This year’s presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is creating more uncertainty down-ballot than any White House contest in recent history.
Republicans are rightfully concerned about the potential drag Trump may have on congressional and state legislative contests. There’s also a theory about insurgent campaigns always impacting down-ballot performance.
For those of us who operate in that down-ballot space, it’s important not to get too caught up in how the wind is blowing at the top. Although it’s important to gauge any impact that’s rolling down the hill, we still have to understand how to mitigate risks when we can and utilize any of the passing opportunities to our advantage.
To that end, here are a few things to remember as you plan your outreach strategy for the next couple of months.
Pick the Right Battles to Fight
We understand how resources are scarce and opportunities to spend money are plentiful. The last thing you want to think on Nov. 9 is that your untested assumptions were wrong. If you’re not running a research program, at least consider a poll now to ensure you can mix the right message to the right technique, aimed at the right people.
For many Republicans planning to vote this November for president, it’s an emotional choice. They are voting against Clinton as much or more than they will vote for Trump. Their enthusiasm and stance are very clear and have been for some time. They will show up and cast their vote, and you must capitalize on this for your candidate.
For other Republican voters and right-leaning Independents, it’s more of a rational choice. The nastier the race gets the harder time they have making a decision. Externalities like weather and traffic will have a greater impact on them getting out to vote in November. The messaging towards this group of voters isn’t the same as the emotionally-driven ones, so you will need to have a different strategy for them.
Identify Possible Turnout Issues
There are plenty of prognosticators spouting the virtues of how new voters are being injected into this year’s electorate. They say these voters are excited about the prospects of Trump as president and will be turning out in droves to cast their vote for him. I’m not sold. It’s just as likely that in this angry environment, voters could become so disgusted that they stay home. This could have an enormous impact on other races on the ballot.
I’m more in the camp that the enthusiasm ratings for Republican voters are going to keep decreasing because there seems to be no end to the negative campaigning they’ve been exposed to. If this is the case then it’s very likely that turnout will be low. A vote you need that doesn’t come is as bad as a vote against you. If that problem exists in your race, you can switch to a strategy that helps voters focus closer to home and ignore national discourse. It will take a tremendous effort to implement the right research strategy to test the messaging that will work for your voters.
Identify the Independent Voters
An interesting piece of research I read recently explained the three types of Independent voters. It’s becoming more than noticeable that voters are identifying as Independents more than they are identifying as Republicans or Democrats.
Many of these Indies will lean one way or the other, while a third type are considered the “pure” variety. This is why many times in our polls, we ask ideology instead of party affiliation because Independents don’t want to identify with a party, but they’ll reveal their ideology. This is helpful to gauge the leaners and identify the moderates. It’s important to know what kind of Independents are in play for your particular race.
If your district has a lot of younger voters, this will be a bigger issue. They have less voter history to reference when looking at data analysis. It could be helpful to discover for yourself (through polling) if they seem to be engaged and what their current opinions are on the election you care about most.
Independents typically don’t care for a hostile campaign environment. That means if a group of Independents is favorable to your candidate, but is so affected by the national race that they do not vote, you have problem.
Cory Brown is vice president of data and strategy for Cygnal, which provides polling, data management, targeting and integrated communications for candidates, groups and businesses. He served his country in the U.S. Army both stateside and overseas in reconnaissance and combat engineer units.