For political newcomers, traditional fundraising is virtually impossible for a write-in campaign. What’s more, the cost of write-in campaigns is larger because of the complicated voter education component. That’s not to say a candidate with low name ID can’t wage a successful write-in, but they had better find a source of additional funding. Whether it’s Super PAC support or a candidate’s own deep pockets, it’s vital for first-time or little-known write-in hopefuls.
Media and Communications
A typical media plan will not suffice in a write-in campaign. Every advertisement must include education on how to write in the candidate’s name on the ballot, according to write-in campaign veterans, and it often helps to come up with a gimmicky tune for voters.
“Any medium that we were going to communicate in, we had to make sure we could work in how to go to the voting booth and properly write in Charlie Wilson,” says Barasky.
For example, Wilson released campaign advertisements with a cheesy folk-style song explaining the circumstances of his write-in campaign, as well as highlighting the backing of then-popular Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D). Murkowski aides toyed with releasing a jingle that included the spelling of her name to the catchy tune of the “Mickey Mouse Club” theme song. In other words, voters need something extra—more than just a memory of a television advertisement—to help them remember to spell once they’re in the voting booth.
Also, traditional campaign swag (t-shirts, yard signs and hats) can serve a whole new communications purpose in a write-in bid. If state law permits, voters can bring these items into the booth to help them correctly spell the candidate’s name. Some states even allow stick-on labels for voters to paste on their ballots. Again, that wasn’t the case in Alaska so Murkowski’s team opted for yellow rubber bracelets that read, “Lisa Murkowski. Fill it in, write it in.” Supporters wore them campaigning, and voters wore them into the booth as a reminder to spell her somewhat complicated name correctly.
The good news is that technology can help in ways it couldn’t when Thurmond won his bid for Senate more than 50 years ago, or when Packard claimed victory in 1983. Veterans of the Murkowski campaign relied heavily on Facebook not only for traditional campaign organizing, but also for voter education. The more information voters glean from written communication, anything from direct mail to Twitter or Facebook, the more likely they are to remember how to spell a name—instead of trying to spell it based on how it sounds in a television commercial.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the write-in bid is that a campaign has almost no clue how successful it will be until election night. That’s because polling is more unreliable and fickle than in a traditional race.
“With a write-in campaign, you really never had any idea,” says Barasky. “There were so many unknowns, so even though things were looking good and we were raising the money we needed to—we had no idea.”
Polling write-in races is notoriously difficult because it’s nearly impossible to mimic the write-in voter experience on the telephone. In the week before the Alaska election, different polls attempting to test Murkowski as a write-in candidate showed her with anywhere from 17 to 34 percent of the vote. She won with 39 percent of the vote.
“In this particular case, there was a lot of debate about whether the real figure come the election would be closer to the lower figure or the higher figure,” says Ivan Moore, a veteran Alaska pollster. Moore recalled that when he polled Murkowski as a write-in candidate, he questioned likely voters first on candidates listed on the ballot. Then Moore followed up by asking about the candidates on the ballot, including Murkowski’s name as a write-in candidate. Murkowski’s score on the second question was always much higher.
In the end, pollsters who studied the race hailed New York Times writer and survey guru Nate Silver for coming up with the best way to survey the contest. Silver proposed asking the voter about their preference from the names of the candidates on the ballot or a write-in candidate. If the survey-taker responded with “write-in candidate,” the pollster would then follow up with a question about which write-in candidate—without prompting any names.
“In retrospect, that’s probably the best way to do it,” says Moore. However, to poll voters with such a method, live callers—or sensitive voice recognition software—are necessary, making polling a write-in campaign an even more expensive endeavor.
The bottom line, say strategists of both Murkowski’s 2010 effort and past write-in campaigns, is that while there is a path to success, you need some prerequisites. A lack of high name ID and a built-in base of fundraising support and organization are more likely than not disqualifiers.
More importantly, the lasting impact of Murkowski’s 2010 victory may be that more established candidates will now see the write-in route as a viable option if they do get edged out in a party primary. If a candidate does opt for the write-in route, Murkowski’s playbook is a pretty good start.