people who go into neighborhoods knocking on doors and asking for votes.

They couldn't have been more wrong. When I checked Reed's campaign disclosure, it revealed dozens of line-item expenditures for canvassers. In other words, unbeknownst to the Borders folks, his ground game was in overdrive.

But I also talked to voters who told me Borders didn't appear to have the drive and passion of her opponents. People don't vote for candidates who seem lukewarm about the job they're seeking.

Borders is still young — 51, I think — and has a job, as president of the Grady Hospital Foundation, that will keep her in close contact with the movers and shakers who would be helpful to any future political campaign.

I expect we haven't seen the last of Borders. But in order to come back, she has to show that she wants it.

(Photo by Joeff Davis)

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