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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

Modern Campaign Techniques

It should come as no surprise that the most significant advances in campaign techniques over the last decade have come in the fields of communications and targeting. After all, talking to the right voters with the right message is the essence of any campaign strategy.

It’s important to know that every traditional form of political communication has become more expensive and less effective over the past generation. Thirty years ago, a common campaign regimen might include a comprehensive poll, a few TV and radio spots, some newspaper ads, a little direct mail, a phone program and a door-to-door visit with supporters. Targeting was generally based on demographics and precinct performance.

But two decades of blindingly accelerating technological changes, brought about by the Space Age, the end of the Cold War, and rapidly growing consumer demand engendered by the burgeoning global economy, have created an ever-changing mix of complex consumer goods and services. As would be expected, political campaigns have not been immune to society’s transforming landscape that has resulted from these advances.

Convergence Communications
In addition to targeting a candidate’s message, it’s crucial to target the audience. The proliferation of cable television stations and niche radio logically should have made electronic media more precise; at best, it has made the task of requisite audience segments more challenging and more expensive. Not only electronic media, but also print and display advertising, have been supplemented by — and in some cases supplanted by — campaign websites, Internet magazines and web versions of daily newspapers, blogs, text messaging, cyber-social networks, and a host of other media that can generate political communications.

Because a typical campaign cannot reach all of its target electorate with a single medium or by using virtually every medium, all forms of communications in today’s political campaigns need to create synergy with each other, repeat common themes and call attention to each other. Some call this “convergence communications.” The objective is to project messages in as many as possible of the environments and venues that a voter may inhabit or encounter, thus enabling the kinds of synergy, reinforcement and repetition described above.

Social Networking
Social networks are, by definition, targeted communities. All strategies for communication should take into consideration the need to stimulate peer discourse within voters’ social networks. Decades of research consistently show that peers are the most valid source of political communication. Accordingly, it’s critical for campaigns to show supporters how to effectively communicate with others in their social networks about the candidate or cause they’re supporting. Educating the electorate, particularly during the college years, about civic involvement and concrete methods for political communication could have a deep impact on social networking in electoral campaigns.

While they provide an important method for reaching certain subgroups in the electorate, attempts to replicate social networks on the Internet (MySpace, Facebook) are insufficient, because they lack the key element in true social networks: familiar and trusted peers. Internet social networking, however, has provided an inexpensive and expansive way to reach a broad, young audience, which Democratic candidates have effectively exploited. Barack Obama has created his own social network site and John Edwards has a presence on approximately 25 different sites. In addition, Obama recently communicated with the more targeted professional social network, LinkedIn, responding to business issues important to that audience.

Augmenting the vast Internet social networking with meaningful follow-up and action is a challenge that could yield enormous rewards for political campaigns. Web-based organizations such as MoveOn.Org, as well as some campaigns and social movements, have shown that the Internet can be an effective tool in bringing together like-minded individuals in “meet-ups” that can form the basis of actual, face to face peer networks.

Door-to-Door Operations
The importance of targeting a political candidate’s likely supporters is particularly apparent in the “old is new and new is old” door-to-door operations. While “face-to-face” communication is extremely effective, either in spite of or because of our increasingly faceless society, current studies show that this less targeted and costly approach enhances a campaign only in particular applications, such as sensitizing the public to future messages through other mediums. Furthermore, this more blanketed strategy increases voter participation but not persuasion and could, in fact, increase votes for a candidate’s opponent!

In the “pre-electronic” era of political campaigns, the principal source of communications between officeholders and their constituents was the ward heeler system. Note that the term is “heeler,” – not “healer” – for it refers to the fact that these community leaders walked their wards, talking with supporters, disseminating and collecting information and doing favors for supporters. Because these operatives were familiar with and to voters, communications were efficient and effective. Of course, that the ward heeler carried the imprimatur of an elected official enhanced the efficiency and effectiveness of the relationships!

While door to door communications survived the advent of electronic communications, the approach fell out of vogue until recent cycles, when numerous political organizations “rediscovered” the power of such activities. But just a generation ago, door to door efforts were rarely deployed on a large-scale basis, except as used by community-based volunteer groups such as the March of Dimes.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, some professionals — namely Matt Reese, Hugh Parmer and Bill Hamilton — executed large-scale “block captain” programs for candidates, combining the advantages of face to face communication with known peers as messengers, and these programs often produced significant increases in favorable turnout for their clients.

An increasing number of today’s campaigns use door to door drives to conduct surveys of candidate support and issue concerns. Using Palm Pilots and other PDAs to record voter responses, these operations enjoy modest success at high cost. Typical penetration rates are under 25 percent of the electorate, and the fact that campaign workers are imported and largely unknown to the voters they visit compromises the credibility of any advocacy messages they might attempt to convey. Furthermore, the cost per actual contact is typically more than five dollars. Yet the purveyors – and some of the users – of such operations describe the creation of “buzz” as a major attribute but are unable to any further describe the effects of this kind of campaign activity.

Several academic surveys conducted in the 1960s and repeated in the 1990s and in the current decade consistently show two major effects of face to face communication between voters and campaigners (candidate surrogates). Conducted well before Election Day, these front-porch encounters increase the voter’s sensitivity to subsequent communications from the campaign, meaning that voters are more likely to notice and pay attention to direct mail, media advertising, phone calls and other candidate communications.

In addition – and most important – this face to face communication between voter and campaigner, when deployed just prior to Election Day, measurably increases the likelihood that the voter will participate in the election. However, it is important to note that this turnout-enhancement effect occurs regardless of whether the voter supports the campaigner’s candidate or cause. There is no measurable “conversion” effect. It is therefore critical that the campaign communicate in this manner only with known supporters!

In sum, today’s door to door strategies are often misunderstood and misused — as well as significantly over-valued — when not deployed in a manner consistent with academic findings of the impact.

Encompassing an increasing variety of sub-precinct or voter level targeting methods, this technology includes data mining, cluster analysis and statistical modeling, all of which can be used to narrow and prioritize target voters, making communications more efficient. Put simply, the objective of microtargeting is to maximize the number of successful communications with the minimum amount of campaign resources.

Perhaps the most cost-efficient microtargeting tool — and arguably the most user-friendly — is statistical modeling that produces linear “scores” for every voter on a database, percentages that predict the likelihood of each voter to behave in a certain manner. A simple but very useful model is one that predicts how likely any voter is to support a Democratic candidate. Such a model can be developed from voter registration data, from voter history data or from questions posed to a large, representative sample of voters... or from all three datasets used in combination.

For example, a model that incorporates and analyzes all of the demographic and Census data available for Democratic primary voters can be compared to the demographic and Census data makeup for each voter. This comparison generates a score for each voter reflecting how much that voter “looks like” the model, statistically speaking.

The strength and reliability of such simple, linear models is remarkable. Verification through field testing preponderantly confirms the ability of the model to predict voter behavior. It is an invaluable tool for determining which voters should be contacted first, for example, in a telephone canvassing program seeking to identify supporters for a candidate.

Let’s say that a candidate’s poll indicates that she has 40 percent support in the electorate. A telephone voter ID operation calling through the voter universe at random could be expected to find two supporters for every five calls made. On the other hand, if the electorate had been scored with a support model developed for the candidate, the universe could then be ranked in order of that support score and the calls made in that order. This would enable the candidate’s supporters to be identified with far fewer calls.

While there are many evolving campaign techniques that could be addressed in a longer discussion, these four – convergence communications, social networking, door to door operations and microtargeting – are high among those that will be employed by 2008’s most successful campaigns. All four emphasize the importance of targeting — whether the audience or the message — for maximum relationship building and results.

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