In 2000, when I managed my first post-college political campaign, conventional wisdom had it that GOTV was the exclusive domain of the field staff, and that the concept applied strictly to the first Tuesday in November.
In the years since, that wisdom has been turned upside down with the advent of early voting, more sophisticated technology and data analysis, the evolution of social media, and more advanced methods of communication.
Unless campaigns wish to write off half the electorate, they must factor in early voting, both in-person as well as absentee. In order not to leave votes on the table, they also need a formidable PR strategy to work in concert with their GOTV operation.
What follows is a checklist of strategies and tactics drawn from nearly 15 years of operating on the front lines and in the trenches of dozens of candidate and issue-based campaigns.
1. Planning should be integrated
GOTV planning and execution is no longer the exclusive domain of field staff. From targeting to voter outreach to messaging, GOTV planning should be integrated across various departments of the campaign. Communicating the right message to the right voters at the right times doesn’t just happen by accident.
2. Messages motivate and mobilize
GOTV messaging should focus on reminding target voters of the need to support your campaign. They should answer the “how” as well as the “where.” Once the messages are established, it’s up to the campaign to use its many tools to spread that message to your identified supporters. Campaigns are inevitably full of distractions, so it’s incumbent on you to be disciplined enough to filter out the noise. When in doubt, ask yourself: how will communicating this message bring our campaign votes?
3. Don’t be a copy-and-paste campaign
Every campaign is unique and has a local flair. Relying on a committee to run a cookie-cutter campaign out of Washington, D.C. could lead to trouble. Every candidate and every campaign has a unique story to tell. Be consistent about communicating those values, passions, and beliefs. Voters of all stripes appreciate and expect authenticity.
4. Create campaign visuals that radiate excitement and generate buzz
Regardless of what the polls say, campaign supporters must be frequently reminded of the need to vote. Don’t take their support for granted. Whether it’s securing extensive local news coverage for a spirited GOTV rally, a crowded phone bank, or legions of volunteers going door to door, your campaign should create visuals that generate buzz and build momentum. Candidates should be greeted with cheering crowds, and there should be no shortage of campaign signs in every shot. Remember, a passive voter may not vote, but a fired-up voter will. Arrogance and complacency have absolutely no place in your GOTV efforts.
5. Use third-party messengers
As part of your GOTV strategy, develop a list of third-party messengers who can be used as keynote speakers at events or asked to speak at rallies and press conferences. Depending on the political situation of each campaign, surrogates could be
local or national officials, media personalities, or religious and organization leaders. It may also be worth checking in with key radio stations about having campaign surrogates on the air, particularly during morning and afternoon drive times, to encourage supporters to vote. Third-party messengers can also be useful in energizing key constituency groups through last-minute GOTV calls, social media appeals, radio spots, and TV ads.
6. Election protection
Too often at the polls there are reports of voter confusion or even harassment. To ensure the right to vote is protected, campaigns need to incorporate election protection into their GOTV plans. Campaigns should also prepare to be aggressive about educating supporters on what to expect in the run-up to Election Day and alerting media of any violations.
7. Voting day
With some exceptions, prepare to send out an advisory announcing your candidate’s voting time and voting location. Make sure to alert news stations, print, radio, and online outlets. Push for news photographers and TV cameras. Be sure your candidate is prepped for any last-minute surprises and is ready to deliver sound bites on what’s at stake in the election and the critical importance of GOTV.
8. Election night
TV reporters and the campaigns they cover have a mutual interest in broadcasting as much compelling video as possible on Election Night. Be open to their requests, and work with them to figure out ways to secure as much favorable radio and TV coverage, particularly live coverage, as possible. Local news coverage of politics is rare enough these days. If nothing else, it’s best to use the occasion to cement a good working relationship going forward, especially if you’re on the winning side.
9. Crises are bound to happen, so keep calm and carry on
Recognize that no matter how perfect your GOTV communication plan is, crises are bound to happen. In this digital age of trackers, YouTube videos, Twitter, and a litany of other social media sites, anything said about your campaign can and will be used against you by the opposition. Getting your rapid response operations in gear now will make your campaigns better equipped to regain the offensive later on. Keep your cool and stay focused.
Ryan Rudominer is the principal and founder of R2 Strategic Consulting, which specializes in strategic communications planning and execution, advocacy campaigns, coalition building, and media relations.