Time For A Change In Democratic Campaigns

After months of abated breath, we can add two more moral victories to our trophy case. Archie Parnell ended with a closer margin than did Jon Ossoff, despite the millions and millions of dollars difference in their campaign expenditures. Disappointing, to say the least.

If you haven’t already, go and read this article by Pat. His piece is the right mix of hopeful and analytical, and was also the material which inspired me to write this article. Again, I encourage you to read the writing in full, but there was one statement in particular on which I’d like to elaborate further. After explaining his worry that national leaders might be lulled into complacency given the results, Pat said:

“I have particular doubts about how Democratic field strategies have been developing in recent years and whether our in-person conversations and targeting of voters are actually working.”

Given our continued defeats, I think he’s right to raise this point. I don’t have to be as cautious with my criticisms, so what follows is a list of areas where I think the Democratic Party should change how it campaigns.

1) Rethink our ad strategy

Jon Ossoff followed in Hillary’s footsteps with his ad strategy: blanket the airwaves with television ads lambasting the opponent or advocating for the home team. Jon Ossoff bought 13 million dollars of ad time, while Karen Handel spent $2.8 million. Follow the link and you’ll see that even more money was spent by outside groups, which ballooned the final election expenditures to be over $50 million.

Yet, what is the point in such heavy investment into TV ad campaigns? Ironically, research has indicated that campaign ads are effective at increasing interest, but that increase rapidly decays over the course of a week or two. Democrats should learn from this by recognizing ad campaigns should be used as a primer for action preceding a significant event, like election day. Since ads are only effective for a small amount of time, there is no point to blanketing the airwaves for weeks and months at a time; ads last 30-60 seconds which is not enough time to forward a substantive argument, so why create ads which make that attempt?

Instead, we should tailor ads toward garnering attention for our candidates, or to alert the public to an impending election. Television may not be persuasive but it can inform, so grabbing voter’s attention and getting them interested to learn more should be our ad campaigns strategic goal.

2) Reform our approach to voter contact campaigning

Each campaign I’ve worked on was unique yet an all-too-familiar experience: I’d canvass Dubuque neighborhoods on the weekends, call from a list of names during the night on weekdays, and often ended up asking some of the same people the same questions many times over before Election Day rolled around. Repetitive contact was necessary in order to create an accurate and complete list—or “universe”—of voters who would ultimately turn out to vote. Furthermore, this universe would guide our GOTV operation in the days leading up to Election Day. An accurate list would lead to an efficient GOTV operation, and the better, more efficient GOTV operation would win the election—or so the thinking went.

However, this campaign logic has turned out to be flawed, as demonstrated by this study from Harvard; by calling the same numbers and knocking the same doors, we annoyed the same people to such a degree that we lost their vote. We weren’t creating an accurate voter universe for our future GOTV effort.

In fact, by campaigning as we did, we discouraged “low-propensity” voters from turning out while simultaneously creating a universe containing only “high-propensity” voters. In the process of identifying a candidate’s level of support, we call people 5, 10, 15, 20 times too many and turn them off from voting altogether—and every vote counts in those races where vote totals differ by three or four digits. Rather than campaign by quota, with 3 hours of mandated call time each day, we should make contact less often and more purposeful; instead of making routine calls to check a box yes or no, we should be sincere and broach more meaningful discussion with voters.

What can be done to solve these problems? While I cannot offer answers, I can give some suggestions.

For starters, we need to find a better system for intra-party collaboration. In my experience, the IDP, DNC, and County Democratic parties work largely independent from one another. Previously, this could be justified by the fact that county-level parties had shrunk in size and influence over the years.

However, by shutting local Democrat Party officials out of the campaigning process, we no longer have the capacity for year-round outreach efforts. State and national party committees will hire out-of-town operatives to staff and direct the campaign, while local party officials are expected to hand over the reins—which makes it impossible for us to switch from campaign-centric contact to a year-round approach.

With this process, local officials don’t gain the administrative and strategic experience necessary to continue outreach efforts after the state and national people leave. Thus, since people only hear from Democrats during campaign seasons, as opposed to year-round, there becomes a perception that Democrats only care about a person’s vote, not the person, and people detest being treated as a means to an end—in addition to compounding county-level atrophy since there isn’t activity during election off-years.

It’s time that we encourage county Democratic officials to adopt their own outreach efforts, train them in the skills necessary, and give them the support they need to succeed. Rather than working separate from county officials, state and national committee operatives should expand upon the infrastructure already created. Democrats love to talk about grassroots organizing, and this is one way to prove it.


by Dallas Knapp
Posted 6/30/17

6 Comments on "Time For A Change In Democratic Campaigns"

  • Have there been studies on the effectiveness of phone calls? I have made phone calls in elections since 2000. Last November, 2/3 to 3/4 of my calls reached only a recording. We
    were instructed to leave no message. My conclusion is that my time could have been spent
    in a more effective manner. Any ideas?

    • First, thank you for all the hard work which you have done in the past! Repeat volunteers like yourself are a blessing for us interns and field organizers.

      There has been research done on the effectiveness of phone calls and, as is the case in much of the social sciences, results from one study often conflicts with the findings of another. That said, the article I cited did study the effect of phone calls, and concluded: “The process of selecting households to call and calling them does not appear to have induced [voter apathy]”.

      Calls may seem like a tedious and unrewarding exercise, but they’re crucial for refining campaign outreach efforts. I had a similar experience as you during this last election cycle–and it was a nuisance for me, too. What helped me during call-time was to take my time talking to voters rather than rushing a conversation; since most of those you’ll call won’t pick up anyway, you can spend extra time on sincere interactions with voters who do!

      (don’t spend too long on any one call, of course)

  • Most people have cell phones and won’t answer calls from unknown numbers. Waste of time, plus the annoyance factor. A lot of people don’t see the expensive TV ads because they don’t watch TV, they stream. Buy a few ads on Hulu, some sponsored posts on Facebook. Give as many opportunities as possible to hear and meet candidates in person, instead. And for crying out loud, talk to all the voters! The independents matter a lot.

  • I agree on the phone calls. Repetitive calling just turns voters off. They don’t like to be bothered during their dinner hour or some other important home event. TV watching, reading a book or just plain enjoying the company of their family.
    I think the local neighborhood groups are a good start forward in bringing our message down to the local level. It gets local people together to work on a common goal with common ideals.

  • 1. The name of the party is the Democratic Party.

    2. The conclusions drawn from the Bailey study are far too broad. The study itself states that it cannot make a conclusion about phone calls or mail. There are a ton of other important caveats throughout the study as well. For example, the canvassing it analyzes is purely persuasive, and as a result the results indicate nothing about canvassing that simply IDs voters without aggressive persuasion or signs up early voters. Furthermore, it only looks at one side of the coin. Even the net result of the very specific type of canvassing is unclear when you only look at the likelihood of supporting one candidate. What if this persuasive canvassing also made it even less likely that the infrequent voters supported the Republican candidate (in this case McCain)? Additionally, the entire study was conducted before election day, meaning it doesn’t measure who actually showed up to vote. In short, all this study tells us that sending people to canvass only undecided voters with only a fairly ridiculous persuasion script may not be very effective.

    3. What else do you propose spending the TV ad money on? It clearly would not be additional voter contact/field efforts, so what else is there. More TV advertising seems like the worst option except for all the others for a campaign in the rare position of having too much cash on hand.

    4. If you legitimately think turning over campaign efforts to county parties as opposed to relying on professional campaign staff will result in more and/or better outreach to voters, please pass me some of what you are smoking and go attend some more county party meetings.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful reply!

      While the name of the party is the Democratic Party, the goal of the game is to win, and broadening our base of support to include independents helps us do just that.

      You’re right that my conclusions may have been too broad given the contents of the study, that’s my mistake. It was sloppy of me to include calls when the study was clear on the matter. Yet, I disagree that there’s a distinction between persuasion and ID’ing support, because the latter often becomes the former once the voter indicates to the canvasser that their undecided. Despite it’s limitations, the study provides good food for thought on how we might tweak canvassing to make it more effective.

      I should’ve made it clearer, but I was not advocating for campaigns to be totally run by county parties. I was suggesting that county parties engage in year-round voter outreach efforts, separate from campaigns, and that other party orgs work collaboratively with that effort. Have professionals operate a candidate’s campaign, but we shouldn’t talk to people only when we need their vote–which is what happens when outreach only occurs during campaign season. It’s about creating and maintaining a local image to the party which candidates can then adopt and refine for themselves.

      While we may have disagreed I hope you at least enjoyed the read!

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