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2013 Missoula, MT

January 03, 2014

Out of the many success stories during the November 2013 elections, CFTE has chosen to highlight the Missoula property tax measure to raise $1.7 million annually for improved bus service. Friends of Mountain Line Campaign Manager, Derek Goldman, shares his insights on what made the campaign successful.

How did Missoula decided to go for a ballot initiative to support transit? Who led that effort and what convinced them it would be a winner with voters?

The Missoula Urban Transportation District (MUTD) which operates Mountain Line bus service initiated a Comprehensive Operational Analysis (COA) in early 2012. MUTD conducted market research (including both user- and non-user surveys), stakeholder and focus groups, as well as a community survey. Public opinion gathered during this effort indicated a desire for increased transit frequency and hours of operation in the urban core, as well as a desire for increased services for seniors and people with disabilities. As a result of this process, Mountain Line developed short and long-range plans that reflected the desires of the community with regard to transit service.

What early steps were taken to gauge voter support and create a messaging strategy for the campaign?

MUTD conducted a community survey to assess funding options for enhanced transit service and to gauge support for a possible increase in the mill levy that funds day to day operations. The community survey also tested potential messages and messengers for persuasiveness. There was both a stakeholder/opinion leader interview process as well as a public survey.

What’s the most important or successful thing the campaign did in its early days?

In early 2013, MUTD began a year-long celebration of its 35th anniversary of operations. Campaign organizers were able to leverage the community “buzz” and sense of goodwill around the anniversary, and use that as an opportunity to remind voters that MUTD had not asked for a mill levy increase on the ballot for the last 35 years. This became one of the campaigns most essential talking points. Additionally, reaching out to local community leaders and businesses for endorsements early was also important to showing broad support later on.

Who was part of the coalition in support of the measure? How was that group formed? What did partners do during the campaign?

Friends of Mountain Line is the name of the coalition and ballot committee that was created to ask voters to vote for the mill levy. The campaign was led by the Montana office of M+R Strategic Services, and the steering committee also included: Montana Conservation Voters, MontPIRG, ASUM Office of Transportation, and a local city council member. The steering committee met regularly to develop and implement campaign strategy, and to plan earned media outreach and fundraising efforts. Nearly 50 organizations and community leaders also endorsed the campaign—they are listed here.

What was the relationship like between the transit agency and the campaign? Was the agency an asset during the campaign?

The community outreach and public education conducted by the agency regarding the purpose and need for the mill levy was extremely helpful and essential to our success. The campaign and the transit agency have a positive relationship. Since federal law prohibits publicly-funded transit agencies from using its resources for electioneering, this limited the degree to which the campaign could coordinate with agency staff, although several agency staff volunteered their time outside of work hours to assist the campaign effort.

How did the campaign model its budget and approach fundraising?

We developed a campaign based upon direct voter contact, identified our “votes-to-win,” and budgeted accordingly. We identified categories of prospective donors, including large individual, businesses, and organizational donors. We also indentified some of the larger vendors of the transit agency who stood to gain financially from a successful mill levy effort. (However these vendors failed to respond significantly to fundraising efforts.) Steering committee members shared primary responsibility for donor outreach. We also organized two fundraising events/parties, and solicited contributions online. Several of our campaign partners made financial contributions to the effort and/or committed significant staff time.

You got strong support from the business community and positive media editorials. How did you cultivate that support? Are there lessons for other communities?

Securing support from businesses requires one-on-one direct outreach to individual businesses, and the ability to communicate the ways in which increased transit service will benefit economic development and business in Missoula. The local business outreach that MUTD was engaged in as part of its 35th anniversary promotion was helpful in that it built goodwill in the local business community. Demonstrating this strong and broad support from local businesses, health professionals, and community leaders was also instrumental the news coverage and helping to secure positive editorial content.

What messages did you use in the campaign and which messages proved most effective?

Through a community survey we were able to identify the most effective messages (and messengers). The strongest message was one that emphasized how Mountain Line bus service (and the planned service improvements) benefits the entire community (as opposed to just bus riders). We knew from the research that most voters already support the bus - common good - “benefits us all”, so it was a matter of crafting a message in a way that reinforced that belief: Mountain Line benefits us all. The mill levy increase will help seniors and people with disabilities remain independent, increase frequency and provide night time services.

We also integrated this message with key messengers that the community support – The Mayor, our hospitals, and our business community – Missoula Downtown Association and Southgate Mall.

What was your strategy and approach for voter modeling and identification? How did you deal with early voting? How does GOTV work in the context of early voting?

Voter ID: We modeled our voter contact universe by looking at 1) vote history, to identify which voters are likely to cast ballots in municipal elections, and 2) those voters who have previously indicated a willingness to support increased taxes to pay for public services. We also had community survey data that indicated that the youth (18-34) vote was strongly supportive of a hypothetical transit mill levy increase, as well as women voters.

GOTV: Local elections in Missoula are all vote-by-mail elections. Since moving to a mail balloting system, we have seen voter turnout in municipal elections increase from an average of less than 20 percent to an average of over 40 percent. However, Montana law also provides for same-day voter registration, whereby voters can register and cast a ballot in person on Election Day. Ballots were mailed to all active voters 15 days prior to Election Day, whereupon we commenced our GOTV efforts, mostly via phone banking, while also continuing to identify remaining supportive voters. We received daily updates from the county elections office that allowed us to remove people who had voted from our GOTV universe. We also developed an Election Day voter turnout plan as well, to chase down identified supporters whose ballots had not been received by the elections office.

Are there particular lessons for smaller transit systems from your success in Missoula?

A smaller MPO like Missoula makes it harder to raise the funds required to run a successful campaign. We simply don’t have the resources in the local business, nonprofit and other community partners that larger MPO’s have. (We are still in need of some additional funding to pay off some campaign obligations, just in case anyone reading this has any resources available :) ).
You want to secure early commitments to fund the campaign.

Did social media play a role in the campaign? What about students or young professionals?

Our social media and online presence generally was vitally important in this campaign. We used a database management system that integrated our online presence and social media activity with the district voter file. This meant that we were not only able to get our message out online via regular email communications and social media, but that we were also able to identify and track supporters online as well. Our online presence was also important for recruiting and engaging volunteers, through “virtual GOTV phone-banking,” for example.

Missoula has a strong bike advocacy community. Did they get involved? How did you work with that constituency?

Absolutely. Our bicycle and pedestrian advocates also tend to be pro-transit, and are already organized. Likewise, Mountain Line is very pro-bike, having just installed two new bike stations located at bus transfer centers. The main bike-ped advocacy group endorsed our campaign and contributed to earned media efforts, fundraising and GOTV efforts.

Is there anything you’d do differently in terms of campaign tactics or strategy?

Financial commitments. We assumed we could count of some institutions and groups for funds
but those assumptions were wrong. Our budget was good, but our fundraising was not successful.

What’s next for transit in Missoula?

Exactly what the voters were promised: late evening service on four major routes, increased frequency on two key routes, and increased service for seniors and people with disabilities. The new service improvements will go into effect approximately one year from now (when the requisite new buses are built and delivered). This will commence Phase 2 of a five phase, 30 year plan for Mountain Line