Issue Advocacy: County Sales Tax Ballot Referendum

Leveraging Targeting, Radio, and Direct Mail

Beaufort County, South Carolina, was facing crumbling infrastructure, heavy seasonal traffic to and from Hilton Head Island, and a funding challenge. We leveraged our polling and market research partner, American Strategies, to conduct extensive polling of likely voters so that we could formulate our targeting and messaging methodology, and then we engaged audiences in an outreach campaign leveraging direct mail and radio ads to secure a win for our client.

The Challenge

After failing to pass a penny tax increase in 2016, the county proposed a 1% sales tax increase in 2018. The proposal required all tax revenue to go toward the repair and installation of roads, bridges, and sidewalks in Beaufort County. Our objective was to convince Beaufort County voters that by voting yes on the referendum, they would be investing in their future.

Our Approach

In June, an American Strategies poll of likely voters showed broad but weak support for the sales tax increase—63% were generally in favor, but 40% of those voters (25% of the overall electorate) were uncertain about their “Yes” vote. Experience has taught us that many voters—especially in South Carolina—show tepid support for a tax increase in a poll, but that support can quickly erode once a campaign is underway. In this case, the same poll also showed that about half of voters felt that local taxes were already too high and that county government already had enough money for road and bridge repairs.

The keys to victory, therefore, were clear: keep the strong support base intact while consolidating support among the 25% who were only somewhat certain or not certain to support the sales tax referendum. Polling showed our messaging strategy needed to accomplish the following:

  • Keep it local by reminding voters that all revenues would stay local, resulting in local economic benefits—both for small businesses and workers.

  • Personalize the issue by reminding residents how the infrastructure upgrades would improve their quality of life, ease traffic congestion, improve safety, and make it easier to evacuate Hilton Head and other nearby islands.

  • Reinforce existing support by underscoring specific components, such as sidewalk repairs near schools and roadway traffic improvements.

  • Be aware of local attitudes on taxation and continually remind voters that 40% of the revenue raised by the sales tax would come from tourists and visitors.

Our Solution

To educate voters, the campaign produced six mailers that targeted specific demographic groups based on our targeting models. We also leveraged a radio advertisement that was critical to getting our message out before Election Day. In clear, simple language, the radio ad’s message spells out the benefits of the proposed sales tax, while the audio of a traffic jam serves as a familiar soundtrack for frustrated Beaufort County commuters.

Voters in Beaufort County decided to approve the Penny Referendum by a margin of 58% to 42%, which was a decisive victory. The campaign increased both public awareness and support for the final vote on Election Day—resulting in a 20-point swing in favor of the referendum in less than six months.

The campaign won the silver 2019 Summit Creative Award for Best Public Service Campaign, and our radio ad was selected as a finalist by Campaigns & Elections for the 2019 Reed Award in the category “Best Radio Ad for Public Affairs/Issue Advocacy Campaign or Ballot Initiative.”

Market Research:

  • Phone

  • Online

  • Optimization: Maximize ROI at every opportunity

Creative:

  • Graphic Design

  • Content Marketing

  • Messaging & Positioning

  • Video/Radio

Production & Distribution:

  • Printing

  • Bulk Mailing Services

  • Postal Processing

Insight & Analytics:

  • Precision Targeting

  • Advanced Reporting

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