Think Like a Campaign Expert: Talking to Voters for Activists
As activists, we are well-informed and firm in our convictions. We’ve studied the issues, either on our own or in formal education. We’ve thought about politics and policy until our ears bleed. We seek out those who are as engaged as we are, we participate in friendly (or not so friendly) debates, often centered on the facts and figures. We’ve listened to the stories of those affected by policy decisions, and we’ve formed well-thought-out opinions.
Activists are critical to The Fight. We fund interest groups and progressive candidates, we knock on doors, and we take to the streets. But, no matter how important we are in the long struggle towards progress, we are not the ones who will tip the balance. This is especially true in an election.
A successful campaign in a competitive election must reach two largely distinct groups: sympathetic activists and persuadable voters. To motivate each of these groups, the campaign must hone their message so that it is effective for both.
Persuadable voters are very different from activists. For many of us, it makes no sense that someone hasn’t already picked a side. After four years of Donald Trump’s negligence and malfeasance, after decades of obstruction from congressional Republicans, how can you not have made up your mind? After Garland’s seat was stolen and Justice Ginsburg’s death, after 200,000 Americans died from COVID, how can you be on the sidelines? After the murders of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and far too many others, how can you be on the fence about Black Lives Matter?
As incomprehensible as it seems to many of us, not everyone has decided how or if they’ll vote in this election. These aren’t some fringe group, it’s a significant portion of the electorate, and could be the difference between a win and a loss. It could be the difference between turning the tide toward progress and four more years of corruption and fear in the White House. As of this writing, 538 polling averages say that as many as 6.6% of likely voters are undecided right now. It’s likely that just as many are leaning one way or the other, but aren’t sure if they’ll vote. These could represent millions of votes in an election that could come down to a few thousand in one or two key states. These people are not an abstraction; we know these people. They are our friends, our family, our neighbors, our coworkers. And their vote will count this November.
Crooked Media partnered with Change Research in early September to poll 3,098 new and/or infrequent voters in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Voters like those polled are traditionally less likely to vote or more likely to make up their minds late in the cycle. Nine percent of those surveyed say that their vote is either currently up for grabs or could still change. The poll showed that 4% of these undecided voters had no firm opinion of Joe Biden at all, positive or negative.
After four years of media saturation, it won’t be a clever TV ad or one more Trump scandal that will solidify their choice. They might, however, be willing to listen to us — their friends and neighbors. We must understand that these voters are not activists like us. They won’t necessarily be motivated by the messages that moved us to roll up our sleeves and jump into the fray. If we want to win them over, we need to meet them where they are. We need to listen to them and to learn to speak their language.
I have spent the last 12 years working in and around professional politics. My job was to find messages that work for exactly these voters. Over the final weeks of the 2020 election, I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned with my fellow activists by giving proven messages. I’ll be focusing on some of the most pressing issues of the campaign, the sorts of issues that speak directly to undecided voters.
If you’ve spent time on campaigns or have read works from other campaign experts, you’ll likely find some familiar suggestions here. The goal of this series is not to reinvent the wheel, but to share some of the knowledge that folks like me have gained over years of talking to voters, and to fit that experience to the sorts of one-on-one conversations that we can all have with the marginal voters in our lives.
I hope you’ll find it useful.