In a normal year, campaigns would now be building up field teams, knocking on doors, holding fundraisers, and conducting research as the cycle gets into full swing. But right now, where every day feels like a week, no one is really certain how to proceed. There’s a good reason for this: the data we rely on is either non-existent or non-applicable.
Up to this point, our knowledge has been based on our understanding of what has happened in the past coupled with our understanding of what’s happening at the present time. We use these two sets of inputs to make a prediction of what will happen in the near future. Typically, the better the inputs and understanding of these two data categories the better the predictions of future events will be.
But right now, with stay-at-home orders expanding by the day, neither of these inputs exist in any meaningful way. Our understanding of even the very recent past is largely irrelevant, and our understanding of the present is incomplete and unclear. So our decision making is happening largely in the absence of real data, leaving gut instinct, hunches, and ideology as the drivers: a very scary prospect.
There’s nothing in the past 100 years that comes close to being comparable to our current events. Even society altering events such as September 11th or World War II had very different effects on us as Americans and us as global citizens. Even though the cause of the 2008 Great Recession was a unique set of circumstances, there’s precedent for people to work off of to determine likely human and voter behavior based on reactions to other sharp economic downturns. Currently, we are in the dark.
Unfortunately, this is unlikely to change anytime soon and will likely get worse for most of us. Campaigning is never straightforward and now, as is always the case, campaigns need data to make decisions and connect with voters. With so much uncertainty, the only way to understand what is happening out there is through research and talking with voters. What are voters most concerned about? What kind of information do they need? What are they looking for from their leaders? These are important questions that elected officials and candidates need the answers to, but ones where guessing could be disastrous.
Therefore, it’s important for campaigns to not stop their research, but to make sure they are coming at it in the right way. People want to talk. They have time, opinions, and concerns. Just make sure your research is asking voters about what they want to talk about. Now is probably not the time to test your questionable negative hits about how your opponent really hate puppies and America.
This will come across as more petty than usual. But this also doesn’t mean it needs to be all COVID-19, all the time. Clearly, it’s the biggest issue at the moment and at the top of voters’ minds. But with the news and most people’s daily conversations devoted almost exclusively to the topic, voters will likely won’t shy away from talking about something else for 10 minutes.
Campaigns also need to keep in mind that this is a rapidly changing situation and no one knows what it’ll look like by the fall. The research you do now should not be the basis of your entire campaign from now until November as now, more than ever, polling reflects a moment in time and the messaging testing you do now will likely be as relevant in September as the results from your January surveys are now.
But campaigns cannot afford to guess for the next three to four months and rely on the personal experience of 10 people on a Zoom. Voters are what win elections and understanding how to connect with them is the key to success. If you’re working on guesses, you’re just wasting time and money.
We also need to come to grips with the fact that normal is going to be a very relative term for the foreseeable future and putting off research until things are more predictable will most likely mean waiting until 2021. This is our new reality and we need to ensure we’re making decisions that reflect that. Conventional wisdom isn’t going to apply this time. Even in the most optimistic of scenarios, we likely won’t be knocking doors in June.
Now is the time for campaigns to rethink their plans and make adjustments based on data, not guesswork. November is still coming.
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies