Party conventions are once again places of surprise, intrigue and potentially fate-deciding maneuvers for campaigns. Whether it’s the potential for a brokered convention, like at the RNC in Cleveland, or underdog upsets, like in Utah where Gov. Gary Herbert failed to secure his party’s nomination at the state GOP confab — yet still went on to win the nomination last June and was reelected in November — these partisan proceedings are anything but routine in today’s environment.
Now, as we look ahead to nomination season for the midterm elections, it's time for a refresher course on the dos and don’ts of convention and party election tactics. These tactical lessons can be used at any scale of election, from your local county convention to a statewide powwow.
DO: Know, and master, the convention rules.
The dynamics of any convention can change in an instant if one of the convention managers for an opposing campaign knows how to manipulate the convention rules to their advantage. Unfortunately, many conventions operate well outside Roberts Rules of Order, or anything close to standardized meeting operation.
I’ve seen party organizations give their officers multiple votes for being officers, convention rules adopted in clear violation of the state party bylaws and many other weird quirks or violations that they have used for years because no one knew better or challenged them.
Most conventions and mass meetings, however, will have a set list of rules that the body will adopt beforehand, sometimes built into the bylaws, or at the beginning of the meeting. Make sure that you have a representative at any committee or separate operational meeting, obtain a copy of the rules, and master these rules before the meeting strategy is designed or implemented. Finally, where the convention rules end, Robert’s Rules generally picks up. Knowing these rules, or having an experienced parliamentarian on your team who does, is critical to success.
DO: Have a written convention plan and organization in place.
Just like any other aspect of a campaign, approach the actual convention with a detailed plan and anticipating every possible scenario and know the lay of the land. Run through the proceedings of the convention step by step and list out everything that could possibly happen at each step, whether it will benefit or hurt your campaign and how you will respond.
Aside from the chain of events that will take place; you need to have a written plan for all of your collateral materials and human assets before, during, and after the convention.
Have printed literature for every possible scenario on hand. If a candidate that could lose on the first ballot might endorse your candidate, you need to have printed out literature to distribute that broadcasts the endorsement. If you want to prepare negative pieces, make sure that you use these pieces with caution and always make sure your attacks are based on factual evidence.
DO: Collect written pledges of support. Have them sign it.
Political scientists and researchers are constantly conducting studies on the application of pressure in political campaigns. In short: it works.
Collecting written pledges of support is an additional way to ensure that your identified supporters actually attend the convention. You can get a pledge card professionally made or print your own on white cardstock paper.
But the act of filling out the card and signing it makes attending your convention an actual commitment and not just something that a voter has agreed to attend in passing and will try to fit into their schedule.
Getting these pledge cards signed early by supporters also allows you to put together an effective small batch, direct mail piece targeted at this universe reminding them that they signed a pledge to attend the meeting or put together a call script with the same goal.
DO: Give your supporters a role to play in the convention.
Aside from the party insiders and activists that thoroughly enjoy these kinds of events, no one else really wants to be there to see the party's inner workings. But you need to ensure that your voters show up, and the best way to do this is to give your supporters a role to play during the event. The one role that you always need filled if the race is competitive is that of the county/district whip.
Pick your whips for each county/district and then work with them to identify deputy whips for their area. Ideally, you want one whip for every 10 votes in each area. These whips will be responsible for ensuring that your voters show up, that they don’t get flipped by supporters of your opponent and that they keep your campaign leadership frequently updated as the vote goes on. Developing a strong whip team can make or break a competitive convention or nomination.
DON’T: Worry about floor demonstrations and theatrical tricks.
Conventions/nominations can bring out the worst in people and campaigns. Building a convention strategy that includes floor demonstrations and distractions will not win your campaign any votes. In a convention setting, the only votes that you can count on are the votes that you bring yourself. If you find your campaign woefully below your targeted delegate total, your focus needs to be on ensuring that every single one of your identified supporters actually shows up. Don’t to trick everyone in attendance into believing that you have more support than you actually have.
One such demonstration that has stuck with me was when a campaign ordered a couple dozen 4’-by-4’ signs and tasked supporters with parading up and down the aisles of the venue with the massive signs. On top of the multiple voters that got knocked in the head with these massive signs, the theatrical nature of it all was seen by many observers as a desperate attempt to AstroTurf grassroots support.
DON’T: Save meaningful endorsement announcements until the last second.
Every endorsement can be useful – even if it’s that of a HOA president or the leadership of a local homeschool co-op. I worked with a candidate a few years back and about a month out from the mass meeting nomination we quietly released the endorsements of a handful of HOA presidents. None of our opponents thought much of it, but those HOA presidents represented communities close to the venue and connected us to active residents in their communities and local mom groups. As a result, we turned out an additional 75 votes. When the total number of voters was less than 500, it was a huge difference maker in that nomination.
To take full advantage of an endorsement, you need time for word of the endorsement to spread and for it to have an effect. You can’t bring voters to the table or flip voters supporting your opponent(s) with an endorsement if news of the endorsement doesn’t get to them in time for it to change where they stand.
Get endorsements out early, in a planned fashion, and to the right subsets of your Party and have the time to collect pledges of support from the people that the endorsement brings to the table.
DON’T: Distribute blatantly false or overly negative pieces.
The best way to ensure that you lose the support of another candidate’s voters on a second or third ballot is by putting out false and overly negative pieces of literature at the convention.
No one attends a convention without knowing who they’re going to support on the first ballot. The subsequent ballots are an entirely different game, however. If you pass the threshold to make it to the second or third ballot, you need to capture every additional supporter that you can from the ranks of the candidates that have been eliminated.
DON’T: Take your foot off the gas until the convention/meeting is over.
Complacency is a killer in party conventions/nominations. The second you switch from trying to win over more voters to playing defense and solely trying to hold your current coalition together is when you lose.
Make sure your whips are aggressively trying to win over more voters. As you move onto multiple ballots in an election provide food and drink for your supporters to encourage them to stay. Finally, never have your team sitting and watching the action instead of getting in on the action when there is still time on the clock.
In short, don’t treat these elections any different than you would a general election. Identify, persuade, and turn out voters until the last possible second.
If you follow these simple dos and don'ts, you’ll be able to maximize your campaign's results and hopefully secure your nomination or win your party election. Happy campaigning as we head into the midterm cycle.
Joe Desilets is a Republican operative and consultant, most recently serving as senior staff for the Trump campaign in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @JoeDesilets