No one can win a campaign alone. It takes a diverse set of people, all with different values, goals, and skills to communicate effectively to the public. Building a coalition to communicate is essential to passing a ballot measure, winning a PR battle, or accomplishing a strategic business goal. The key is identifying groups that have the same underlying goal and understanding of how the public views the issue.
One of the most successful examples of building a coalition comprised of vastly distinct groups was during Portland’s 2013 special election. On the ballot was a measure that would have regulated the amount of fluoride in the city’s drinking water.
Portland is famously known for being the largest city in the United States without fluoridated water. Fluoridation has come up for a vote four times since the 1950s, and each time Portlanders have rejected it.
In 2013, the most unlikely groups banded together to form a coalition: Libertarian groups, soccer moms, and environmental activists all opposed the proposed measure to fluoridate Portland’s water supply. The “no” campaign won by a landslide and the measure failed by nearly 20 points. Portlanders, by a wide margin, voted to keep fluoride out of their drinking water.
Whether opponents of fluoride are right or wrong, the campaign to prevent fluoridation is a clear example of how finding common ground among the most unusual of allies can result in success.
The anti-fluoride coalition included a diverse set of groups – all who opposed fluoridation for different reasons: The Pacific Green Party, Nutritional Therapy Association, Organic Consumers Association, Oregon Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and the Cascade Club, a local libertarian think tank. The improbable coalition had one simple message: keep Portland’s water “clean.”
The “no” campaign understood their message and the Portland electorate. They knew that fluoride proponents had an uphill battle – the “yes” campaign had to convince hesitant Portlanders of the benefits of fluoride and promise no negative consequences.
The “no” campaign stuck to and executed a brilliant communications strategy. While the idea behind anti-fluoridation would be seen as a traditionally libertarian stance – it’s one step closer to socialized medicine – the libertarian groups understood their message would not resonate with the average Portlander. Instead, they agreed to attach the issue to environmental degradation and the common use of “chemicals.” The “no” campaign knew their audience.
As Felisa Hagins, political director of SEIU’s Local 49, stated in a May 2013 article: “The anti-coalition has done a really good job of putting their junk science in mainstream media and in front of people in a really aggressive way, and the pro-fluoride side has been a little too nice.”
The May 2013 election was expensive – fluoride proponents outspent opponents $850,000 to $270,000. Nevertheless, opponents were able to build a unique coalition and message their campaign efficiently and effectively. The “no” campaign’s fervent opposition to fluoride didn’t match the proponents excitement.
The latest fluoridation campaign is a stellar example of bringing together the most unlikely of groups to form a coalition to accomplish a goal. The opposition had a simple and effective communications strategy – one where the message did not necessarily resonate with all groups, but did so soundly enough to defeat the proposed measure.