Local Candidates Struggle with Messaging

by | Nov 6, 2022

We are just a few days away from the 2022 election season wrapping up. Early voting is underway, and the rest of us will hit the polls on Tuesday.

One race I’ve paid particularly close attention to is the Marion County Prosecutor race. I help run a local community advocacy group called the North Shadeland Alliance. We put a lot of focus on violent crime and public safety. In September, we hosted a public forum between candidates for Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears (Democrat Incumbent) and Cyndi Carrasco (Republican Challenger). You can watch the replay here.

The State of Play in Indianapolis

Indianapolis has set records for homicides over the last three years. 2021 was the most deadly year in the history of the city. Accusations have swirled around the city about Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears’s alleged unwillingness to prosecute criminals to the full extent of the law. A claim with which he takes issue, naturally.

The area Fraternal Order of Police held a vote on whether local law enforcement has confidence in Ryan Mears. The result was an almost unanimous vote of no confidence. Something Mears downplayed at the forum.

Challenger Cyndi Carrasco has taken a hardline approach to accountability for criminals. Pushing for tougher handling of violent offenders and drawing attention to what she views as the current office going easy on repeat violent offenders.

Ryan Mears’s Strength in Messaging

Ryan Mears is the democratic incumbent in a city that leans left. The majority of voters in Marion County (Indianapolis area) are Democrat or lean that way. Naturally, Ryan Mears has been playing to not lose.

His campaign has focused largely on the two things he will not do as Marion County Prosecutor:

  1. Prosecutor low-level marijuana possession charges
  2. Prosecute anyone involved in an abortion (mother, doctor, etc.)

This gains him a lot of points among center-left to left voters. Maybe even several center-right voters. This especially gets him points in areas that are largely safe at the moment. Voters aren’t feeling the sting of violent crime, other than what they see on the news or read online, and so their top priorities line up with these two main talking points of the campaign.

In a city that leans left, this seems to work well for him.

Cyndi Carrasco’s Strength in Messaging

Cyndi Carrasco, as mentioned, has taken a hardline approach to her messaging on violent crime and homicide in Indianapolis. She regularly puts out press releases calling Prosecutor Ryan Mears out on ways she views he has failed the people of Indianapolis on safety. She continues her “Sweetheart Deals” posts mentioned before.

She is strong in this area. This seems to resonate with people who live in the most dangerous areas of Indianapolis. People who know someone who has been shot, stabbed, or murdered in the last few years appear to support this “tough on crime” approach to the office. She’s winning a lot of moderate votes within the communities hit hardest from what I’ve heard.

Ryan Mears’s Weakness in Messaging

I’ll be honest, I don’t think the weakness here impacts Mears as much as Carrasco’s messaging weaknesses. As mentioned, Indianapolis leans left and Mears just needs to play to not lose. That being said, he’s not handled the messaging around violent crime well this campaign.

What is true doesn’t matter in politics (or marketing for that matter). Perception is reality. Mears could win moderates, and right leaning moderates, by being clearer what he’s doing to attack violent crime.

Statistically, Indianapolis will be safer this year than last year as far as criminal homicides. However, a lot of people don’t feel that way. Non-fatal shootings and stabbings are still extremely high (many times centimeters from being homicides), and the reduction in homicides we’ve seen is still double what the city had a decade or so ago.

Mears easily could tout his refusal to prosecute abortion and marijuana cases AND put out a strategic plan to combat violent crime even further (as far as it depends on his office).

His campaign has ramped up messaging around violent crime in the last few weeks, probably because Carrasco out raised him financially and is growing in support, but none of it rises to the level of providing clarity of a plan to make people feel more safe.

He probably doesn’t need moderates and right leaning moderates…but I’m not convinced he’s done anything to grow his base here.

Cyndi Carrasco’s Weakness in Messaging

Carrasco has an uphill battle in this race. She knows that. She absolutely NEEDS moderate and left leaning moderate voters to overcome the natural deficit to Mears. I’m not sure she’s done what she needs to do to get there.

Last week, I was talking with a friend who is a soft Mears supporter. Loves his stance on abortion and marijuana, but concerned about public safety.

Their concern with Carrasco is she is another Republican in a state of radical Republicans. This person looks at the Statehouse and thinks, “I don’t want more of that.” They are not opposed to voting for a Republican for any office, but hesitant when a candidate hasn’t made clear where they stand related to the crazy we’ve seen from the Right in recent years.

Specifically, Carrasco hasn’t been clear enough on how she’ll handle low-level offenders. Everyone wants repeat violent offenders off the streets, but a lot of moderates are concerned about over-prosecuting low-level offenders, in particular, persons of color.

Carrasco has said a few times that, as often as possible, she’d use her office and community partnerships to get people help when that makes more sense than incarceration. However, most people aren’t hearing that message.

Moderate voters who are vital to her chances of winning still find concern with her rhetoric around “accountability.” She hasn’t defined that word clearly enough. One thing I’ve learned in my years in marketing is if you’re not absolutely clear about something, people will make up their own story in their head to fill in the blanks.

Politics beyond the base

Both candidates have done a fine job of playing to their bases. Carrasco has spent a lot of in-person time with people who likely aren’t entirely her base, so maybe that helps her. I haven’t seen that from Mears (though, maybe it just didn’t make social media).

Both candidates have had a clear path to grow their base through clearer messaging around lower-lever priorities. For Mears, violent crime (he’ll say this is a top priority, but his public messaging says otherwise). For Carrasco, exactly how she’ll handle lower-level offenders who many don’t want to see haphazardly thrown into the criminal justice system.

If Prosecutor Mears had focused more on violent crime and a plan to make it better in the next few years, there would be no chance for Carrasco. If Carrasco had been more clear on her positions around low-level offenders (and maybe abortion rights), she’d have a better shot at an upset win.

I don’t know how this race will turn out on Tuesday. My gut is that Mears will win reelection. Maybe it will be close. We’ll find out.

In future local elections (well, all elections) I’d love to see candidates speak more to people outside their base and draw on commonalities there.

Both of these candidates could have done that and come out in better shape, in my opinion.

A City Disconnected by Safety

As I’ve talked to people around the city, it seems there is a disconnect by community around public safety. People who tend to live in safe communities are much more worried about abortion rights and the perception of low-level offenders (specifically persons of color) being locked up at higher rates.

At the same time, people in more dangerous communities (which are predominantly made up of persons of color) in Indy are frustrated that the same people committing all the crimes keep ending up back out on the s street to reoffend.

We see it across almost every major issue in politics. People who aren’t directly impacted by something still have strong feelings on it without the experience of living it. It then just becomes an empty talking point for public leaders and nothing gets done.

Personally, I have no issue with Mears’s stance on abortion and low-level marijuana possession. I see no valid reason to lock those folks up. However, I respect that people in more dangerous communities around Indy are frustrated when they so often see offenders back out on the street so quickly.

I wish either candidate would be more clear on all the issues so we had a better idea of how they’ll make lives better for everyone in Indianapolis.

If you haven’t voted yet. Be sure to get out there on Tuesday.


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