The Seven Sins of Political Campaigns

Apathy isn’t a failure of the people, it’s a failure of our party to reach them.

Photo credit @saget.b for the @nytimes

All Americans who are eligible to vote, don’t actually vote. And the electorate that shows up is not a random sample of the overall population, it’s significantly more conservative and less diverse than the population as a whole. This has massive substantive implications on the focus of the policies that our Representatives ultimately represent.

When we consider that Trump was elected into office by only 26% of eligible voters, we have to recognize the tremendous opportunity that lies in expanding who votes and bringing millions of disengaged voters back into the process. If half of the country isn’t voting, it’s not an indictment of them, it’s an indictment of us — the people running for office or currently in it.

Democrats are at the lowest level of power in over a half-century, and we ought to dispense with any sacred cows and take a critical look at all of our assumptions when campaigning. And we ought to be okay with experimenting at the individual campaign level in order to help the movement as a whole by trying new strategies and content, sharing our findings, and building a new electorate together.

So, since that fateful election, we’ve spent time in rooms across the country not just with consultants and campaign managers, but with voters and people from other industries coming out for the first time to help dissect and make sense of the main issue at hand:

Why is it that the current electorate — the group who actually turns out to do their civic duty — is so misrepresentative of the aspirations of Americans as whole?

The further we dug in, the more clearly we saw that political campaigns are at the root of this disconnect. A broken business model that blames its customers for a product it can’t sell. And quite a few of the “basic truths” we heard most often from campaign experts, actually seemed more like original sins. The advice given to candidates about how to win an election is the same advice that perpetuates a cycle of marginalization for the very voters we most need to help — younger voters, minorities, and immigrants who are deemed “low propensity voters.”

But before we get there, let’s talk about how campaigns currently target voters.

Most campaigns rely on the “voter file,” a dataset owned by the state party which includes the names and addresses of the registered voters in any given district. That voter file, appended with demographic data, is available for sale and is a major source of revenue for the party. Even though the data is widely criticized for being inaccurate and outdated (and often still delivered on CD-ROM), candidates pay up for what’s promised to be their best shot at identifying allies. The voter file includes not only the contact information for voters in a jurisdiction, but also each individual’s voting history.

Image by @ArenaSummit —Raleigh, NC (March 2017)

And here’s where we start to see these original sins come to light —

1. Past participation is treated as the strongest predictor of future behavior.

In the voter file, people who vote most frequently are tagged as “high propensity voters,” while those who vote every four years or less are marked as “low propensity.” At the onset of every campaign, the voter file is sorted and “likely” individuals are prioritized as the main target for all communications. Rather than assume that anyone might vote if given a good reason, it’s decided in advance that certain people are fundamentally “disinclined” to take part. Anyone who hasn’t voted recently, is newly registered, or is too young to have a sustained track record, drops to the bottom of the list and may not receive information or reminders about the upcoming election. By this logic, any sudden or newfound interest is left untapped.

2. It’s “prohibitively expensive” to engage sporadic voters.

The approach to prioritizing likely voters is commonly justified as necessary to control costs. While it’s true that campaign budgets are limited, the fixed costs of earning awareness have changed. This argument ignores the evolution of media consumption and just how cost-effective digital platforms are for targeted outreach. Digital budgets are still a small fraction of what campaigns spend on direct mail and TV ads, pricey tactics that provide no real-time performance metrics. Best practices for content marketing and distribution are still deemed “risky” in politics, despite the success brands have seen in creating engaged communities online. The phrase “wasted eyeballs” comes up often in response to any suggested voter contact technique that isn’t tied to a physical address or phone number — words that would never be uttered by anyone trying to drive impressions and overall consideration for a business.

On a substantive level, think about this — if you haven’t voted in off-year elections in the past, if you weren’t inspired by the choices you had such that you chose not to vote, you were deemed “prohibitively expensive” to deserve represenation. That ought to incense us, it’s blaming the customer for not buying a bad product.

3. Candidates shouldn’t run if they can’t prove the win is feasible.

This is a funny one, with lots to unpack — especially since we know that no election results are certain. And when challenging an incumbent, a flawed “re-elect score” can be used to discourage others from throwing their hat the ring. This score is often calculated from the same narrow pool of “likely” voters that elect them in the first place. High re-elect scores don’t necessarily take into account the views or satisfaction levels of anyone else who might vote if given a choice between more candidates. In this case, running for office can be viewed as a “waste of resources” by party members who should hypothetically support the entrance of new ideas and new energy into the political sphere. More competition always leads to good things — more representation, more innovation, bolder visions, paradigm shifts, and higher voter turnout. Plus, it creates a greater number of experienced candidates who will continue to lead their communities in other capacities.

4. Find your messages. Stick to them. Never relent.

Campaigns typically poll their constituents to identify three messages that work well enough to capture 51% of their “likely” voter base. Those three talking points are then repeated over and over until the day of the election. While this approach largely makes sense from the standpoint of “people need to hear something a few times to recall it,” it can inadvertently make a great candidate seem inflexible, inauthentic, or even tone deaf. Messaging guidelines and a prioritized point of view are critical, but we should be actively iterating on our talking points as we listen and learn and integrate more evidence from real world conversations. What works on paper may not make sense in practice. Unchanging leadership may work for an unchanging electorate, but if we want to broaden our appeal and truly represent the views of a larger community, an approach that allows for more nuance is key.

5. People don’t care about details of public policy.

Another prevailing wisdom is that the most compelling way to motivate an audience is through sharing an emotional story about the candidate’s own rise through adversity. While these personal narratives can help form an initial connection, we’re selling ourselves short on the word-of-mouth effects of stories that add value to our constituencies. A campaign’s default mode shouldn’t be to assume that information is boring, and we really shouldn’t view “emotional” and “informative” as mutually exclusive. One of the most powerful attributes of a shareable piece of content is that we find it useful. It’s why NPR and niche podcasts are increasingly popular. It’s why segments from detail-obsessed shows like The Daily Show, Samantha Bee, Adam Ruins Everything, and Last Week Tonight consistently drive civic engagement. In only ever telling stories about ourselves, candidates miss out on the potential to inspire, excite, and empower audiences with stories of the very-within-our-reach ways we can create change.

6. One-on-one contact is only achieved through phone-banking and door-knocking.

Most campaigns save up all of their volunteers’ enthusiasm for the last couple of weeks of the campaign to canvass and call voters. If you’ve ever offered your time for either activity, you know how grueling it can be to spend hours of effort for little return. While we agree that one-on-one contact and peer-to-peer referral is still the most effective way to engage and move someone to vote, it’s time we redirect this manpower to more creative ways of reaching people where they’re more likely to readily engage in conversation (i.e. not in the privacy of their own home or over the telephone, with strangers). We think there are novel ways to get volunteers and our candidate in front of voters while making both sides feel valued and valuable.

7. Youth and minority audiences won’t take action.

A common refrain, and something that couldn’t be further from the truth. These groups are quickly becoming the largest base of progressive voters, with a full 77% of millennials now declaring voting is their duty and will lead to change they want to see. When we look at the values of these groups, how they organize online, and how they’ve embraced activism as a lifestyle, it should go without saying that these fervent content creators will continue to push social awareness and advocacy as a big part of their own personal brands. They’re influences and tastemakers — the ones who steer what apps, hashtags, videos, memes, and moments wind up trending on any given day. The same groups that brands and media companies covet as arbiters of culture are still consistently and completely written off as irrelevant by most political campaigns, even as they embrace politics.

In a political campaign with limited time and limited resources, it’s easy to understand why so many campaigns use the default playbook that they do. It’s easy to fall into the trap that one should focus on convincing voters that are guaranteed to show up to vote for you, rather than try to convince a different group of voters to (1) show up and (2) vote for you. But if there were ever a time for our party to be introspective about how disparities in turnout are holding us back from progress, it’s now.

We can’t just adopt new techniques — we have to break the cycle of these dangerous self-fulfilling prophecies and closed feedback loops we create when we insist we can predict voter behavior.

If we can change our approach and get those who vote infrequently to show up in 2018, we can change a nation.

Leadership

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