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Targeting and Voter Identification

by Kenneth J. Drum

There has been a lot of written material about how to target and identify supporters. While most of it is helpful in one sense, it's merely words on paper unless someone is able to put it to use. Let's start with a simple observation. "When you go duck hunting you have to hunt where there are ducks." Most campaigns have limited resources and really don't have the money to saturate the entire electorate with their campaign messages. Candidates should also recognize that not every voter is open minded enough to consider voting for them. Therefore, in order to get your message out while preserving precious campaign resources you have to be selective. There are several ways of determining where your potential support may be.


Better funded campaigns are able to afford to poll the electorate to find potential supporters. Usually, a campaign starts with a "benchmark" poll at the beginning of the campaign. Large campaigns will even poll prior to that time in order to determine whether the candidate should run in the first place. That's why some politicians form "exploratory committees." Once benchmark data has been obtained, a series of polls may be taken to track and adjust the campaign message and to chart momentum. Polling also will give a candidate an idea which voters are persuadable and where they are located. Campaigns can spend a lot of money on polls and if a campaign can afford it, it is usually worth it.

Phone Banking

On a list of hated campaign activities, phone banking is usually second only to asking people for money. Yet, it's a highly effective technique that should be used by every campaign. It is extremely effective in low budget local campaigns. It can not only identify your vote but also get out the vote (GOTV) on election day. There are five reasons for having a phone bank:

1. follow up for direct mail
2. identify your voters
3. getting out the vote
4. fundraising
5. quick response to campaign developments

An in-house phone bank can get the word out quickly and efficiently, spreading your response or counter-attack. Using an in-house phone bank will provide you with greater flexibility and targeting capabilities.

Door-to-Door Neighborhood Walks

Neighborhood walks can be an effective way of identifying support and learning which issues are important to voters. It will also improve the candidate's name recognition. Prior to any walk some targeting may take place such as party affiliation if it's a primary election. A walking list can be created that is made up of street numbers on one side of the street and another list for the other side of the street. A script should be used as a format and records should be kept of identified supporters. Some neighborhoods are better to walk than others. Rural areas where the homes are far apart and gated communities are usually not good places for neighborhood walks. One more important item. After you tell people who you are and why you are running, ASK FOR THIER VOTE. Too many candidates fail to keep adequate records of their supporters and never "close the deal" with the voter. The reason it's important is that when a candidate switches to GOTV they should not be turning out the opponent's voters. Your objective is to get your vote to the polls, not someone else's.

Target Dissatisfaction

Candidates for open seats or challengers take note. It's usually a good idea to target areas where voters are dissatisfied with the status quo. Even if your opponent is not an incumbent, dissatisfied voters are usually open to new ideas. An old campaign axiom is that you should organize around issues and not people. A candidate's qualifications and experience are important but you're not running for student council or president of the bridge club. Dissatisfied people who have issues tend to be more likely to vote. You need them in order to win. But, it's not a good idea to target them if you disagree with their issues. That's like playing with gasoline. It could blow up in your face.

Building Coalitions

Building a coalition with like-minded people or groups can lead to a large block of support. Whether it be a club, labor union, business group or affinity group, building a coalition of voters with common interests is a powerful way to target your voters. Joining organizations is a frequent way that people start to get involved in the community. For a few it ends up being a pathway to run for public office. Members of organizations tend to be more involved in local affairs and they are also opinion leaders in the community. It puts people in touch with other people. Reclusive or unknown candidates seldom win elections. While no one should join these organizations for reasons other than the stated mission of the organization, many successful candidates first started their community involvement as a volunteer. Almost all candidates list their memberships in community organizations as part of their credentials. Service to the community is something that voters look for.

Question: What are some fatal mistakes candidates make in their campaign plans?

`There are several potentially fatal mistakes that too many campaigns make in their planning. Here's a list of the more frequent but not necessarily all of the mistakes I have seen. Most of these mistakes are so big that the campaign is lost before it has begun.

1. Skimping on web site and literature designs

Using your cousin or a friend might be a cheaper way to design your campaign materials but it could cost you the election. There are a couple of reasons for that. There is an ample supply of knowledge among professionals in the business to know what works in campaigns and what does not work. The second reason is that your materials will be compared to other campaign materials during the election. The public is pretty good in determining when you're trying to trying to slide by with cheap imitations.

2. Relying on other people to do your fundraising

Fundraising is not a lot of fun. Most candidates would like to do something else like have a root canal. The majority of a candidate's time should be spent on fundraising. More at the beginning of the campaign but continued until the end. It's important to get the large contributors early because once they contribute to someone else it's going to be hard to get them to contribute to your campaign. Worse, large contributors tend to be opinion makers with other large contributors and a potential entire fundraising group may be lost.

3. Thinking everyone is a potential vote for you

This is a silly notion. There are some people who are persuadable and some who are not. Forget about the non-persuadables and concentrate on finding voters who are either for you or are at least willing to consider you. The best hope for the non-persuadables is that they stay away from the polls on election day. That's why voter identification is important. The first step is to target and then to identify. It's a continuous process until election day when you move your identified voters into a GOTV program.

4. Pre-determining the campaign issues and failing to frame the decisive issue

This is a mistake or misjudgment even made by large campaigns with professional staff. Candidates tend to want to go with their "gut feeling" about what's important to voters. If your campaign can't afford to do polling then talking with a cross section of voters is the next best thing. For example, in a school board election don't just ask teachers what they think the issues are. They have a different relationship with the school district than parents, taxpayers, students, etc. It's wise to talk with everyone.

5. Failing to understand that campaigning is hard work

Many first time candidates are not aware of the amount of hard work it will take to win. Candidates can have the impression that the public appearances and forums are the all there is to campaigning. They visualize it as a more or less standard work week with weekends off and some vacation days. Some mistakenly think that riding in the July 4th parade and participating in the League of Women Voters forum is all you have to do to win the election.

6. Overlooking the voting habits of the electorate

"Out of sight and out of mind" can sum up the attitude of some losing candidates when they considered what to do about absentee voters. In the past ten years there has been a trend away from everyone voting on the same day. Early voting and mail ballot elections in places like Oregon are new ways to add to or to hold elections. Under voters are also a group that need to be addressed. Under voters are people who show up at the polls to vote for candidates for other offices but not for all of the offices. Under voting often happens in judicial elections or down-ballot elections were the voter simply leaves the ballot blank. Past election results can tell candidates if under-voting, absentee voting or early voting is significant. If it is, then it's wise for a candidate to craft a program to reach out to them. Otherwise, these are lost votes and could cost the election.

This article was reprinted with permission of Kenneth J. Drum & Associates, 8404 Mallow Lane, Naples, FL 34113. Copyright 2013. Kenneth J. Drum & Associates. All Rights Reserved. For more information about the author go to:

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