Matthew Parker is founder and CEO of Front Porch Strategies, a Republican telephone voter contact firm. Marty Stone is a partner at Stones’ Phones, a Democratic telephone voter contact firm.
The end of the 2012 election cycle finds the phone industry facing a number of challenges which could change the way phones are used in campaigns in the near future. Taking stock of the work done over the past year, we feel that phone strategists serving both parties have lessons which must be learned in order to maximize the effectiveness of phones as a campaign tool going forward.
One of the most discussed issues affecting the industry is the increasing number of voters who use mobile phones as their primary or only phone, and the regulatory difficulties involved in reaching them. One-in-three American households and six-in-ten voters age 25-29 now have no landline.
In October, the FCC issued an enforcement advisory prohibiting autocalls to mobile numbers without a prior recipient opt-in and threatening violators with stiff fines. Voters with only mobile phones will continue to become a larger segment of the electorate, and it will become more and more critical for campaigns to reach them.
The phone industry will have to adapt and innovate tactically and technologically so long as over-zealous federal regulators make it difficult to reach these voters.
However, too many campaign managers and candidates have started to assume that every voter has a mobile phone and that their phone programs would therefore become irrelevant. Work done by our firms in the recent campaign cycle shows this isn’t the case. After scrubbing out lists for mobile numbers, 80-90 percent of the landlines remained, and our contact rates did not fall. We were still able to reach the vast majority of voters with our Telephone Town Halls, live ID and GOTV calls, and automated messages.
At the moment, we do not believe that the shift to mobile phones is the most severe problem facing the industry. We feel there are a number of other areas where the industry can and should take steps to improve the effectiveness of their phone campaigns.
One serious problem is that many campaigns have de-emphasized obtaining hard voter IDs and messaging on key issues—both tasks phones are well-suited for—in favor of leaning solely on microtargeting data. In 2012, Democrats and Republicans alike used microtargeting to pinpoint their messaging. At the presidential level it worked very well for President Obama. However, we’re seeing microtargeting overused on races that aren’t at the top of the ticket and aren’t capturing the daily attention that presidential campaigns do.
When down-ballot campaigns overuse microtargeting, the message doesn’t get through. For these campaigns, if you’re not talking about the top issues driving the conversation, you’re not being heard. Microtargeting has its place, and has been one of the important innovations in campaigns in recent years, but it is not a substitute for getting hard IDs—which are still best obtained by phone. This cycle, we also saw candidates on Telephone Town Halls try to push microtargeted messages to a wide audience only to get too far “into the weeds” and have their audience react with disinterest.
Another challenge affecting the industry is that phone services, and direct voter contact in general, are not being thoroughly and accurately considered in campaign budget plans—or being short-changed when those plans are suddenly altered. This often occurred as a response to involvement from a Super PAC. When Super PACs started spending money on TV early, campaigns felt forced to respond, and phone budgets were often the first to get the ax.
Spooked by the entrance of a Super PAC into their race, campaigns would react with a big buy on a quick ad only to have the Super PAC go dark. We saw too many campaigns abandon their campaign plan too early and spend money recklessly. When money was spent on phones, it was sometimes not spent as efficiently as it might have been. Much of the spending done on voter contact is done piecemeal. We think campaigns could get more for their money if they made realistic advanced budget projections for robust voter contact rather than making expenditures on a reactive, ad-hoc basis.
The final major challenge that the industry is facing at the close of the 2012 election cycle lies in the fact that Americans are changing the way they cast their votes. Over 32 million Americans cast their ballots early in 2012. Campaigns will in turn have to change their strategies for reaching them. Election Day can now last weeks, depending on the state, and we can envision elections in the future where the majority of ballots are cast early.
We achieved some success in local races this cycle with strategies aimed at building a decisive lead during the early voting window, and we’d suggest this is a trend that campaigns (especially Republican campaigns) need to wake up and take more seriously. As more and more Americans vote early in future elections, it will become absolutely necessary for campaigns to have a plan to “win” or at least be competitive in the early vote, and phone strategists will have to be prepared to reach likely early voters in a timely and effective way.
The experiences of the 2012 election cycle teach clear lessons about how the industry must adapt and improve going forward in order to best serve our clients and maintain our relevance in future elections. The rise of mobile phones as primary or sole contact lines presents a problem that the industry will have to be willing to innovate and experiment in order to overcome. The importance of obtaining hard voter IDs must be rediscovered—campaigns must realize they simply cannot afford not to do it.
The effectiveness of phones can be enhanced if campaigns prioritize voter contact in their budgets and stick to their budgets rather than spending in a reactive and piecemeal fashion. Finally, as campaigns are forced to place greater emphasis on early voting, phone consultants will have to be prepared to reach early voters with accuracy and mobilize them creatively and effectively.
Along with the challenges, there are good reasons to believe that phone services can develop into even more useful campaign tools in the future. The Telephone Town Hall has come into its own as a means for reaching voters—we have gone from doing a few dozen events per cycle to hundreds. At the same time, as some campaigns are questioning the relevance of phones and fretting about regulatory difficulties, the commercial sector is recognizing the value of phones and especially Telephone Town Halls as one of many channels of communication to reach their audience in spite of a much stricter regulatory environment on commercial phone contact.
It is impossible to be sure how changes in the regulatory environment, in election laws, and in technology may change the role which phone services play in campaigns four years from now. But looking back at the 2012 campaign has allowed us, we think, to say with certainty that these are the challenges of most critical importance for the industry going forward.
The midterm elections of 2014 will give campaigns and consultants an important opportunity to improve their tools, refresh their strategies, and find out how these challenges can best be overcome.