In 2012 Michigan Congressman Gary Peters found his Oakland County based 9th District cut to pieces after Republican redistricting made an effort to forcibly retire the rising Democratic star. After assessing the possibilities, Peters chose to run against Hansen Clarke in the 14th.
MI-14 has been cited as one of the “ugliest” examples of partisan gerrymandering resulting from the 2010 census. Republican lawmakers packed as many minority and Democratic voters in this district as possible, resulting in a racially and economically diverse district, ranging from the inner city of Detroit to the wealthy eastern suburbs of Grosse Pointe to both white and blue-collar portions of Oakland County. A significant majority of voters were from Detroit and Wayne County, not Peters’ Oakland-County base. Detroit-based incumbent Hansen Clarke had a significant early advantage. Entering the race, many DC handicappers had all but written Gary Peters off. Given the geographic and demographic challenges of the district, it was clear that Peters would need to firmly consolidate his white, Oakland County base while winning pluralities of swing Oakland County African Americans and Wayne County whites, and also peeling off a chunk of Clarke’s Wayne County African American base.
Early on, GQR conducted focus groups and a baseline survey to gain a deeper understanding of the mood in the district while also testing broad potential message frames. There were two important findings from the groups that informed the entire rest of the campaign.
First, despite the deep 8 Mile divide that historically has informed the politics of the area, voters in the focus groups expressed a weariness of the "us vs. them" mindset. They understood that often their experiences were different, but at a basic level they all wanted the same things: good jobs, safe streets, good schools, and a fair shot. This gave Peters an opportunity to appeal at a fundamental level to Wayne County voters – but to do so he would have to demonstrate that he understood their lives and their problems, and was not a wealthy, elite and out-of-touch Oakland County businessman. Our groups showed that Peters’ upbringing in a working class family in heavily African American Pontiac (in Oakland County) was critical in making that connection.
Second, while Peters was not initially well defined, his record of impressive accomplishments was immensely appealing to Detroit voters hungry for something different than the incompetent city leadership they had become used to. Clarke, while well-liked and by most accounts “well meaning,” was viewed as less effective and “not quite ready.”
This led to a two-pronged strategy. First was to introduce Peters to the entire district with a biographic message that informed voters of his working-class background and record of fighting for regular families, then winning the campaign by showing voters that Peters was the effective choice who would be able to get results for the entire district, both Wayne and Oakland County. Our tracking surveys showed this strategy worked to perfection, with Peters first gaining ground on measures like being “on your side” and “understanding people like you,” and then taking a commanding lead on measures of effectiveness.
By staying relentlessly on message and targeting the swing groups identified in our baseline survey, Peters won with 47 percent of the vote among Democratic candidates in the primary, 12 points higher than his nearest competitor, Clarke.