Frank Pignanelli is going dark. In more ways than one.
Pignanelli, trailing Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson by a dozen points in the polls as next week's mayoral primary election nears, is not planning to run any radio or TV ads before the primary.
Staying off the electronic media is known in the trade as "going dark."
Instead of radio and TV ads, Pignanelli is sending out mailers and walking neighborhoods.
"My campaign committee was split down the middle on whether we should run ads or not," said Pignanelli. One of his advisers, Dave Jones, who barely was eliminated in Salt Lake mayoral primaries in 1995 and 1999, strongly urged Pignanelli to run at least a few radio ads, Pignanelli said.
"But our strategy is grass roots-based. We've walked nearly the whole city once. And we've started doing it again," he added. In recent mayoral elections, the leaders of the pack who have adequate funds have run at least radio ads, a few even TV ads, before the primary election. Pignanelli says he can't remember a primary race where the top contenders had no radio ads at all before the primary.
Anderson, a Democrat like Pignanelli, is currently running both TV and radio ads. And Molonai Hola, the only Republican in the nonpartisan race, has run a short radio advertisement earlier this summer and plans a last-minute radio spot this week, his campaign manager says.
A new Anderson TV ad featuring Olympic boss Mitt Romney — now the governor of Massachusetts — started running Monday, along with two new radio ads, both "testimonials" by downtown businessmen happy with Anderson's administration, says Skip Branch of Riester-Robb, the mayor's advertising firm.
Pignanelli says not running ads in the electronic media shouldn't be seen as a sign of weakness in his fund raising, nor should it mean Pignanelli's assured he'll come out of the primary.
"You want to do well enough in a primary to come out with a decent showing — you can't be 20 points down" to the mayor in voting next Tuesday, Pignanelli said.
It appears Anderson wants a knockout punch Tuesday. He's raised more than $550,000, but he's spent $460,000, a big chunk on media, and has $130,000 in cash, reports filed last week show.
Pignanelli has raised $260,000, but still has $76,000 in cash. Money spent now by Pignanelli clearly hurts him more than pre-primary money spent by Anderson.
Hola doesn't have a choice. Coming in third in the polls, it's now or never. He's raised around $90,000, but has spent nearly all of it. He had only $5,600 in cash, his reports show.
"You have to watch your expenses" in any campaign, but especially a race where there is only a month between the primary and general elections — so little time for additional fund raising, Pignanelli said.
"The mayor is using mass media because he has another message — he wants the citizens of the city to know the kind of mayor he's been, the kind of person he is, the kind of city they can be proud of," said Branch, who admits any electronic media in a municipal election to some extent "is overkill" because so many people see it who can't or won't vote in the election.
Actually, says Pignanelli, a study of previous Salt Lake mayoral primaries shows him and other advisers that to make a good showing Tuesday he only needs between 7,000 and 8,000 votes "out of the 18,000 or 20,000 people who are going to vote" in the primary.
To spend tens of thousands of dollars on radio or TV ads that will reach millions of Utahns — most of whom don't live in the city and so can't vote for him anyway — when he really needs such a small fraction of that support doesn't make much sense, Pignanelli said.
"It's a gut feeling" in taking the unusual strategy, he adds. Anderson has nearly 100 percent name identification, "and he's raised all this money, so we ask: Why try to keep up with him" in buying radio and TV?
Said Pignanelli: "We're mailing to every registered voter in the city. We're running get-out-the-vote phone banks. This is a tactical primary. We have to be ready for the general election. We can't have shot it all now" in the primary.