If you’re running for office—whether local, state or federal—voter turnout in the November general election is a big deal. But it’s even more of a concern if you need to get your supporters to the polls to win a contested primary. In some of these races, you typically find the turnout to be 20 percent to 50 percent lower than that of a general election. This means your campaign must be ready to pull out all the stops, since a handful of votes can spell the difference between winning and losing.
Low turnout can be a product of voter apathy, the weather or the overall political climate. But whatever the election environment, there are ways that smart campaigns can maximize the vote.
First, campaigns must realize that there is a vast difference between primary, municipal and general election voters. To win in a primary contest, a campaign has to target those who have historically voted in these elections. That requires you to build Election Day turnout models based upon the turnouts for similar primary elections in the past.
Also, don’t make the common mistake of targeting the wrong types of voters. For example, if you are managing a local race for mayor or council and the election is held in the spring, the campaign should not be targeting voters who only vote in general elections. At the same time that you’re messaging to citizens who may not vote, you could be failing to communicate with others who have a history of voting in municipal elections or primaries.
To find targeting data, contact your local clerk or elections office and ask if you can obtain the number of registered voters and the number of actual voters who turned out to vote in the last two similar elections. Once you have this data, you can begin to build your turnout model. Averaging the last two similar elections and dividing that average into the total number of registered voters, should yield the turnout percentage—roughly the number of voters who will vote in your election.
Once you have targeted the most likely voters, it’s time to start communicating your message to them. Make sure that message is clear, concise and consistent. Otherwise, you won’t be able to penetrate the competing messages from other campaigns and consumer products.
The next step is to use this communication to identify which voters are supporting your candidate, and focus on turning them out on Election Day. In messaging to them, always incorporate the date of the election and the office you are running for. Because most voters are trained to think that elections occur in November, they need to be repeatedly reminded of the election date.
When it comes to turnout, it all boils down to these three critical efforts: research past elections, target the most likely voters and communicate a crisp, clear message. Do these well, and your campaign will have the structure it needs to win.
Tony Bawidamann is a Democratic strategist and vice president at the public relations/public affairs firm MWW Group.