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:

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). Sometimes referred to as “get out to vote.” 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. While GOTV can be bipartisan, increased voter turnout historically favors Democrats. Ultimately, Democratic voters make up the majority of the electorate, so getting people out to vote is vital to building progressive power in state legislatures and governments that actually represent the people.

Targeting Specific Voters

One of the very first activities a campaign will undertake is to identify where their district’s “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” or “blueprint” that identifies how many votes the candidate needs to win, and exactly where those votes could come from.

Then, it’s time for your Sister District team of volunteers to hit the pavement, knock on doors, 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 Yale’s 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 and volunteers 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

Lisa Auer

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Sister District volunteers with Washington candidate Emily Randall
Gaby Goldstein and Mallory Roman

GOTV With Our Latest Research

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A stack of postcards with hands reaching towards the word VOTE
Gaby Goldstein

2018 GOTV Postcarding Results

We ran two randomized controlled trials in the Fall of 2018 to determine if receiving a handwritten postcard encouraging the target to vote increased the odds of voters turning out to vote for in the 2018 general election in Pennsylvania and Michigan, and further sought to determine if those odds differed based on the postcard message.

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