GOTV looks very different this year, but one thing campaigns on both sides of the aisle are relying on even more amid pandemic campaigning: social pressure.
While many campaigns and groups are door-knocking, others are heeding warnings from public health officials about COVID-19 and focusing largely on the alternatives operatives have been prepping for months: “This year most GOTV organizing has shifted to texting and calls with some lit dropping,” said Reed Millar, founder of Bespoke Consulting, which specializes in field and works on the left.
Instead of doing most of the work via canvasses, campaigns are relying heavily on virtual events to deliver a turnout message that focuses on early voting and vote by mail: “stressing the need to vote and vote early to reduce the [strain] on Election Day systems.”
While consultants on the right and left often employ different tactics to get their unreliable voters to the polls, operatives on both sides are making more use of social pressure as a tactic, particularly as early voting breaks records.
“Thanks to the pandemic, Democrats aren’t running traditional field programs, but they are using digital ads to target the voters they would normally reach at the door,” said Mark Jablonowski, CTO of Democratic digital shop DSPolitical. “We’ve found the most effective tactic for motivating irregular or unreliable voters is to deploy social pressure advertising that reminds these groups their voting records are public information.”
Alexis Valdez-Darnell, a managing director at GOP digital firm Go Big Media, is on the same page.
“Deploying social pressure strategies via social media and other online advertising just makes sense, especially as the ability to target individual voters with digital messages improves,” she said. “Digital campaigns provide the ability to more frequently upload and target individuals with specific messages through IP or 1:1 targeting.”
One thing for campaigns to stay on top of in this regard, Valdez-Darnell warns: the need for both reliable data and a timely scrubbing process to make the tactic work as intended: “It’s important that voter data is updated regularly to continually reflect who has requested [and] returned ballots, and voted early.”
The widespread use of relational organizing platforms is reflective of increased reliance on a relatively aggressive social pressure approach this cycle, which digital strategists on the left hope will prove effective with younger voters as it did in 2018.
With platforms like Outreach Circle or VoteWithMe, it’s the ability to quickly and efficiently look up the voting records of your friends and message them directly — either targeting those in your own backyard or your contacts who happen to live in swing states or districts. The messaging can be aggressive or more subtle — the volunteer decides — but from digital practitioners we’ve spoken to, the trend this year is decidedly toward the former, in part, because it works.
“Our internal data shows about an eight-point lift over cold outreach for GOTV,” said Michael Luciani, CEO of The Tuesday Company, which acquired the free-to-use VoteWithMe app in November 2019. “You do need a big data set to match against, but more and more that’s available to our clients and available as a default inside of our software. All that matters is that an organization has volunteers who are willing to take those actions.”
In 2018, the app, which isn’t restricted by party affiliation, had 250,000 users by Election Day. It currently has approximately 100,000, according to Luciani. But he expects they’ll surpass the usage of the midterm cycle.
For some campaigns, a more subtle social media approach has come in the form of more centralized efforts to generate posts from supporters related to early voting and vote by mail: Received your ballot? Make sure to tell your friends. Did you just cast an early vote? Post a photo afterward — ideally with your “I Voted” sticker if you received one. Just put your ballot in a dropbox? Tell your friends on Facebook.
Post-election, there’s work to be done to unpack the impact of these tactics and expect some disagreement on whether, and when, to employ a more overtly aggressive social pressure approach. One note of caution comes from Chris Faulkner of the GOP firm Majority Strategies who warns campaigns not to get carried away with the idea of shaming
voters to the polls.
“Social pressure tactics are just one tool in the GOTV toolbox, but it is often misused by campaigns,” he said. “The numbers of early ballots cast are pretty much breaking every record ever on early voting. The real question is, are these ‘new’ votes or just cannibalizing votes that were going to come closer to Election Day anyway?”
After the ardent partisans have cast their ballots, the remainder of the electorate who haven’t voted by Nov. 3 will likely need different messaging, Faulkner added.
“Effectiveness comes down to targeting. Will campaigns target the right folks with these last-minute, and some might say more heavy-handed methods?”