Messaging to Voters

The Campaign Cycle

Campaigns treat voters differently depending on where they are in the campaign cycle. Ideally, a campaign has the resources to target voters with even more specific messaging according to their past voting history, issues they care about, or other demographic factors. But all campaigns, from city council to president, follow the same basic steps:

  1. Identify where your voters might live.
  2. Convince the undecided voters that your candidate deserves their vote.
  3. Make sure the “yes” voters get to the polls on Election Day.

Persuasion vs. “Get Out the Vote”

Voter messaging during the election cycle can basically be divided into two parts: persuasion and “get out the vote,” or GOTV (pronounced gee-oh-tee-vee). Persuasion messaging happens from the moment a candidate declares they are running for office, right up until the Saturday before Election Day. But by that Saturday, the campaign has (hopefully!) convinced enough people that the candidate deserves their vote, and now the only remaining task is to actually get those voters to the polls.

Although “getting out the vote” is often used in popular culture to indicate any voter engagement or voter education activity, in the professional campaign world GOTV refers to only one thing: Election Day, and the three days leading up to it.

Targeting Specific Voters

One of the very first activities a campaign will undertake is to identify where their “hard yes,” persuadable, and “hard no” voters live. In state legislature races, this is typically done by analyzing past voter data collected and maintained by the state party organization. Each campaign analyzes past voter data on a precinct-by-precinct basis, creating a “roadmap” that identifies how many votes the candidate needs to win, and exactly where those votes could come from.

Then, it’s time to hit the pavement, phones, texts, and postcards to convince those swing voters to vote for your candidate.

Increasing Voter Turnout with Proven Messaging

It’s (social) science! These messages work best to get voters to the polls during GOTV. Sister District Action Network Associate Director of Research Mallory Roman explains the important takeaways from the latest research in this video. The best way to increase voter turnout is to:

  • Mention polling place, the hours of polling locations, and the dates polls are open.
  • Talk people through making a plan to vote.
  • Ask the person to make a pledge to vote.
  • Stress that this election is big, and their neighbors will be voting too.

Maintaining Voter Data

Having reliable voter data is critical to every campaign. Without it, the campaign can’t have an accurate picture of where their likely voters, persuadable voters, and unlikely voters are. On state legislature campaigns, budgets are typically small, and they can’t afford to waste precious dollars or staff time repeatedly contacting voters who are strong “no” votes. The more accurate the database, the more efficient the campaign can be in contacting the right voters.

“Cleaning the list”

Activities that give campaign staff and volunteers an opportunity to have a conversation with a voter (canvassing, phonebanking, and textbanking) mean that more data can be added to that voter’s record, which will inform later campaign operations.  A voter database is usually called the “voter file” or “list.” So, this function is referred to as “cleaning the list.”

For example, if a volunteer speaks to a voter on the phone, and that voter tells the volunteer that they have moved and do not live in the district anymore, the volunteer can mark the voter as “moved,” and the campaign knows to not spend any additional money or time trying to contact that person again through direct mail, canvassing, or phonebanking.

Are postcards a useful way to contact voters?

There isn’t much reliable research on the efficacy of postcarding (although we have conducted some of our own, through our affiliated 501(c)4 Sister District Action Network). Postcards are clearly a great way to activate new volunteers, who aren’t ready to have direct conversations with voters yet.

But one thing is for sure: postcards can’t help clean the voter list, because it’s a one-way interaction and we can’t get any feedback from the voter. So, even though writing postcards is a fun way to dip your toes in political activism, we encourage all our volunteers to transition into having direct conversations with voters whenever possible.

Read more from our blog about voter persuasion and getting out the vote:

Six Things You Can Do To GOTV

GOTV has arrived! Sister District outlines the 6 things you can do this election season to help get out the vote.

Texting out the vote: Do GOTV texts help motivate voters to the polls?

Abstract: Sister District Action Network (SDAN) and the Mississippi NAACP (MS NAACP) partnered to conduct an experiment around GOTV text messaging during the days leading up to the general election in Mississippi on November 5, 2019. The study targeted predominantly Black / African-American voters whose prior voting history indicated they would be unlikely to vote […]

Want to Help Save Democracy? Be a Poll Worker

In 2020, there is a particularly urgent need for new volunteers to step up to staff the polls so that everyone can vote safely and efficiently, and with confidence that their vote will be counted accurately. Learn more about how to become a poll worker.