If the campaign you’re working is sitting on a 72-hour turnout plan and waiting to execute it, do yourself and your candidate a favor and toss it. Any campaign manager worth their salt will tell you: 72 hours simply isn’t what it used to be.
For smart campaigns, that 72-hour GOTV plan has turned into a 720-hour plan. Thanks to early and absentee voting, field programs now start much earlier and get-out-the-vote efforts are forced to ramp up well before that final 72-hour window. A campaign’s final 72 hours now take on additional significance.
The traditional elements are still there—managing volunteers, placing late media and ensuring the campaign’s turnout machine is humming. But the advent of social media and the lightning-fast nature of today’s news cycle means that decisions made by consultants and senior staff over the final three days of a campaign can have an outsized impact on the eventual outcome.
During a campaign’s final hours, details matter and staffers need to be ready to deal with everything from online advertising to an 11th-hour communications crisis. Here’s a basic roadmap to help prepare your campaign for the all-important final 72.
Finalize your plan
By this point in the cycle, we trust your campaign has already spent plenty of time identifying voters and selecting targets. By the midway point of any given race, campaigns should be targeting new voters and have a good idea of who is on the fence. With that information in hand, the last 72 hours should focus on getting low propensity voters to the polls.
“It’s very methodical; the lists are tight and made well in advance,” says Casey Phillips, a former regional political director for the Republican State Leadership Committee and cofounder of RedPrint Strategy. With voter data as good as it is, says Phillips, local organizers are often the biggest variable. Picking up organizers too late ensures you won’t have the numbers you need for an effective final push. Attracting them early needs to be a priority, and once the campaign has a full complement of foot soldiers on board their last-minute canvassing shifts should be mapped out well ahead of time.
If you’re worried about not having enough manpower, enlist your current volunteers to help bolster their ranks before Election Day. Never wait for additional volunteers to just show up.
Last Minute Media
GOTV plans go well beyond door-to-door contacts, email and phone calls. What’s often overlooked, says Democratic media strategist Ben Nuckels, is “a comprehensive communications plan that gets your candidate where they need to be.”
Nuckels, who managed the 2010 campaign of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, dismisses the notion that it’s too late to buy ad time in the final 72 hours. If you’re thinking about making a last-minute media buy, know what stations are capable of handling beforehand and have an ad rep on standby. Same goes for making online appeals at the last minute.
“It means less time on the phones if you’re able to reach people on their computer screens,” says Phillips, who thinks the expansion of social media is the biggest advancement this cycle. If something breaks too late to get a TV ad up and running, online pre-roll advertising might be an option. Late online ad blitzes can also be an effective turnout driver.
Among the toughest decisions the campaign has to make is how to spend late cash. While it’s easy to get sucked in by the low cost and speed of robocalls, Democrat Marty Stone says there are much better ways to use phones.
“Don’t just think about 30-second blasts of messages, but think about where the voters are,” Stone says. “Do push-button auto calls, getting their opinions back.”
Stone’s firm utilized the tactic in the final hours of Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-Wash.) 2010 race against Republican Dino Rossi to obtain some last-minute feedback on the campaign’s message.
Another effective option, says Stone, are telephone town halls. Last cycle, Murray hosted one each day for the four days before Election Day. If campaigns plan ahead, Stone says, recordings can be in the can, town hall scripts written and universes preselected for phone polling.
Organize the Chaos
In the final 72 hours, even the most well run campaigns descend into “organized chaos,” says Jen Harrington, director of special projects at the Prosper Group. It makes maintaining some semblance of control crucial, and that starts with the campaign’s senior staff.
The last thing you need is an intern stealing an opponent’s lawn signs or a candidate committing a careless email gaffe. Find a way to channel the last-minute intensity into productive uses, advises Democratic strategist J.J. Balaban. “What you really don’t want to do in the last 72 hours is to make mistakes,” he says. “Emotions get very high; you don’t want the last taste in the mouth of the voters to be some scandal or malfeasance.”
Any event your campaign puts on in the last 72 hours should be about turning voters into volunteers to help get even more voters to the polls, Harrington says. Every communication should advertise Election Day and direct voters to the nearest polling location. Spending resources on rallies, TV ads, mail or social media that fails to tie back to the impending vote is a waste.
“People get focused on their victory night party, which is irrelevant and unfortunate, if you don’t win,” Harrington says. Strategy during the final push must remain malleable.
“Mike Tyson said, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,’” says Nuckels. He suggests a data-driven game plan with times set aside for campaign management to pause and reflect throughout the last three days. Flexibility is critical in the final days given that most undecideds aren’t seeking information about your candidate until very late in the game, says Balaban.
“There’s a not insignificant portion of the electorate that starts thinking about the campaign maybe 48 hours before they go to vote,” he says. “So it’s important not to make assumptions.”
Here’s where the campaign and candidate really need to be flexible. A good deal of thought should be put into your candidate’s itinerary, as well as the itinerary of his or her top surrogates on Election Day, says Ben Nuckels.
Where the candidate, family members and top surrogates are positioned on Election Day could make a real difference on turnout in a close contest. So spend some time thinking about where their presence might have the greatest impact on turnout. Sometimes you’ll need a big name, while other times you’d want a local one in a certain location.
Nuckels suggests two senior strategy meetings on Election Day itself—one at noon and another at 4 pm. Take that time to carefully look over data from bellwether polling locations to determine whether your turnout plan is working the way you anticipated. Even with just a few hours left before the polls close, campaigns should still be making strategic decisions regarding the allocation of resources and manpower.
One thing to avoid on Election Day, says Phillips, is spending too much time and manpower on a campaign sign blitz. Candidates and organizers are much better served by spending their time talking to voters in the final hours, rather than standing alongside local roads with signs.
“Traditional person-to-person calling is still the best way to reach out—local folks calling other local folks,” Phillips says. Local organizers are powerful phone bankers in the last 72 hours, and the same holds true for door-to-door work. In a close contest, none of those efforts should shut down until the polls close.