Asking tough questions is the best way to find out what a campaign expenditure is actually supposed to do. Frequently those who are reluctant to give honest answers to hard questions will do their best to make the inquirer—whether donor, campaign staffer or fellow consultant—feel stupid for even asking the questions. But that's all the more reason to keep asking. There really are no stupid questions.
Asking questions leads to understanding, and hard questions create transparency and accountability, even if they make people uncomfortable. In the words of the late Black Arts Movement poet Amiri Baraka, “If you ask ‘why?’ enough, you just might get wise.”
In the spirit of moving toward wisdom, here are some key questions every political investor should ask:
1. What Is Our Plan?
The goal of every political campaign is to win 50-percent plus one of the voters. This is often referred to as the “win number.” To get to the win number, you have to stitch together clusters of support from various constituency groups.
One constructs a campaign plan based on assumptions and projections about how many people from each group can be won over to support the cause or candidate. In Minnesota, Congressman Keith Ellison has proven that an intelligent plan tied to New American Majority demographics can not only win elections, but also defy the odds and increase voter turnout, even when internal stack is down across the state and country. In 2014, statewide voter turnout in Minnesota was down 3 percent, but Ellison’s team increased turnout in his district by 5 percent, and they did it by having a plan and working that plan.
After doing a detailed and data-rich analysis of the electorate, Ellison’s team identified their most likely supporters and crafted tailored efforts to reach each population. Recognizing that many of their core supporters lived in apartments and changed residences fairly frequently, they focused on 90,000 people living in 525 apartment buildings that had more than 51 units.
Dozens of volunteers were then deployed to those buildings, where they knocked on 50,000 doors, registering people to vote, identifying supporters, and securing commitments to cast ballots. Seeing the racial diversity in the district—including Minnesota’s relatively large population of African immigrants—the campaign developed a specific canvassing operation targeting Somali immigrants as well as Latinos.
To reach African Americans, they devised a “Souls to the Polls” program that focused on 124 area churches and sent staff to encourage early and absentee voting in those churches. Through this kind of sophisticated, data-driven, culturally competent plan, the Ellison campaign defied the national trends of decreased turnout in a midterm election and also contributed to the statewide success of the Democratic candidate for secretary of state.
If all Democratic incumbents had emulated Ellison’s detailed and meticulous plans for ensuring voter turnout, the party would not be in nearly as deep a hole as it is now. Campaign activities fall into two broad categories—mobilization and persuasion. Mobilization involves getting your supporters out to vote and usually consists of canvassers calling and personally contacting voters. Persuasion entails convincing undecided voters to support your side and is generally carried out through television ads and other forms of mass communication. An intelligent plan will incorporate both mobilization and persuasion with a data-driven understanding of how many votes each set of activities should yield.
Most campaigns don’t direct their resources to turning out large numbers of people of color, and instead choose to try to persuade the moderate-to-conservative whites they consider “likely” voters. Generally, those assumptions are not explicit, and that’s why it’s critical to ask questions. How many voters of color is the campaign seeking to secure? How many progressive whites? Is that enough to win, and if not, how many white swing voters are required? What is the plan to close the gap, and, most important, how many votes does the campaign expect to win through advertising?
Many progressive campaigns proceed on the assumption that they will win by running ads, mostly on TV, that will persuade white swing voters to come to their side, but there is little empirical evidence for these kinds of assumptions. By contrast, the demonstrably reliable support of voters of color is regularly neglected in campaign priorities, plans, and resource allocation.
North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagan’s loss of her U.S. Senate seat in 2014 is a painful example of what happens when progressive forces don’t have a plan. When Hagan was elected in 2008, 46 percent of her votes came from people of color. In her reelection bid in 2014, more than $40 million was spent by the Democratic side, $20 million of that by outside groups working to help Hagan win. Of that outside money, $18.8 million of those funds were spent on negative television ads opposing Hagan’s opponent, Thom Tillis. One can’t argue with a straight face that directing $19 million to attack ads was the result of an intelligent plan based on sound data and empirical evidence.
Nobody has ever tried to pretend that attack ads are the best way to retain your supporters and motivate them to turn out at the polls for you. Those ads were focused on trying to persuade a smaller pool of white swing voters that Tillis was a bad guy. That same $19 million could have paid for 400 full-time staff members to go door-to-door in communities of color for an entire year, talking to and mobilizing the voters who had turned out for Hagan when she won in 2008. If each of those 400 staff members, working full-time for a year making calls and knocking on doors, managed to get just three additional Democratic voters every week (and taking two weeks off for vacation), Hagan could have secured an additional 59,000 votes and won the election.
2. Does The Budget Match The Plan?
Having a plan is just the first step. A plan is only real and relevant if there is a budget to back it up. A budget is a statement of priorities, and smart campaigns prioritize their allocation of resources to give them the best possible chance of securing sufficient support from various sectors of the population needed to assemble a winning coalition.
Campaign stakeholders need to be vigilant about finding out whether field programs to mobilize voters are properly funded, how much money is allocated to television ads, and whether the campaign is reaching New American Majority market segments using the most targeted and cost-effective means.
An excellent post-election article in Vox in 2014 summarized what really works in mobilizing voters. According to the article by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla: “By far the most effective way to turn out voters is with high-quality, face-to-face conversations that urge them to vote. How do we know? Nearly two decades of rigorous randomized experiments have proven it.”
From experiments by Yale’s Donald Green and Alan Gerber summarized in their book Getting Out the Vote!, to the excellent scholarship and research of the University of California, Berkeley’s Lisa Garcia Bedolla, Emory’s Andra Gillespie, the University of Maryland’s Janelle Wong, Menlo College’s Melissa Michelson, UC Riverside’s Karthick Ramakrishnan, UC San Diego’s Marisa Abrajano, and others, there is widespread agreement among researchers and scholars about what works in getting people—especially voters of color—to the polls.
Hiring canvassers and community-based organizers to do the unsexy but highly effective work of going door-to-door, identifying supporters, and following up with them to turn out at the polls is the proven approach to increasing voter turnout. But proven does not necessarily mean popular.
Despite the ample evidence pointing toward mobilization as the most effective route to marshal votes, the overwhelming amount of money is still spent on persuasion, usually in the form of broadcast television ads. Despite what research and data show about the lack of cost efficiency of such ads, the dollars continue to flow to TV. In 2012 and 2014, 80 percent of outside spending on Senate races went to television ads.
Excessive expenditures on broadcast television ads are wasteful on several levels. One major problem with overemphasizing TV ads in campaigns is that their proliferation is certainly correlated with, if not caused by, inherent financial conflicts of interest on the part of consultants. Many consultants still take a flat 15-percent fee (from the campaign)— based on the cost of the ad buy—for each television ad that airs. If the campaign places a $1 million ad buy, the campaign must pay $1 million for the ad buy to the outlet/channel running the ad and an additional $150,000 to the consultant for making the ad.
What’s absurd about that is that it costs a consultant the same amount to produce the ad whether it’s run as part of a $1,000 ad buy (for example, local cable channel) or a $1 million ad buy (for example, national network). Fifteen percent of $1 million is a lot of money. Spending so much money on broadcast television ads may be good for the college funds of the children of the consultants, but it’s not the smartest way to invest limited campaign resources.
In addition to the money, there’s a laziness factor. For consultants it’s easier to sit in one’s office brainstorming and editing a commercial than it is to hire, train, and coordinate dozens or hundreds of human beings to go door-to-door interacting with potential voters and then capturing, tracking, and analyzing all the data coming back from the canvassing. An additional problem with overemphasizing television ads is that they frequently miss the target market—literally.
Broadcast television commercials are at best blunt instruments in that they are aired in broad media markets that do not align neatly with the political districts where candidates are running. As a result, in many cases the television ads reach large numbers of people who can’t even vote for the candidate in question. One study found that of $111 million spent in 2014, $80 million of that was wasted communicating with voters outside the target district.
If the campaign plan does allocate resources to reaching out to voters of color, then investors and stakeholders in the campaign must make sure that those dollars are also being spent wisely and informed by hard data rather than old stereotypes.
When a prominent white consultant working on a California ballot measure campaign I was involved in a few years ago was asked about his strategy to reach voters of color, he replied: “They watch the same commercials everyone else does.” Well, no, they don’t. And even when they do, many of them pay more attention to ethnic media. (This consultant went on to a role of national prominence with the Obama campaign.)
As former NAACP president Ben Jealous observed from his time working with the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the nation’s largest association of black papers, “If you just advertise in mainstream publications, black folks might see the ad, but they won’t know you’re talking to them.”
When most campaigns target Latinos the default mode is to run some Spanish-language ads and call it a day. But that’s the result of lazy thinking, unchallenged by hard questions. In fact, Spanish-language ads may actually be ineffective with some portions of the Latino electorate.
Digging deeper into the demographic data uncovers the truth: while 82 percent of all Latinos speak Spanish, the vast majority of Latinos who are eligible to vote speak English very well. According to the Pew Center’s analysis of 2012 census data, at least 73 percent of Latino eligible voters speak English exclusively at home or speak English very well (one-third of Latino eligible voters speak English exclusively).
While there is a place for Spanish-language advertising in campaigns, it’s important to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of Latino eligible voters speak English (which is not to say they shouldn’t receive targeted communications; English language ads also need to be culturally compelling and relevant).
Communicating with Asian Americans also requires detailed dissection of pertinent data. The Asian American population has skyrocketed since passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Now, 74 percent of all Asian American adults are foreign-born, and not surprisingly, three-quarters of Asian-American adults speak a language other than English at home.
Among Asian-American voters, however, approximately 63 percent speak English very well. And, to state the obvious, Asian Americans speak many different languages and dialects: Mandarin is different from Cantonese, which is different from Tagalog, which is different from Gujarati, which is different from Vietnamese, and so on. Reflecting the growth of this diverse group, the number of Asian American media outlets has grown more than tenfold, from 102 in 1999 to 1,239 in 2010. All campaigns should be asked how they are communicating with Asian Americans, whether they are using the right Asian languages to reach those who prefer to receive communications in those languages, and if they are targeting the right Asian American media outlets.
3. How Are We Doing and How Did We Do?
There’s a great story in the book Googled by Ken Auletta, about how Mel Karmazin, then CEO of “old media” television giant Viacom, responded to a 2003 presentation by Google’s cofounders on how the search engine was able to precisely measure the impact of advertising dollars. Karmazin, whose business model depended on revenue from broadcast television ads, responded by saying, “You’re fucking with the magic!” What Karmazin was referring to was the adage that everyone knows half the money spent on advertising is wasted, but nobody knows which half.
Many political consultants depend on this ambiguity to justify their value to campaigns and pay their bills. The idea is that “brilliant” consultants will develop devastating ads that will capture the imagination of the voters, transform the dynamics of the election, and propel the candidate to victory and the fast track to the White House. “Trust me, I’ve run hundreds of campaigns” is a line proffered countless times by consultants offering lots of testosterone, bravado, and swagger, but few data or metrics. With the abundance of data and analytics now available, political campaigns can and must be much more evidence based in assessing what works and what doesn’t in a campaign.
A useful model for tracking the progress of investments can be found in the business world. In the realm of investing, reputable financial advisors have regular meetings with their clients to review how various investments performed that quarter, what worked, what didn’t, and whether any adjustments are necessary.
The advisors provide spreadsheets showing the percentage performance of each component of the portfolio as well as the gain or loss of the total investment assets. If a mutual fund or investment isn’t performing well, the advisor and client discuss whether to stay the course or switch things up. That kind of regular review and analysis is easily achieved but rarely performed in the world of political and social change.
Just as stock prices and profit-and-loss statements provide the data to assess how a financial portfolio is doing, election and voting data offer insights into the effectiveness of a political program. Public voting records reveal exactly who turned out to vote—information that can be analyzed by local precinct and neighborhood and compared with the outreach and communication activities that were designed to influence those potential voters. To take advantage of this analytical capacity, however, campaign stakeholders have to insist on accountability and reporting based on detailed and relevant metrics.
The problem is that many donors want to see large numbers of potential voters contacted, and they tend to accept metrics that are suboptimal, if not irrelevant, as evidence of success. A common inadequate metric frequently reported by campaigns consists of campaign “contacts” as a way of demonstrating the scale and scope of the campaign’s efforts. But a contact is very different from a vote. If you send someone an e-mail, that’s a contact. You can send 10 million e-mails (well, there are spam laws, but there are also ways around them), make hundreds of thousands of automated calls, and mail tens of thousands of direct mail letters. Those are all contacts. But at the end of the day, they’re not votes.
Fortunately, there are now ways to measure who actually turned out to vote—and who didn’t. The Texas Organizing Project, a leading organizing and advocacy group, for example, follows the practice of reporting meaningful metrics. Their pre-election update to supporters in 2014 stated, “To date, we’ve turned out 52,415 of our target voters.”
Their metric was “turned out actual voters to the polls,” and that’s what campaign stakeholders should be looking for, not calls, door knocks, or mailings (as many political trainers say, “Don’t believe any number that ends in zero; it was probably made up”). These meaningful metrics can have impact, but only if people ask for them, regularly review the effectiveness of the campaign’s investments, and insist that future campaign plans operate based on evidence of what has been proven to work. That is the thinking behind the saying, “You are what you measure.”
Progressives have the tools, but not necessarily the temperament or inclination, to insist on detailed, data-rich accountability and reports. For example, where are the detailed analyses of what happened in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections when Democrats lost their majorities? The Democratic National Committee is supposed to be doing a “postmortem” of the 2014 midterms, but its preliminary findings lacked any data at all. Many Party leaders don’t even seem to be aware of the size of the drop-off in Democratic votes that led to the loss of control of Congress. Asking “What happened and why?” would have yielded greater insights based on real data.
Steve Phillips is a national political leader, civil rights lawyer, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and author of NY Times bestseller Brown is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority.
Copyright © 2016 by Steve Phillips. This excerpt originally appeared in Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.