Curtis Haring: A few thoughts on Jim Dabakis and the SLC Mayor’s race

by Curtis Haring

I am disappointed to hear Jim Dabakis call the polls garbage and blaming outside money for his loss after conceding the race for Salt Lake City Mayor. His press conference after the concession can be found here.

First, let’s talk about those polls.

The most recent Tribune poll (despite its many faults) had Dabakis at 21% – It appears he will be at 20.3%. The same polls also showed that both Luz Escamilla and Erin Mendenhall were surging in the final weeks. The big difference between Election Day and a poll is that “Undecided” isn’t an option. Since day one Dabakis has hovered between 20 and 25% in the polls; this tells me that he simply could not gain traction with voters outside of his base and the undecided voters simply did not break his way.

Then there is the money.

Was there outside PAC money in this race? Yes, sadly there was. But to blame Dabakis’ loss on PAC money is disingenuous.

All campaign spending, be it from a PAC or from a campaign, is designed to do one or two things: Make your candidate look good and/or make other candidate(s) look bad.

Yes, some candidates benefited from the “Make the candidate look good” side of spending, but Dabakis, near as I could tell, wasn’t really the target of the “make the other candidate look bad” side of things (though both Escamilla and Mendenhall certainly were). To me, it seems disingenuous for Dabakis to complain that the Salt Lake City “swamp” somehow, even tangentially, contributed to his loss.

Now, lets keep in mind that Dabakis, regardless of support for his campaign, had the highest name recognition and, among the top 3 candidates, raised the most money and was the only one to still have a significant amount of money left on the table come Election Day (more than half, in fact, with $171K of the $295K he raised going unspent).

So, lets put this all together. Everyone knew who Dabakis was, he had a tough time moving ahead in the polls, he wasn’t attacked by outside money, there was a huge amount of undecided voters, and Dabakis had a ton of money left (this last point is probably the most telling).

The campaign strategy, it appears, was to hope that Dabakis’ street cred among liberals would be enough to carry him through the primary, after which he would pivot and use the funds he had been saving to tailor his message depending on his opponent – why else would he have so much cash on hand?

What Dabakis appeared to have missed (or simply ignored) was that he wasn’t winning undecided voters. With Escamilla and Mendenhall taking a more moderate tone as they introduced themselves to voters outside of the respective districts that they represented. This painted Dabakis in a corner where he could only really appeal to far-left voters which, regardless of the location in this country, only make up roughly 15-20% of the total electorate.

So, in my opinion, did Dabakis lose because of dirty money and dirty campaigning? No. He lost because he leaned too far left for the average Salt Lake voter and was overconfident that the far left would come out to support him – leaving tons of resources on the table.

There is an old saying in campaigns: always talk like you are in first place and always run like you are in second place. Dabakis appeared to ignore the latter.

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