C&E recently published a case study written by Andrew Gordon, who consulted for Trey Hollingsworth’s Indiana House campaign. This is a rebuttal.
In the recent primary for Indiana’s 9th congressional district, we watched a young multimillionaire “outsider” candidate – who moved to the 9th from Tennessee last fall to make his run – take on a field of Republican candidates with long histories in Indiana, including a much better known current Attorney General Greg Zoeller and two state senators, Brent Waltz and Erin Houchin.
The 32-year-old newcomer, Hollingsworth, ultimately won the primary with 34 percent of the vote, outspending his four Republican opponents five to one- contributing nearly $1.5 million of his own money and benefiting from another $600,000 in SuperPAC spending funded by his father.
Despite what the competition would have you believe, we think there's actually more to learn from the second-place finisher. Houchin, a client of our Indiana-based firm, The Prosper Group, started polling with just 9 percent of the vote, but bested Attorney General Zoeller, whose campaign spent close $220,000 between July 2015 and April 13, 2016, self-funder Brent Walt, whose budget was around $250,000, and nearly overcame Hollingsworth’s combined $2.1 million budget to win on May 3.
As a freshman in the Indiana state Senate, Houchin didn’t have the strongest name ID in the race, nor did she have the deep personal wealth of her newcomer opponent. Ultimately, she raised and spent about $450,000 on the race.
At the start of her campaign, her team, which included Cam Savage and Kevin Ober of Limestone Strategies and myself, quickly realized they needed to identify a creative and effective messaging strategy in order to overcome the massive disparity in campaign bank accounts. We weren’t going to outspend Hollingsworth, so every dollar needed to be spent most effectively.
With that in mind, the Houchin campaign developed and launched a coordinated messaging campaign involving direct mail, television and digital, focused on “Tennessee Trey” – highlighting the argument that Hollingsworth was an opportunist seeking to buy his way into Congress, caring little about serving Hoosiers in the 9th congressional district.
This coordinated campaign included a customized microsite, multiple direct mail pieces, one hard-hitting TV ad, email, social media targeting and both search and display ads. Communication of the message was repetitive and utilized the same core messaging and directed recipients to the Tennessee Trey website. The Houchin team also made investments in targeted pre-roll video.
With limited resources, it was vital that the Houchin campaign maximize the impact of every dollar spent, and digital advertising was vital to this effort. Using a combination of data from i360 and GOP Data Trust, the campaign began to identify digital voter segments which would be most receptive to Houchin’s message.
Pre-roll ads were shown only to target primary voters in the district. Nielsen Digital Audience Ratings was utilized to ensure that ads were reaching the intended demographics, and that the ad placements were viewable on desktop and mobile devices.
A partnership with TubeMogul, a demand-side platform, provided refunds to the campaign for any instances of ad fraud — a key advantage that allowed the campaign to place more impressions on target, lowering the effective CPM. The ads eventually reached a unique audience of 44,238 persuadable primary voters.
In a matter of months Houchin went from a little-known state Senator garnering 9 percent of the vote in polling to earning 25 percent of the vote on Election Day. She managed to surpass the much better well-known Zoeller on the ballot, and she helped hold Hollingsworth to just 34 percent of the vote.
And when things looked to be tightening up in the end, as the Tennessee Trey messaging took hold, the Hollingsworth campaign felt compelled to divert resources to attack Houchin directly.
While Houchin may not have been able to overcome the massive spending disadvantage in this race, her campaign clearly did all the right things to combat it. There are lessons to be learned from her team’s ability to quickly pivot, and execute a highly-coordinated messaging strategy that connected with voters.
Kurt Luidhardt is Vice President and Co-Founder of The Prosper Group, a full-service digital agency serving conservative causes and candidates. Prosper’s focus on harnessing and optimizing emerging technology has empowered its clients to effectively build donor files, identify supporters and persuade undecided voters.