Online campaigning is no substitute for these methods of traditional outreach.
Some consultants have become so entranced with the sexiness of online and mobile applications they forget that elections are won by employing a fairly simple strategy: identification, persuasion and turnout. There are certainly ways that the web can help a campaign connect with likely voters. But increasingly campaigns are exchanging proven tactics for these tech-heavy options that underperform.
Technology has its place on the trail, but campaigns need to remember that more than half of the American electorate is over the age of 50, with some 20 percent 65 and older. This means the use of online and mobile-based applications for voter outreach is problematic if it’s not combined with more tradition methods. From my experience, winning requires a calculated balance of tech-heavy solutions (online and mobile) and some of these more boring, underrated—yet still highly effective—tactics.
1. Phone Banks. The use of phones on a campaign is becoming a lost art. Some campaigns believe that texting and mobile apps can replace the old-fashioned volunteer phone call. That’s not the case. Several campaigns that enjoyed the national spotlight last cycle didn’t operate phone banks at all—and they lost handily to opponents who spent less money but made more phone calls.
The campaign phone bank should be the heart of the voter identification, persuasion and turnout program. The phone bank will help the campaign target its manpower, direct mail and even television and radio buys. A well-organized phone program can win elections, as it allows the campaign to reach thousands of voters each week, track their choice in the election, and then encourage supporters to go vote on Election Day. These are things that email, text messages and mobile applications cannot achieve effectively.
2. Door-to-door operations. The use of an integrated door-to-door operation has followed the phone banks into obscurity in the campaigns of many first-time candidates. The American campaign style is strongly rooted in retail politics, and nothing is more retail than meeting voters at their door. Most campaigns can reach approximately 40-60 percent of their voters via phone, and significantly less online. This makes knocking on doors the most effective voter contact tactic in a campaign’s arsenal.
An effective door-to-door program should be incorporated into the phone program. The phone bank will identify clusters of undecided or unidentified voters for volunteers to visit. Delivering a message in-person significantly enhances a volunteer’s persuasiveness.
3. Early voting/absentee voting programs. Few campaigns get this right, because executing an effective early voting or absentee voting program is difficult to engineer and track. Republicans and Democrats, however, have both notched surprising wins in the past decade that were only possible by running strong early vote and/or absentee voting programs. Many campaigns simply ignore this tactic because it requires a long-term investment of manpower and money. But these programs can be worth up to 2-to-4 points in a tight race—more than enough to win.
4. Get-Out-The-Vote pushes. The election isn’t won until a campaign gets enough of its voters into the polling station. Each cycle, more than a dozen campaigns come up short on Election Day not because they lost the message war, but because they didn’t execute a solid GOTV program.
Effective GOTV programs can involve direct mail, phone calls, emails, texts and even door-to-door. That said, some modern campaigns fail to recognize that emails, texts, and even direct mail do not have the effect that calls and personal visits have when conducting GOTV operations—particularly on Election Day.
5. Planning. With modern campaigns facing so many communication and strategic options, many choose to skip the planning process altogether. These same campaigns often fail to make it over the finish line. Most reliable consultants and long-time operatives will tell you that winning campaigns means being proactive, not reactive. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for a campaign to be anything but reactive if it doesn’t have a plan. Planning doesn’t necessarily mean writing and following a 300-page campaign strategy memo. It does, however, mean thinking through the options, scenarios and environmental conditions of your specific race. That alone can help a campaign devise a superior strategy that will carry it to victory on Election Day.
Tyler Harber is a Republican consultant and pollster. A partner at the Prosper Group, Harber has worked dozens of campaigns in the U.S. and abroad. Follow him on Twitter (@THarber).