What is a political campaign strategy? Well, it’s not a plan. It’s not a list of tactics. And it’s not a mission.
When you run for local office for the first time, you learn two things very quickly:
- Everyone has advice you “must follow” in order to win
- You don’t have enough time or money to follow everyone’s advice
Most of the advice the people offer as well as the top Google results you’ll find on this subject are, in fact, really a list of tactics and not a political campaign strategy. Without a well-developed political campaign strategy, your campaign is simply a series of tactics that may or may not be well-aligned and effective.
I take a slightly non-traditional approach to political campaigns both in terms of strategies and tactics. As an entrepreneur, I tend to take a more business-oriented approach. This article is adapted from a business book that I’ve found extremely helpful over the year, Business Model Generation. The basic steps for developing a winning political campaign strategy are:
- Define your mission. Do you need to turn out your base? Is this a swing-voter election? Is it a single-issue campaign?
- Understand your voter segments according to demographics, party affiliation, and ideology.
- Develop and articulate your campaign value proposition(s).
- Map out the channels you’ll use to reach voters.
- Brainstorm fundraising sources.
- Identify key resources, including staff, volunteers, infrastructure, and literature.
- Identify key activities, including door-knocking, phone-banking, event attendance, and campaign management.
- Identify key partnerships with political parties, community leaders, community leaders, and grassroots organizations.
Define Your Mission
Technically, this not part of your political campaign strategy. But you can’t develop an effective strategy for anything unless you clearly define your mission. The high-level goal or mission for every campaign is the same: You must earn enough votes to win. But that’s not detailed enough to be of much use. Instead, your mission should look something like this:
“I need to earn X,XXX votes by turning out X,XXX votes from my base, persuading XXX swing-voters, and stealing XXX votes.”
This mission, of course, is based on a standard, two-party election landscape. As we’ll discuss in the voter segment topic, there are other ways to view the electorate but this is the most common and frequently the most practical.
Sometimes, there is a crucial and/or divisive issue that the entire community is focused on. In these cases, it may make sense to run a single-issue campaign. The mission may sound more like, “I need to earn X,XXX votes by mobilizing them to fight against [issue].”
You may be asking, “How do I calculate the number of votes I will need?” It is a great question. In fact, it’s the single most important question you need to answer for your political campaign. We’ll discuss in our next blog post, How to Create a Political Campaign Plan.
Understand Your Voter Segments
In business terms, you can think of voters like your customer base. Instead of asking them to buy a product or service from you, you’re asking for their vote. But voters are not homogenous. An effective political campaign strategy will divide the voter base into segments and then apply the most effective resources for each through the appropriate channels.
At the highest level, it’s worth thinking about the demographics of your voter base. These include factors like age, gender, race, education, location, income, etc. The value propositions and channels may differ greatly for different segments. For example, Millennial voters may be far less concerned about property taxes than retirees and the channels you’d use to reach them both are very different. Create a table of the most important demographic segments in your district along with the value propositions and channels for each:
Even if you’re running in a non-partisan election, party affiliation is important for a couple of reasons. First, most state and local political parties have voter databases that may be available to you as a registered party candidate. Second, voters will tend to align themselves more or less with the Democrat or Republican party, even if they’re independent. It’s crucial to understand the numbers of registered voters of all parties in your district. Voter checklists are typically available from local governments if you don’t have access to a party database.
Many ideological or issue-based concerns cross party and demographic boundaries. Tailoring your value proposition and voter contact channels to these groups is also crucial. Additionally, there are usually advocacy groups that already recruit and communicate with these groups. Establishing partnerships and/or communication channels with these organizations can be extremely valuable.
Facebook’s Audience Insights is a great tool for researching your voting district. It allows you to examine a Facebook audience broken down according to broad demographic groups, narrow interests, and everything in between.
Develop Campaign Value Propositions
Just like a customer wants to know how a product or service will improve their life, so does a voter want to know how your election would improve theirs. In his economic treatise Human Action, Ludwig von Mises spells out an effective model for motivating people to take action. While his work was focused on economics and public policy, professional marketers use this three-step approach (whether they realize it or not).
- Sense of Unease: Identify or remind people that there is a challenge or threat that must be met. Make it personalized to them.
- Vision of a Better State: Describe to them in specific terms what their life will look like once a solution is implemented.
- Path to Get There: Explain – in very broad terms – how you will help create that transformation.
If you are successful in motivating people to care about the issues that you care about, there is still one more step. They will be asking themselves if you can deliver. You need two things in order to answer that question. The first is credibility. What are the qualifications, credentials, skills, and experience you have to offer? The second is trustworthiness. You will need to convince voters that you have the integrity and will to finish the fight.
Map Out Voter Contact Channels
The third leg of your political campaign strategy is a map of channels you’ll utilize to contact voters. You already understand the various segments in your district and have developed your value proposition. Now you need to figure out how you’re going to communicate that value proposition to those segments. There are two channel categories.
A direct channel connects you with the voter, either in person or through a medium. Personal interaction can happen by knocking on doors, making phone calls, attending events, etc. Other media you can use to reach voters directly include mail, social media, radio, television, etc. In the case of media, there are three options:
- Free/Organic – Dropping literature, social media engagement
- Earned – Letters to the editor, journalists, local radio and television
- Paid – Advertisements on social media, websites, newspapers, radio, television, etc.
An indirect channel relies on third parties to deliver your message. Surrogates are supporters who are willing and able to speak on your behalf. Effective surrogates include community leaders, business leaders, family members, etc. Another indirect channel is grassroots organizations. Take a look at your voter segments and identify groups to which voters in those segments may belong. Most non-profit organizations are prohibited from endorsing candidates. However, many of them conduct surveys, sponsor meet-and-greet events, etc. These are great opportunities to reach voters who are engaged on issues you’ve identified as part of your value proposition.
You will need to spend money on your campaign. The amount required will depend on your strategy and campaign plan. After both are complete, you can (and should) formulate a campaign budget (click here to download a sample political campaign budget). Note: Campaign finance and disclosure laws vary greatly across states and localities. Be sure to check with your Secretary of State and/or city/town clerk.
Self-funding is one way to raise money for your campaign. Many candidates will loan themselves money at the start of the campaign and then pay them back as donations are received.
The first people you want to approach for donations are friends and family. Asking for money does not come naturally for most people, but many candidates are surprised at how much money they can raise simply by asking for it. Organizations like businesses and PACs (political action committees) will donate to candidates. In some cases, political parties and up-ticket candidates will contribute to your campaign. Finally, constituents who are moved by your value proposition may also choose to support you financially.
For more information, read our blog series on fundraising.
Your campaign will require human resources and physical assets. In most local campaigns, you won’t have paid staff. However, you will need volunteers to help make calls, stuff envelopes, canvass neighborhoods, etc. The infrastructure required for your political campaign will also vary depending upon its size. You may not require office space or telephone lines but you will need a website. Finally, there is some amount of literature you will need to print. These may include lawn signs, palm cards, business cards, mailers, etc.
What are the key activities you will undertake in your campaign? These can also be characterized as campaign tactics. Your political campaign strategy needs to prioritize the key activities you will undertake. Your campaign budget will have a direct impact on the activities you will undertake. A lower-budget campaign might include more door-knocking and phone-banking with less direct mail and advertising. A more well-funded campaign might be the complete opposite.
Here is a partial list of some of the tactics you need to consider and prioritize as part of your political campaign strategy:
- Phone banking
- Direct mail advertising
- Literature drops
- Social media
- Digital advertising
- Lawn signs
- Donor outreach (i.e. “dialing for dollars”)
- Letters to the editor
- Local media appearances
- Sign waves
- Organizing and/or attending events
As discussed previously, third-party organizations can deliver much value to your campaign. You can leverage relationships with them to access voters, donors, and other key resources.
Political parties are usually the first and most valuable partnership for a candidate. Of course, the extent of assistance and level of competency can vary widely from party to party, region to region, and even year to year. In most cases, your political party (assuming you are running as a Democrat or Republican) will have certain resources like voter databases, training, events, fundraisers, etc. If you are a registered member of one of these parties, reaching out to the state and local parties is one of the very first things you should do.
Community leaders such as elected officials, business owners, philanthropists, and volunteer leaders can also be key partners. At a minimum, they can serve as an information source to inform your campaign strategies and tactics. At best, you can gain access to networks of donors and voters or maybe even a surrogate who will campaign on your behalf.
Similarly, grassroots organizations and political action committees (PACs) are important partners as well.