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The Theory of Winning an Election

by Kenneth J. Drum

It's essential that every campaign have a theory of how to win the election. This has to be a given at the outset of any campaign. It's astonishing how many candidates in local elections that I have observed, start their campaigns with no concrete idea of how they can win Too often candidates file to run for local offices and then "see what happens". That's not a strategy.

Every campaign should start with the question, "How can I win?". Unfortunately, many times the decision is made on the basis of anecdotal evidence or by simply assuming that because one political party is dominant victory is assured. What's needed of course is an analysis of past election results and the demographics of the electorate. That's just a starting point.

In places where one party is dominant in the general election the primary election becomes the most important. For most elections this is the norm. Many state legislatures draw the district maps in a way that create "safe" districts for either political party. Candidates for office in those districts should take note of that. The reason is that the primary election voter is generally considered a different breed of cat than the general election voter. That will call for a different campaign strategy. A working definition of a primary voter is someone who has a record of voting in one or two of the last two primary elections.

Another consideration is whether the primary election is "open" or "closed". Under certain circumstances some states allow any registered voter in a district to vote in the primary election. Even though they have not registered as a member of that party. If that happens you have in effect a general election during the primary and campaign strategy should change accordingly.

The nature of the election can also determine campaign strategy. Is the candidate running against an incumbent? Or, for an open seat? Has there been a catalyst or event that could change the dynamics of the election? Is a runoff possible if no candidate gets 50% + 1 votes? Or, is it "winner take all"? Some city council elections elect the top two or three vote getters from a field rather than designate seats.

After all of the important variables have been considered the candidate must create a written campaign plan. Contained in the plan is a theory of how to win the election. The theory should be backed by empirical evidence rather than speculation or hearsay.

When theory becomes implementation

Right now I direct most of my efforts to smaller local campaigns. Nothing larger than a state representative election. Sometimes people ask me why I publish a newsletter. Isn't that giving away trade secrets and therefore lessening the need for my consulting services? No, because anyone can learn the framework of campaigning by spending a decent amount of time in a library. It's all there. Developing a plan and implementing it is where the rubber meets the road. Albert Einstein's quote about knowledge is right on point here. "The only source of knowledge is experience”. Einstein's point applied to campaigning is that it takes a lot of experience in elections to be able to devise a winning strategy even though one might have some insights into the process. Campaign methodology is developed from both winning and losing elections. So often a campaign knows generally what to do but can't get volunteers, or can't raise money or can't focus their efforts on what it takes to win. Simply put, successful implementation takes experience in election campaigns. You may have the greatest campaign plan ever written but if you can't implement it, it is worthless. That's where experienced advice is invaluable and could be the difference between winning and losing. It's the toughest part of building a winning campaign.

Question: How should a small local campaign get started?

Smaller, local campaigns by their nature don't have a lot of resources. They also lack the ability to get started with any traction because they lack name identification with voters. Getting started is often an exercise in "wheel spinning". One resource that many local campaigns will have to start with is enthusiasm. And, it doesn't cost anything. Enthusiasm can often overcome a lack of money, a lack of staff and a lack of campaign knowledge. However, as a campaign moves on toward election day it will become apparent that you will also need resources in order to win.

A small local campaign should initially focus its' efforts on two things: raising campaign contributions and organizing and developing a campaign plan. Writing policy papers, literature pieces, press releases and speeches while important will not get a campaign off the ground. You can't win most elections without some money. There have been local or even larger campaigns financed entirely by a candidate. That's not the norm and I don't recommend it as a campaign approach. The reason? Any campaign activity that keeps a candidate from talking with voters is not a good idea. Asking people for money is tough and unpleasant. It does however force a candidate to have contact with voters. That has tremendous value in forming the candidate's message and getting volunteers.

Organizing and planning a campaign should be the other area to focus on. Most campaigns won't be successful without a campaign plan. Once a written campaign plan is in place the infrastructure of the campaign must be filled out. Volunteers are just as important as money. They not only represent a resource to fill some of the jobs in a campaign, they are also a demonstration to other voters that the candidate has grassroots support. That's when the enthusiasm for a candidate can become contagious.

Question: Can online campaign advertising be an effective use of your resources?

Many people are still skeptical of the effectiveness of online advertising. For most candidates it means creating a nice election web site and that's about it. Online campaigning must go a lot further than that to attract a following. As online campaign advertising evolves it gets better with each election cycle. Several things appear to be in play. Print media is really struggling and is losing readers to online publications day after day. Network TV has lost many of the younger demographic who get most of their information from the internet. Even retirees and people over 65 receive a lot of their information from a computer. Online advertising can be a cheap way of reaching voters and therefore is appealing to low budget local campaigns in the abstract. There's only one problem. It's difficult to develop online campaign approaches that everyone agrees will work. Therefore, it's also difficult to get candidates committed to it.

When something becomes fashionable it draws a lot of interest in others to do the same thing. After the 2008 presidential election which featured a heavy use of personal messaging and contact, everyone wanted to emulate the Obama campaign tactics. It was a fact that many new and infrequent voters voted in 2008. Most had been turned into Obama supporters through the clever use of online social media. This took campaigns past the website as being the ultimate online medium.

In 2010 many candidates wanted facebook pages, Twitter accounts and other personal messaging contact devices. Due to the efforts of several 2010 candidates' campaigns from both parties, online campaigning has evolved again to a new level. There is a greater use of what is thought to be more accurate voter identification programs. Nanotargeting allows campaigns to hone in on likely voters who care enough about an issue to interact with a campaign through messaging or a website. It's not the number of clicks on a website it's the number of people you can identify as your voters. Then, you can get them to go to the polls.

In 2012 we saw more of it. Here's an example from 2010. Practically every poll showed Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) was losing to his opponent Sharron Angle by double-digit margins in the 2010 election. Reid's consultants began nanotargeting Nevada voters based upon some of the issues Angle had voiced her support for. There's an old axiom in politics that you gain supporters on issues not on personality. Although there have been some notable exceptions to that, it is generally thought that issues organize people more than a candidate's personality or credentials (assuming the candidate is qualified for the office). I don't think many voters would call Senator Reid a charismatic candidate. Reid ended up with a five point victory on election day because he followed a plan that was based upon a theory of how to win the election.

Taking Angle's issues one at a time, the Reid campaign set up an online strategy to reach out to voters who might be concerned about an issue. For example, Angle stood for privatizing the VA. Veterans were contacted online and invited to respond to a special website. There, they could sign up to receive further information as the issue developed. By doing this, the Reid campaign harvested names of voters that they considered to be Reid supporters. The supporters were then moved into a get out the vote (GOTV) program for election day.

As you can see there is a lot of room for low budget local candidates to enter into the online campaigning world. Using the internet is a cheap way to interact with voters if you have a message that they will want to rationalize as theirs. As it continues to evolve local candidates can "cherry pick" the things that they think will work for them and things they are able to do. The biggest obstacle to overcome is that as a candidate, you have to decide to be committed to it.

This article was reprinted with permission of Kenneth J. Drum & Associates, 8404 Mallow Lane, Naples, FL 34113. Copyright 2014. Kenneth J. Drum & Associates. All Rights Reserved. For more information about the author go to:

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