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If you want to know how most political consultants spend the odd-numbered years, think back to “The Bad News Bears” (the iconic original, not the awful remake).
Walter Matthau’s character—the down trodden Coach Buttermaker—tells Tatum O’Neal how he intends to spend the off-season: “Go fishing or hunting, make some personal appearances, get to know the wife and kids again.” Throw in “corporate work” and “pitch clients,” and Buttermaker might as well have been describing what the off-season is like for a majority of political consultants.
One notable exception is New Jersey, where there’s no such thing as an off-season for political strategists. It’s one of just two states where the governor and legislators are elected in the odd years. (Virginia is the other.)
A slew of other municipalities and counties across the country hold elections in odd years, too.
The off-year dynamic undoubtedly makes get-out-the-vote efforts a tougher task. With no statewide or federal races to serve as a top-of-the-ticket draw, smaller-scale campaigns are mostly on their own when trying to drum up turnout, making a strong field staff and an even stronger GOTV plan essential for success.
After spending plenty of off-years helping candidates build winning get out the vote plans, here are three basic rules to help ensure you’re field staff doesn’t look like the Bad News Bears come Election Day.
1. Build the Right Team: The workhorses on many campaigns are those volunteers who make the phone calls, organize the rallies and put up the lawn signs. But with politics largely on the backburner, it’s sometimes harder to find and recruit able volunteers. Your staff needs to be on the lookout earlier than usual and make sure they put aside the irritation paid staffers sometimes show toward volunteers. You need them more than ever, so if it means investing some effort to cook up projects for volunteers or (heaven forbid) spending some real time talking to them about the policy questions and ideas that probably motivated them to walk in the door—it’s worth it.
And speaking of staff, one of the benefits of off-year contests is the availability of top-level talent. Staffers who have had success on congressional and gubernatorial races will be more willing to work on off-year races since they’re less likely to interfere with more lucrative reelection contests next year. Off-year elections also present opportunities for staffers to step up in rank. Someone who enjoyed success as a political director for a congressional race in 2010 might make a terrific campaign manager for a county executive race this year.
2. Sound the Alarm: The biggest GOTV challenge in an off-year election is simply alerting voters to its existence. In New Jersey, there are four election cycles. According to Bill McClintock of GOP Wins, the high point for voter participation is the presidential election cycle, which sees about 73 percent of the state’s voters turn out. Next is the gubernatorial election, when about 49 percent turn out. After that comes the non-presidential federal election (Senate or Congressional seat), which sees about 45% turnout. Finally, there’s a year like 2011 when the state legislature tops the ticket and the turnout plummets to a meager 33 percent. Generalizing across states—or even within states—is difficult because individual factors will obviously impact turnout. But it’s clear that turnout falls dramatically in these years.
So the first job in attracting support for your candidate at the polls is to remind voters—over and over, and in a variety of ways. It’s too easy for people who are spending 60 hours a week thinking about the election to forget that those who most need reminding aren’t thinking about it at all. I can’t tell you how often I hear campaign staffers tell me that “everyone is talking about this election.” No—they’re not.
Where you reach them is equally important. I recently had a client tell me she wanted to advertise on Patch.com because “everyone in town reads it every day.” I’m a fan of hyperlocal, but, no—they don’t. Now, I wouldn’t be a TV guy if I didn’t believe it to be the most effective medium, but I also recognize the need to diversify. Lawn signs, direct mail, aggressive and targeted Internet media—all of these are particularly important in off-years. When presidential candidates are spending a combined billion bucks, no one needs reminding of the significance of the first Tuesday (after the first Monday) in November. In off years, it’s up to your campaign to do that heavy lifting.
3. Tweak the Messaging: The final rule for off-year GOTV is the first rule for messaging: know your audience. When reaching out to voters, bear in mind that you’re likely to be speaking to the most activist voters. If only a third of eligible voters turn out, you can bet they’re the most knowledgeable and committed ones. But that doesn’t automatically mean they’re not persuadable.
In fact, these ardent voters might be the most willing to be engaged by thoughtful, persuasive communication. They care enough about their communities to show up for the least publicized election, so don’t overlook them on the notion that “4 of 4’s” aren’t worth communicating with because they’ll either be automatically with you or against you.
Ken Kurson is a partner at Jamestown Associates, a national political media firm, and the co-author of Rudy Giuliani’s best seller “Leadership.”