Early voting has ended for the Chattanooga city election, with a last-day surge bumping polling numbers up a little higher than they were four years ago. But the slightly increased turnout hasn't discouraged any of the candidate campaigns from knocking on doors, taking donations, buying advertisements or putting up yard signs until the very end.
This year, the combined totals for early voting and mail-in ballots for the Chattanooga mayoral and City Council election reached 7,678. In 2013, early voting totals topped out at 7,320, including 51 mail-in ballots received between the end of early voting and Election Day. Unlike 2013, 2017 did not experience a two-day surge just before early voting ended.
On Thursday, Hamilton County Elections Administrator Kerry Steelman said in an email that Wednesday's nasty weather affected early voter turnout.
"Turnout was lower than usual on Wednesday; however, the typical rush on the last day of early voting has increased exponentially, as those who stayed in yesterday are making their way to the polls before early voting ends this evening," Steelman said.
Steelman was on the money. The last day's surge hit 1,118 votes, including 19 mail-in ballots. That topped the 882 votes cast on the last day of 2013's early voting by 306 votes, or 34 percent. The surge easily doubled the daily average of votes cast on the preceding 13 days of early voting.
It is still worth noting that out of 96,329 registered Chattanooga voters, less than 8,000 have voted in this election.
As far as money goes, Mayor Andy Berke's re-election campaign is in the lead. The campaign war chest, which sat at $414,490 in mid-January, raised another $86,091 before the end of February. It burned through $358,034 in that same six-week period, which still left the mayor with $142,546 to spend in the week leading to the March 7 election.
That doesn't bother three-time former city councilman David Crockett, one of three challengers attempting to unseat Berke, who has raised just shy of $13,000.
Crockett admitted in a recent announcement that his fundraising has been "more modest" than he had hoped, but he never expected a mayoral campaign should cost much more than $100,000 in the first place.
"All my campaigns have been grassroots," he said. "I'm great at raising millions and hundreds of millions for the city, but challenged at asking for money for a campaign. It's much more personal."
Crockett described himself as "politically challenged" but gifted in vision and performance, citing his City Council record in the 1990s.
The campaigns for mayoral candidates Larry Grohn, a city councilman, and Chris Long, an architectural consultant, also have pointed to volunteer-supported grassroots campaigns as key strengths to counter Berke's dollars. Overall, Grohn raised just over $42,000 and Long raised $7,420.
"The Grohn For Mayor campaign is proud to have the support of each one of our donors, in addition to the donations of time and effort that [have] been put forth by our volunteers and additional supporters who are working hard to secure a March 7 victory," campaign spokesman Dalton Temple said recently.
Long is neither "shocked nor embarrassed" by the money he has received, campaign manager Jack Floyd has said, praising the humble nature of the campaign.
Berke campaign manager Tyler Yount has pointed out the mayor relies on more than large financial contributions, citing plenty of believers involved in the campaign's ground game and more than 170 donations of $100 or less.
"When matched with over 100 campaign volunteers who are making thousands of calls and knocking on hundreds of doors, you can clearly see who Chattanoogans want to be their mayor for the next four years," Yount said.
Amanda Wintersieck, assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has said a candidate's ground game surpasses the effectiveness of mailers and yard signs. However, door-to-door campaigning can also be the most expensive, she said.
In the end, local elections still won't bring out the voters like a large general election, except for diehards who may not be swayed from their party identity, Wintersieck said. Even though the Chattanooga municipal elections are non-partisan, partisan reality is that Berke is a Democrat and his challengers will divide a Republican pool of voters, she said.
"In local elections, you have poor turnout except for voters who are highly committed and have already made up their minds and usually vote on partisan lines," Wintersieck said.
Understanding early voter trends can also play a role in campaign strategy and expectations, especially in District 7, which had the smallest percentage of voters casting ballots before Election Day in 2013 compared to the city's other eight districts. Of the 1,416 people who voted in the race that year, only 437 — 31 percent — voted early. Early voting in most council races surpassed 40 percent of their vote totals.
Regardless, the ground game is extremely important there, say the district's three City Council candidates.
Candidate Erskine Oglesby Jr. said his campaign would be knocking on doors and making calls until the polls close on March 7.
"I'm old school," Oglesby said. "I prefer a phone call or talking to someone face to face."
Reaching out by mailers and advertisements only goes so far, he said. The personal touch allows you to make a connection and engage someone, he said.
Manny Rico, who lost the District 7 seat to Chris Anderson four years ago, said in an email he is knocking on doors to get voters to come out and support him if they want a change. He has put up signs and sent out mailers, but campaigning door-to-door is what won him the seat for two terms before Anderson's victory four years ago, he said.
"Most voters know who they will support, and I hope I have enough name recognition" based on his time on the council and years of civic involvement, Rico said.
Anderson, who seeks a second term, said in a text message that Wintersieck's assessment is 100 percent correct.
"Canvassing is the best thing in a local race, followed by mail and calls," Anderson said, adding his team knocked on 1,100 doors last weekend.
It's not just the contested races driving voter turnout, though.
On several Saturdays in February, Councilwoman Carol Berz, who is unopposed in District 6, used her Brainerd Road campaign headquarters to help register people to vote and give them rides so they could vote early.
"We don't care who people want to vote for," Berz has said. "We just want them to go vote."
Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.
CORRECTION: The story incorrectly reported David Crockett's campaign raised just over $30,000. The story has been corrected to report his campaign raised nearly $13,000.