This is the complete guide to voter engagement (how to turn out the vote).
Table of Contents
“Field” is the industry term for the parts of voter engagement efforts that involve contacting voters at their doors (door knocking), on their phones (phonebanking), or by text to engage in a conversation related to their support for a given candidate or voting. There are many ways to engage a voter (e.g., TV, radio, newspapers, direct mail, online ads, etc.), but field programs focus on high-impact person-to-person interactions. The purpose of running a field campaign is to reach a specific subset of voters with a tailored message to collect support IDs (more on this later), persuade undecided voters, or encourage sporadic Democratic-leaning voters to vote.
Voter engagement through a field program is an essential addition to nearly all competitive political campaigns. Its purpose is to find persuadable voters on the margins to support your candidacy or voters who need an extra nudge to get out and vote. After all the TV ads have run, campaign mailers have been sent, and digital ads have been clicked, many candidates will credit their field campaign as the thing that pushed them over the edge. Campaigns with a successful field program can expect to see an increase in support on election day between 2%–4%—commonly referred to as a “field margin.” Campaigns thus take the time to hire and build large field programs because it could quite literally push candidates over the edge on election day.
In contrast, “safe” campaigns that will win or lose by more than 5%–10% won’t include a field program in their campaign strategy and don’t invest in field aspects of voter engagement because they are either coasting to victory or hoping to shake up a longshot race with their communications or media program.
Traditionally, you should start your field program anywhere from 3 to 9 months before election day, depending on your campaign’s type and size. Candidates who run for local office and smaller state races can start their field programs 3 months before election day as the capacity needed to contact their targeted voters is less than for a congressional or statewide campaign. For larger campaigns, field programs can start anywhere between 6 to 9 months before election day to ensure they have enough time to recruit, train, and manage the volunteers needed to run a top-notch Get Out The Vote (GOTV) program. Field programs generally have three phases: capacity-building, persuasion/voter registration, and turnout/GOTV.
In the first phase of a field program, field staff will recruit their volunteer base and set organizational goals or ramps to achieve during GOTV. In this phase, there should be a strong focus on finding and developing volunteer leadership to help scale your program as you head into the final two stages of your field program.
The second phase of a field program occurs after you develop your campaign’s volunteer foundation, but before you need to actively contact your supporters to turn out their vote (typically 2–3 weeks before voting starts). Volunteers and field staff should focus on identifying their supporters/persuadable voters and registering new supportive voters to turn out in the last phase of your field program.
This phase of your program focuses on turning out the supporters you identified during the previous two phases. Essentially, this phase is all about driving people to the polls. Most of your field program’s work will be done during this phase—sometimes by order of magnitude. For instance, it’s common to knock on double the number of doors during GOTV than you did during the rest of your campaign. This phase ends with your GOTV efforts, which immediately occurs after voting begins in early voting and vote-by-mail states or 4 days before election day in non-early voting states. The majority of your voter contact should occur during your GOTV period, which can last anywhere from 2 weeks to 4 days, depending on how your state votes.
The strategy of a field program changes based on the type of race being run. For instance, some local and state legislative races have districts small enough for the candidate and a handful of volunteers to canvass all voters who live in their district and the campaign won’t need to hire additional staff. If your district is under a few thousand voters, there’s no need to bring on any field staff or worry about running a large-scale field program to engage voters. For mid-sized districts (larger local campaigns, state legislative districts, and some statewides), campaigns often hire one field director (or campaign manager doing double duty) who handles the entire field program through a mix of volunteers and the occasional intern. Larger districts (congressional, statewide, and larger state legislative districts) often require a field director and 3–5 field organizers to handle the volunteer capacity needed to reach all targeted voters.
For your campaign, always base your hiring decisions on the return on the additional staffer. If two field organizers can handle voter engagement for your entire district, adding a third is not helping your campaign or its budget.
Field departments will look different depending on the type of race being run. Some political campaigns can get away with just hiring one field director to run the entire program. Other smaller races rely on a campaign manager to manage both the field department and their other responsibilities running the campaign at large. More massive campaigns that can afford multiple staffers will hire a field director and field organizers—where the field director focuses on creating and executing the field plan while managing the field organizers to hit regional goals.
Field directors oversee the department and are responsible for all voter contact, volunteer capacity, GOTV, and managing supporting staff, such as field organizers or regional field directors.
In larger races, campaigns may need to hire regional field directors to manage teams of field organizers. Your campaign should consider hiring a regional field director if you have more than eight field organizers or your region is so large geographically that hiring a managerial role to provide in-person supervisor is needed. As a general rule of thumb, a regional field director’s capacity maxes out at eight staff per manager. If you have seven field organizers, you need one field director. In contrast, if you have 21 field organizers, you need one field director to manage three regional field directors who manage seven field organizers.
Field organizers are some of the most common campaign jobs and provide an entry-level role on a campaign. Organizers are often new graduates fresh out of college or people making a career switch into politics. The role affords one of the best learning experiences and exposures to the campaign world. Field organizers are responsible for recruiting, managing, and training volunteers and conducting all voter engagement for your campaign in their specific assigned region or “turf.”
Campaigns can significantly increase their field program capacity through internship programs. Interns can often fill the role of a part-time or, in some cases, full-time organizer depending on their hours and commitment. Make sure you craft an intentional internship program that mutually benefits both your campaign and the intern.
People intern on campaigns for many reasons: to gain valuable experience in a campaign environment before starting a career of their own, to make a difference for a candidate campaign or issue they care about, or even to simply earn college credit. Common places to recruit interns are college and high school campuses.
For your campaign, consider contacting and building an internship program with a college professor or high school government teacher that may offer extra credit. Young Democrats of America or College Democrats of America chapters can also help find internship candidates. You could even set up a booth on college or high school campuses for registering students to vote and for setting up internships. College job boards can also be fruitful. There are also sites such as WayUp that can help you recruit interns.
Here’s an example of an internship posting:
Sally for Congress – Organizing Internship
Sally for Congress is seeking campaign interns to help flip a highly competitive seat in Northern Michigan. Sally is a DCCC-endorsed Red-to-Blue candidate. This internship is an excellent opportunity to gain competitive experience with a top-notch campaign team.
Sally is a retired UPS driver and fifth-generation Michigander and, if elected, would be the first woman to represent Michigan’s First Congressional District. The campaign is looking for interns willing to take on the challenge of turning Northern Michigan blue.
- Recruiting campaign volunteers to make calls and knock on doors
- Organizing and running campaign events
- Assisting field staff in maintaining voter contact database
- Developing relationships with local activists and stakeholders
- Directly engaging with voters to support Sally
- Strong verbal, written, and interpersonal communication skills
- Ability to maintain essential relationships on behalf of the campaign
- High motivation with a strong commitment to Democratic values
- Experience with VoteBuilder a plus
This position is a paid part-time internship that pays $15 per hour. Preference will be given to Michigan residents. College credit is available.
To apply, please email [email protected] with your resume and three references.
Recently, increasingly more campaigns have begun to pay hourly wages (usually around $15/hour) to interns who can commit to a part-time schedule. Paying your interns allows individuals from all backgrounds to get their footing in the campaign world—not just those who have the safety net to work long hours for no compensation.
Internships are a formalized program that sets up a schedule for people to work for a campaign to gain important skills (and often earn an hourly wage) in exchange for providing services to the campaign. In contrast, volunteers schedule shorter 2–4 hour shifts to help with a specific voter engagement tasks, such as phonebanking or canvassing, because they sincerely believe in the campaign’s cause. Interns can approximate the work of a fraction of a staff member, while a volunteer’s involvement provides additional voter contact capacity.
Interns can work as little or as many hours as you have set up within your program. Once you create your intern schedule, make sure both the campaign and intern agree on the commitment. It’s also valuable to take time out of the schedule to provide training or career/personal development to help interns grow as they provide value to your campaign. A standard intern program is 20 hours a week—spreading hours across 5–7 days when the most help is needed (e.g., 4 pm–8 pm on weekdays and 12 pm–4 pm on weekends when voter contact is the most effective). If paying your interns, make sure to educate yourself on the state-based employment laws and what qualifies as part-time or overtime work.
Volunteers are the lifeblood of every successful field program. Your volunteer base comprises your strongest supporters who are willing to take time out of their lives to engage with voters because they believe in you. The most common (and impactful) volunteer tasks are phonebanking, texting, and canvassing.
Volunteers are crucial because they allow your campaign to scale its voter contact. For instance, one field organizer can spend 8 hours a day talking to voters seven days a week for a month but will speak to the same number of voters every week because an organization is only one person and can only do what one person can do. A field organizer who recruits and retains 10 volunteers over 2 weeks can engage with exponentially more voters because, well, they have more cumulative time for phone calls, door knocking, or sending out text messages.
Organizing a phonebank, text bank, or canvass launch is one of the most common activities on a campaign. Let’s first start by defining phone banking, canvassing, and text banking. Simply put, they are in-person events whose goal is to bring volunteers together to contact targeted voters with a scripted but personalized message. This section will walk you through the steps needed to pull off a successful voter engagement event.
First, create your list of prospective volunteers to call, and ask them to commit to a volunteer shift. To make your list, you can pull from a few places. Gather all of the strong supporters that you have previously identified during voter contact, any online volunteer sign-ups from your campaign website, in-district small-dollar donors, existing lists from local parties, and your network, to name a few sources. You can also add a question to your voter engagement scripts to ask strongly identified supporters if they are interested in volunteering.
Once you start calling and find people willing to volunteer, schedule them for an intentional time or volunteer shift—field staff usually refer to this as “shifting” a volunteer. Volunteer shifts are generally 2 hours for phonebanking to call 60 voters and 3–4 hours for canvassing to knock on 30–40 doors. Take shifting seriously as it makes volunteers more likely to show up if they have an intentional appointment on their calendar. Schedule your volunteers for the same time; it’s much easier to train and set up a group of volunteers rather than receiving and “launching” a volunteer one at a time.
As the volunteer shift gets close, confirm volunteers are still planning to attend the phonebank or canvass. By confirming your volunteers the night before, you can dramatically reduce your “flake rate” (i.e., the ratio of how many scheduled volunteers show up). An average flake rate is between 20%–30%. When confirming a volunteer, call them and ensure they’re coming with an actual conversation—emails and text messages are easy to ignore or miss.
Campaign staffers will use language like “I’m counting on you” to communicate how important showing up to the volunteer shift is to the campaign. If a volunteer doesn’t pick up on your first round of confirmation calls, wait a few hours and try again—if they don’t pick up a second time, leave a message.
Pro Tip: When confirming, ask volunteers to choose a song for the campaign’s Spotify playlist that you’ll share when meeting. This simple action can reduce the “flake rates.”
Never let a volunteer leave before debriefing how it went and, most importantly, asking them to commit to another future shift. Reshifting a volunteer in person is much easier than calling them after they have left. It’s less work for your campaign because there’s no need to chase a volunteer with another follow-up call that they may never pick up. For your campaign to successfully reshift a volunteer, they must have a good experience during their volunteer activity. To increase your chances to retain your volunteers, check in every 15 minutes to see how it’s going, make calls with them, and try to schedule volunteers together at the same time to build community. There’s nothing lonelier than making calls alone in a cavernous campaign office.
During COVID, also consider replacing in-person check-ins with a quick Zoom session in the middle of the shift. Some creative field organizers have even had their volunteers join a Zoom session on mute for the duration of the shift so that everyone can make calls together.
On the day of the volunteer shift, make sure to check in anyone who arrives for a volunteer shift (and generally anyone who walks into your campaign office as a best practice) so that you can quickly close out your volunteer shifts at the end of the night. When you have a high volume of activity in your office, it’s relatively easy to lose track of who came in and what they did. Prevent that by keeping track of everything as you go.
When the volunteer shift begins, your field organizers should gather all volunteers, and spend 15 minutes training them together. Walk through the voters you are contacting, the call or door script, and best practices, and then engage in some quick roleplay. First-time volunteers tend to be nervous before making their first call or knock. Accordingly, roleplay is a fun way to warm up your volunteers so that they’re ready to get straight into it.
After training volunteers, they are ready to start contacting voters. Staff should create an environment where volunteers can get straight into calling or door knocking. If you’re phonebanking, scan the room for any confused faces or perhaps the nervous caller, so you can give them additional attention and make a few calls with them to help them get started. If you’ve just launched a canvass, make sure your volunteers know how to get to their canvass “turf” and feel confident enough to complete their packet.
Keep tabs on how your volunteers are doing as they call and canvass voters. As a general rule, check-in every 15 minutes with your volunteers to ensure everything is going smoothly and for some quick chit-chat to build rapport and community. If a volunteer has a tough call, immediately ask them how it went, then offer best practices for the next difficult conversation.
In addition, just because your canvass volunteers aren’t physically near you doesn’t mean you can’t check in—give them a call in the middle of their shift to see how it’s going, and let them share their war stories if they need a second to chat. As the old field mantra goes, “The first time they come in, it’s for the candidate, the second time is for you.”
At the end of each volunteer shift, try to spend a couple of minutes one-on-one with your volunteers to debrief on how the voter engagement went. Talk about the good, the bad, and any memorable conversations. Taking the extra 2 minutes with a volunteer lets them know that their work is valued. After debriefing, ask them when they’re coming in next. Try to establish a weekly schedule, so they’re more likely to add their volunteer activity into their routine.
Finally, after calls have been made and the doors knocked, staff is left with a mountain of data to enter into your voter database or customer relationship management system (CRM). This process leads to many late nights on campaigns, as the last volunteer shift ends late in the day (sometimes as late as 8:30 pm or 9:00 pm), and only then can the staffer focus on data entry, in addition to wrapping up the long day of organizing. Campaigns often recruit data entry volunteers who help enter data as volunteers make calls or knock on doors, so staff is left with little to no additional data to enter at the end of the night. While data entry volunteers don’t engage with voters, they are a lifesaving part of a campaign’s volunteer program.
During COVID, field campaigns have relied heavily on setting up virtual phonebanks for volunteers that allow them to call from home on their own computers and automatically log any responses and data directly into your CRM. In the rare case that your area is safe enough for door-knocking, consider using tools such as miniVAN that allow volunteers to receive a canvassing packet on their phone and automatically upload their data if they have cell service.
Here’s a suggested sample timeline for a volunteer shift:
During the volunteer shift, do everything you can to make your volunteers feel comfortable. Outside of checking in, you can provide water or snacks while volunteers are calling or encourage them to mingle with the other volunteers. Some of your best volunteers might end up being first-time volunteers who got involved only to find an entirely new social group in the volunteers they met during their first phonebank. They’ll keep coming back because they have fun while making a difference.
You can also liven up some voter engagement activities like a phonebank or canvass in several other ways. For instance, campaigns have frequently organized themed nights to draw in new volunteers or enhance their existing volunteers’ experiences. Consider organizing a potluck on Thursday nights or an evening organized for women volunteers to call women voters. The possibilities (and the opportunities!) are endless and go a long way in creating an inviting volunteer community that keeps your people coming back and draws in new folks week after week.
Most of what people think or see of campaigns are events. At their core, campaign events are an opportunity to engage with potential voters and the public in your campaign. There are two main reasons for holding events: to expose new voters to your candidacy or to group supporters together to reach even more voters. This section covers the different types of events political campaigns traditionally hold and why.
Rallies are large-scale events that require minimal commitment to attend and increase the excitement for your campaign from potential and existing supporters alike. Each rally’s goal is to bring more support to your campaign, either by growing current supporters’ commitment or convincing potential supporters to get involved and vote for you. Rallies generally require more production than other campaign events and often feature enticing guest speakers to increase turnout.
Your campaign should only hold rallies if you think you can gather a large enough audience (above 50 people bare minimum). Sometimes, as a candidate, you’ll also be asked to speak at rallies hosted by another organization with a built-in crowd. In these cases, you should alter your stump speech to incorporate the hosting organization’s goals or themes. The pay off with rallies is press coverage, campaign visibility, volunteer sign-ups, and persuasion.
Visibility events increase your campaign presence in the district. Generally, visibility centers around an existing high-traffic event such as a street fair, debate, or polling location. Consider adding visibility at specific polling locations on election day or early vote days. However, note that there is a low return on human investment with visibility because your campaign does not collect any information. Not to mention, waving a sign rarely convinces a voter to vote for you compared to a conversation on the phone or at the door.
Consider pairing visibility with another voter engagement activity, such as crowd canvassing. This approach lets you talk to voters, and you can sign up volunteers while making your campaign presence known. You could also deploy visibility volunteers at high press coverage events to show the excitement for your campaign. There’s a time and a place for visibility, but it’s hard to justify.
Voter registration drives are organized volunteer shift events to register new voters. These events usually take place in supportive areas to increase the chances for your campaign to register new voters to vote for you. Volunteers canvass high-traffic locations (farmers market, DMVs, outside of grocery stores, etc.) or addresses with no registered voters recorded “blind knocking.”
Phonebanks are events put on by the field team to gather volunteers to make phone calls to persuadable or low-turnout voters.
A canvass is similar to a phonebank, but with a canvass, the volunteers meet at a specific location or campaign office to collect their canvassing packets, get trained, and head out to the respective neighborhoods they’re canvassing.
House parties gather existing or potential supporters together in a strong supporter’s home to collect volunteer or fundraising commitments for your campaign. The house party host will recruit from their network to bring in new folks that your campaign had found to be previously inaccessible. Accordingly, house parties are a great way to expand your campaign’s reach to people not currently in your fundraising or volunteer recruitment target lists. The campaign benefits from a warmer audience because the host validates the campaign.
Organizational meetings bring together existing supporters and volunteers to train, plan, and upsell commitment to your campaign. Staff or “super” volunteers lead these events in a way that’s similar to standard volunteer trainings but with more emphasis on planning and action.
Volunteer trainings increase the quality of your volunteers by providing intentional training for voter engagement activities such as phonebanking, canvassing, or running a staging location. Much like in an organizational meeting, staff or “super volunteers” can lead training sessions; the events are also scheduled around major milestones (before a Weekend of Action, dry run, or GOTV). Please note that smaller-scale training should happen before every volunteer shift. In contrast, more extensive trainings are an intentional event to bring together new and old volunteers for a deeper dive into voter contact tactics.
Campaign events need to clearly benefit your campaign to justify the investment of time and resources. Your campaign should never do anything just to do it. There should always be an obvious answer to “why am I doing this?” Events are a great way to promote and increase your campaign’s resources (financial and human) outside of volunteer recruitment, call time, voter contact, and paid or earned communications. Your campaign staff will be tasked with conceptualizing the event, finding a purpose, creating a recruitment list, calling and emailing to invite attendees, developing a run of show, finding venue space, inviting guest speakers, crafting materials, and finally running the event. Ensure your campaign has a specific reason to hold an event and has reason to believe it will be successful before oversaturating your schedule with events. Time on a campaign is zero-sum.
As the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by surprise, campaign staff had to figure out ways to adjust their in-person events to digital platforms. Campaign events provide voters and supporters alike the only chance to engage with the campaign or candidate physically, and COVID threw a wrench into the cogs of programs already in full swing.
Almost every event detailed above can and has been recreated virtually. For phonebanking and text banking, organizers used video platforms to gather their volunteers for training and debriefing. Organizers then stayed on for the duration of their “shift” to be available to answer any questions or provide a sense of community. Campaigns also replaced rallies with streaming services and the occasional socially distanced event or “drive-in” rallies. Many other examples exist, but you get the idea. While some things were challenging to replicate virtually, the creativity of staff and candidates allowed campaigns to approximate the look and feel of in-person events, all while producing similar voter engagement results compared to expected in-person volunteer activity.
One of the most significant changes campaigns needed to figure out was how to run an effective fundraiser, which is often responsible for upward of 30% of an overall campaign finance plan. Since the early months of COVID, finance staff have created an entirely new form of fundraising using platforms like Zoom and Numero Live to gather donors and supporters to hold successful and engaging fundraisers.
Traditionally, part of a fundraiser’s appeal is the ability to host a social gathering in an intriguing location (a beautiful house or trendy art gallery you’ve meant to check out) with the draw of mixing with exciting and like-minded people while listening to a candidate’s story and run for office. With some of the most appealing reasons to attend a fundraiser stripped away, campaigns had to get creative about how they could (1) recruit attendees and (2) provide an engaging event that compelled donors to contribute to their candidate. Candidates quickly figured out that virtual events were less taxing than an in-person fundraiser (no commute, less time on their feet, etc.) and that they could hold more virtual events—sometimes multiple in a day.
The most successful virtual fundraisers focused on staying engaging by inviting compelling guest speakers, focusing on a specific topic or theme, using virtual fundraising platforms to replicate a house party’s flow, and creating intimate environments for Q&A sessions. Surprisingly, many campaigns were also able to raise similar amounts compared to their previous in-person events, either by requiring a donation to attend or using services like Numero Live that embed the contribution link in the video.
The key to holding successful virtual events is not to reinvent the wheel but instead to distill the reasons in-person events are successful and then reproduce them as best you can in virtual environments.
The Get Out The Vote (GOTV) phase of a campaign is entirely focused on turning out enough of your supporters to earn more votes than your opponent(s). All of the work of your campaign leads up to and comes down to GOTV. Every television spot run, persuasion mailer sent, and volunteer recruited serves to create a competitive environment that can tip a race to your favor or protect your lead by motivating voters to get out to vote. During GOTV, your entire campaign knocks on doors, makes phone calls, sends out text messages, and does everything possible to reach voters that need a reminder to vote. If you’re like most campaigns, the vast majority of your voter engagement efforts will occur during your short GOTV period, which can last anywhere from 4 to 21 days, depending on how your state votes.
A GOTV campaign rests on moving a voter through multiple stages with the ultimate goal of them voting. Let’s start first with GOTV universes for a vote-by-mail state. See below for a chart that outlines the different phases of a voter in a vote-by-mail state.
In the above example, a vote-by-mail GOTV program starts once voting begins (i.e., ballots mailed to voters). Your campaign’s GOTV program’s strategy is to make it as easy as possible for supportive voters to return their ballots and vote. It’s easier to turn out a voter registered to vote by mail, for a few reasons. First, voters can vote from the convenience of their own homes, and second, your campaign has a much longer runway to convince or remind the voter to vote (from the moment ballots are mailed out to election day). Before your campaign has collected any supportive IDs from your field program, all voters fit into one of two categories: non-ID’d vote-by-mail voters or non-ID’d election day voters. After your campaign has started to collect IDs or modeled supportive voters, you can create your GOTV universes by grouping voters into four distinct categories, each with their own priority and voter contact treatment.
A persuasion universe is made up of non-ID’d or modeled swing voters with strong voting records (i.e., need to be ID’d to determine their support) who are either registered to vote by mail or need to register to vote by mail.
This universe of voters requires the most work to secure a vote for your campaign. Your field program needs to first ID the voter to ensure they’re supportive and then sign them up to vote by mail and return their ballot, or push them to vote in person on election day.
These two voter paths are broken down below:
Voter path 1
Non-VBM Persuasion → Supportive ID → Non-VBM Turnout → Register to VBM → VBM Turnout → Vote
Voter path 2
Non-VBM Persuasion → Register to VBM → VBM Persuasion → Supportive ID → VBM Turnout → Vote
This universe of voters requires some work to secure a vote for your campaign. Once a voter is ID’d as supportive, the voter moves to your VBM turnout universe, which is the easiest group of voters from which to gain votes. Here is that voter path:
VBM Persuasion → Supportive ID → VBM Turnout → Vote
A turnout universe is made up of positively ID’d or modeled supportive voters with sporadic voting records (i.e., voters who your campaign needs to remind to vote) who are either registered to vote by mail or need to register to vote by mail.
This universe of voters requires some work to secure a vote for your campaign. Once the voter registers to vote by mail, they move to your VBM turnout universe, which is the easiest group of voters from which to gain votes. Here is that voter path:
Non-VBM Turnout → Register to VBM → VBM Turnout → Vote
This universe of voters requires minimal work as your campaign only needs to return the voter’s ballot through reminder calls, door knocking, texts, or mail. Your field program should aim to move as many voters into this universe since a reminder contact returns the highest investment with respect to the likelihood that the voter actually votes. Here is that voter path:
VBM Turnout → Vote
Here’s a diagram of how a voter moves through the four universes of a vote-by-mail GOTV:
Your campaign should try to call and knock through its VBM turnout universe as much as possible to bank as many votes from high likelihood supporters as possible. One of the benefits of a vote-by-mail state is that you can pull person-level data on who has or has not voted, which allows you to remove people who already voted from your universe to make your GOTV and voter contact even more effective.
Once this universe reduces in size and the contact rates fall below an acceptable level, you do one of two things—either place more emphasis on registering your non-VBM turnout universe to vote by mail or collect supportive IDs from your VBM persuasion universe to expand your VBM turnout universe. If you have the capacity or experience diminishing returns with your other three universes, target your lowest tier non-VBM persuasion universe to generate more high-tier voters to turnout.
You campaigns should use these four universes as a framework for conducting and prioritizing a vote-by-mail GOTV program. Keep in mind, though, how you shift capacity depends on outside variables and sometimes a best—but educated—-guess when you don’t have the benefit of a top-notch data and analytics department or world-class data scientists.
When your campaign is canvassing, it’s customary to add multiple universes together to increase door density and target with different messages based on indicators on the canvassing packet.
In states where a sizable number of voters can early vote in person rather than early vote by mail, GOTV takes on a different look. Instead of the four universes for vote-by-mail states, in-person early vote states collapse into two universes (persuasion and turnout) because anyone can early vote without signing up or registering beforehand.
These states offer anywhere from 4 weeks to a few days of early voting, your campaign should schedule and plan its GOTV accordingly. Your Get Out The Vote program in such states should seek to turn out as many supporters as possible during the early vote period, allowing your efforts to focus on engaging the remaining voters for election day. See below for a diagram on how a voter may vote in in-person early voting states.
A voter starts as non-ID’d and moves to your early vote turnout universe with a positive ID, moves to your persuasion universe if undecided or no ID was collected, and leaves your universe with a negative ID. Voters who end up in your persuasion universe after an undecided ID can and should be attempted again and moved accordingly once positively or negatively ID’d. Once a voter lands in your GOTEV (Get Out The Early Vote) universe, your campaign should reach out with a GOTEV contact (call, knock, text, GOTV ad, etc.) and continue voter engagement efforts until the voter early votes. If the early voter votes, remove them from your universe. If a GOTEV voter does not vote during the early voting period, move them to your election day GOTV period and attempt to contact them as many times as you have the capacity to do so. Only once they say they are voting on election day should you remove them from your universe.
The last phase of GOTV (between the day early voting stops and election day) is about repetition. These voters who are your most likely supporters should be tried and tried again to the extent that you have the capacity. Even if a voter tells your campaign they are voting for you, attempt them again on election day for a final reminder. Remember, these voters had an opportunity to vote early but didn’t. Among all supporters, these voters are often the most challenging to turnout.
Your campaigns should prioritize its turnout universe as much as possible—sometimes attempting each voter more than 10 times across different media. This many attempts may seem like overkill, but each contact makes the voter more likely to vote. Campaigns can get records of who has voted and remove them from the campaign’s voter contact or GOTV universes. If a turnout universe starts to display diminishing returns, start calling through the persuasion universe to identify more positive voters to increase the universe.
Consider adding these additional tactics to your GOTV program to increase the likelihood your voters vote: making a plan to vote calls, making robocalls to supporters within a one-mile radius of an early voting site, making GOTV calls, and asking voters who voted to bring their family and friends to vote, among many other tactics. You can do all sorts of things to encourage a voter to go vote in an early vote state, and you have more time to do it compared to in non-early vote states!
In states without in-person early voting or vote by mail, GOTV takes on an intense and shorter 4-day period where the vast majority of turnout-focused voter engagement (calls, knocks, texts, and so) on traditionally start on the Saturday before the election and end when the polls close. In this situation, your campaign is limited to one day to sell and turn out your voters. Your team doesn’t have the benefit of making the same number of passes through your campaign universes because you don’t have the same amount of time compared to early vote states. Much of the language your campaign uses should focus on creating a plan to vote and social pressure.
In general, campaigns focus the vast majority of their voter engagement resources on calling their turnout universes, which they have built in the time leading up to GOTV. It’s also not uncommon for campaigns to continue to contact their persuasion universe with a tweaked message throughout GOTV.
GOTV is the responsibility of the field program. Planning, preparing, and executing GOTV is run by your field director or, if you’re running in a smaller race, your campaign manager doing double duty. Once GOTV begins, the field director may become your most valuable employee as they run an intense program that should have taken months to build and prepare. This switch can often lead to anxiety for the campaign manager as their work scales back considerably as election day nears. All the money has been raised (hopefully), and the paid media plan is on autopilot, leaving your campaign manager with more spare time than they’ve had in months.
It’s normal for campaign managers to take a keen interest in their GOTV program (and they should). Still, it’s crucial to let the field director do their job as they know every small detail and nuance of the district and the campaign’s plan to turn out voters, all while managing a staff size that rivals or exceeds that of the rest of the campaign.
Once GOTV gets started, campaign staff work outside of the field operation slows as there’s not much else to do that’s more important than turning out voters. For this reason, non-field staffers—from department directors to the campaign manager—will slot into supporting roles for the field program to help manage the dramatic spike in volunteer activity. On larger campaigns, director-level staff regularly fill a reporting desk role to help with GOTV, while other staff may canvass voters for the last 4 days.
Staff roles within the field department can also shift to move capacity where needed. For instance, if two field organizers are working in one part of the district where the work can move under effectively under one organizer, one of the two field organizers will likely move to another part of the district that needs additional support.
There are a couple of tactics your field program can use to shift your message when GOTV begins. Adding the social pressure or make-a-plan language to your scripts can turn a stale pitch into an impactful conversation that leads to votes.
Using social pressure to encourage low turnout voters to cast their ballot has proven highly effective. By letting voters know that their neighbors or X% of their precinct have already voted significantly increases the chance those voters will vote because such information pulls on the emotion of feeling left out or not being part of the winning team. As cliche as it sounds, much of the GOTV language centers on “voting is easy and fun. Everyone is doing it—why aren’t you?”
Field organizers may also mention that “who you vote is secret, but whether or not you voted is public and can be looked up by your family, friends, and neighbors.”
When speaking to a supportive voter, asking them how and when they plan to vote helps them form an idea of how they will actually vote and follow through. Your campaigns can ask basic questions like whether the voter plans to vote early or on election day. You can get as detailed as asking how they will be getting to their voting precinct—walking, arriving by car, or taking the bus? Walking through voting as relates to someone personally more often than not leads to that person taking action. Then, after a voter has made a plan with a volunteer or campaign staffer, let them know that you will follow up after election day to see how the process went. All of these voter engagement tactics are surprisingly effective when it comes to getting a sporadic voter to turnout.
Even before Get Out the Vote, the campaign industry has some of the longest hours imaginable, but during GOTV, it’s an all-out sprint to election day where every hour or minute could make or break the final vote tally. Field staffers can expect their hours to increase by anywhere from 25% to 50% during GOTV to prepare, execute, and manage all the moving parts that each day brings. Volunteer shift times will also expand to make the most of each day—usually, the first 3-hour shift starts at 9 am, and the last shift ends at 9 pm. Field staff must work on either side of the active volunteer and voter contact shift times to prepare for the deluge of volunteers picking up canvass packets or phone banking and then to close up shop at the end of the day.
The increased intensity campaigns face during GOTV necessitates formalized roles and a crystal-clear chain of command for every piece of your campaign organization, from volunteer to field organizer, to regional field director. Having a clear communication line is essential because, with the chaos of GOTV, important pieces of information can all too easily slip through the cracks and fail to reach a decision-maker. When you instead implement a formalized and strict reporting system, decision-makers can receive, screen, curate, and pass information up the chain to the field director or “boiler room” where critical determinations are made calmly and thoughtfully. If a field organizer were to text the field director with a piece of information directly, it’s likely to be forgotten or, worse, distract the boiler room.
Think about all the ways you can contact someone with a message. So far, field efforts with door knocking, phonebanking calls, texts, crowd canvassing, and more have been covered. Earned media and voter engagement through the press or news have also been covered. But what about ads? Just about everyone sees ads on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes ads serve a persuasive message without viewers realizing it, but sometimes they do. Political campaigns are no different from how someone sells a product, and it’s no mistake that Nike buys millions of dollars of advertisements—it works.
In the same vein, political campaign paid media refers to any paid marketing (i.e., television, online ads, direct mail, radio, Facebook ads, etc.) that seeks to persuade voters to do something—like vote for you. Paid media exists everywhere, and everyone uses it—from Nike to the Canadian Tourism Commission, to Jane Doe for School Board. The purpose of a political campaign is to reach as many targeted voters as possible with a persuasive message, and paid media plays a massive role in getting the word out.
Political campaign paid media comes in three primary forms: television, direct mail, and digital. There are other media types, including newspaper ads and radio, but this section will focus only on the three basic modes.
As mentioned earlier in the section on campaign consultants’ role, ensuring symbiosis in your messages across different platforms is paramount for your campaign message to “burn in.” The marketplace for a voter’s attention is extremely competitive. Thus, when running a paid communications program, you’re up against everyone from fast-food chains to Toyota, to the guy who sells My Pillow. Your message has to be served to a voter multiple times before that message finally registers in the voter’s mind.
The more your campaign can diversify how your voter engagement efforts, the more likely your message is to be remembered. For example, imagine a not-so-unlikely scenario where a voter sees one of your campaign ads while watching Wheel of Fortune. After turning off the TV, they head to the mailbox to get the mail. In the mail, the voter sees your mail piece and skims it for 10–15 seconds before tossing it in the trash. After dinner, they decide to catch up on Facebook or Instagram and—again—sees a quick static display ad for your campaign. In this example, the voter received three impressions of your campaign spread across three different platforms. Each ad serves your message using similar visuals and language, causing the voter to recall the high-impact television ad, thereby increasing your paid media’s effectiveness.
Layering your paid media together amplifies the power of your high impact-assets (e.g., video or a well-done mail piece). Running only television ads causes you to lose voters who don’t own a TV. Running only mail causes you to lose voters who don’t check the mail regularly or have recently moved. Running only digital causes you to lose voters who don’t use a computer, for whatever reason. However, by running a paid media program across all three platforms, you can see how you (1) increase the chance of reaching a voter and (2) maximize the impact of your ads as they work in concert with each other.
How much you spend on one form of paid media versus another largely depends on your campaign’s specific circumstances and the district in which you’re running. Still, it’s always better to run paid media across as a cohesive whole rather than in a silo. The sections below dive deeper into the specifics of each form of paid media.
As a general rule, your campaign should run at least three mail pieces if you’re going to run a mail program. Any less and you risk failing to break through the clutter, and each impression won’t be enough to move a voter—and worse, you’re wasting money. Mail programs usually comprise 5–15 unique pieces, the actual number depending on your specific race.
The number of voters you send your mail depends on your district’s size, how many voters are persuadable, the type of mail you send, and your campaign budget. Work with your direct mail consultant to strike a balance; they often have significant experience with interpreting campaign data and poll results while crafting an appropriate universe to match your budget with the number of voters your campaign needs to reach.
Mail can persuade undecided voters to vote for your campaign and turn out your supporters who need an extra nudge to get their ballot in. You can also use mail for campaign imperatives, such as signing up voters to vote by mail by sending a vote by mail application with a note from your campaign.
Direct mail consultants will design your mail pieces after scheduling a shoot to gather the visual contact they need for each piece. They’ll also work with your pollster, campaign manager, and other consultants to draft the language that appears on each piece, ensuring any campaign mailers match the messaging of other paid media your campaign may be running. That said, both your campaign and you as the candidate should review each mail piece before sending it out to voter—this often leads to a round or two of editing before arriving at a final version.
Direct mail consultants will handle printing and sending your mail flights by working through a mail house to deliver the thousands of pieces to your most targeted voters.
Digital persuasion is the newest form of paid media communication on political campaigns and one of the most innovative ways to engage with voters. You’ll find digital persuasion on nearly every competitive campaign today because it’s potent and can micro-target to get the most out of your campaign money. The type of digital campaign you run depends entirely on how much you have to spend. Digital programs can range from a few sponsored posts on Facebook to a sophisticated million dollar buy across multiple platforms using a wide array of display and video to optimize the messages you are serving to the most targeted audiences of voters.
You can buy digital inventory almost anywhere on the internet. The most common places are Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, and streaming services like YouTube. Your campaign can also purchase display and video inventory on local news sites or other smaller websites frequented by in-district voters. The best practices for purchasing digital inventory changes quickly, so work with your digital consultant to find the most effective route for your campaign at any given time.
More commonly known as banner ads, display ads are the lowest impact of digital persuasion but also the cheapest. Display ads help a voter recall other high-impact ads, such as video. Still, display ads can generate thousands of low-impact impressions for voters but do need to be run in conjunction with other higher-impact forms of advertising to ensure voter engagement. When was the last time you did something because you saw a banner ad? Rarely. But such ads probably helped you recall the coat you were looking at yesterday on the Banana Republic website, right?
Video ads are the highest-impact and most costly form of digital persuasion. These are the ads you see before watching YouTube or other videos on the broader internet. They can be highly targeted and allow your campaign to reach particular subsets of voters with one of the most effective paid communication methods. Video comes in many flavors:
A short video played before the content a user has selected. Ads are commonly 6, 15, or 30 seconds long.
A short video played in the middle of the content a user has selected. Ads are commonly 6, 15, or 30 seconds long.
Skippable and non-skippable:
Videos can also be skippable immediately, after a few seconds, or not at all. Keep in mind, costs per impression will increase as the ad is harder to skip.
Television allows your campaign to reach a large swath of voters with a high-impact spot (usually 30 seconds). Although increasingly more Americans are “cutting the cord,” television remains one of the best places for voter engagement—even more so for older voters, who are the most reliable voting bloc. Television is a tried-and-true method that a majority of voters trust more than digital media. So don’t pass on using that asset, no matter how tempting it might seem to ignore TV to go all-in on digital. You can (and should!) do both.
Campaigns buy television through their media consultants, who also create the spots to run once they have purchased the inventory. Outside of scarce circumstances, campaigns do not directly buy ads as it’s quite complicated to get it right.
When working with your media consultant, you may weigh what sort of inventory you’re buying, be it cable or the more expensive broadcast—or maybe there’s an efficient satellite market in your district. When you purchase television, you’re buying a media market as a whole and do not have the option to target specific portions of the market related to district overlap. If you’re lucky, the media markets in your district have minimal “bleed,” meaning your campaign isn’t stuck with having to buy in multiple markets where the majority of your buy appears on television outside of your district. For instance, a media market has a 70% bleed if 70% of the inventory purchased will not air in your district. Your consultants also have to consider which channels to buy, when to buy, how long the spot should air, etc. In short, if you’re buying television as part of your voter engagement, try to work with a media consultant who specializes in the complex world of television.
- Broadcast: Broadcast television transmits programs over public airwaves free for the viewer but gains most of its revenue through advertisements (e.g., NBC, CBS, ABC)
- Cable: Cable television requires the viewer to purchase a subscription.
A gross rating point, or GRP, is a measurement for television advertising to track how often someone needs to see something before they can recall it and how many times that they need to see it to get there. Your campaign’s voter engagement efforts will be more efficient with this information. While GRP may seem complicated, most campaigns do not need to have a deep understanding of GRP formulas. Your campaign should rely on your media consultant’s expertise to place ad buys correctly to ensure your spot burns in (meaning the voter can recall the spot) with the target audience.
The lowest unit rate (LUR) is an FCC political advertising rule that guarantees (45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election) qualified candidate campaigns the lowest rate for a spot. For instance, as a candidate, you’ll get all the volume discounts that would be offered to a client buying hundreds of spots—even if you’re only buying one spot. LUR is only available to candidate committees (as separate from an independent expenditure or PAC), which is one of the main reasons that candidates raise money instead of relying on super PACs with unlimited donor limits to buy their paid media voter engagement ads. This rule applies to you as a candidate at any level, regardless of whether you’re running for a federal, state, or local office.
- What is direct voter contact?
Direct voter contact refers to your campaign’s efforts to identify and contact voters through door knocking, phonebanking, texting, and mail. These efforts towards voter engagement are meant to generate support for you, the candidate, and get your campaign ready for the GOTV stage of the campaign. Your campaign recruits volunteers to help implement the campaign field plan and maximize voter engagement.
- What does a field organizer do?
Field organizers help with field work by building a pool of volunteers for your campaign. Such organizers are tasked with recruiting and training volunteers, and managing the volunteers while they’re contacting voters. They also plan and run campaign events and GOTV programs. Another part of a field organizer’s job is to collect voter data to help your campaign better target undecided, unregistered, or low-turnout supporters and motivate them to get out and vote.
- Is political canvassing soliciting?
No. Because political canvassing is not a commercial venture, it’s not considered soliciting. Contacting voters to persuade them to vote is legally distinct from trying to sell a product as a salesperson.
- What is phonebanking?
Phonebanking is a voter engagement event that requires volunteers to call lists of potential voters and talk to them about voting for you, the candidate they represent. This personal interaction with hesitant or undecided voters has been shown to improve voter turnout on election day.
- How effective is political canvassing for voter engagement?
That depends. Direct contact with voters can be an effective way to encourage voters to take action, whether that’s to support you as a candidate, register to vote, or get out to vote. A field plan that targets voters carefully and engages with them on a personal level can prove quite motivating for on-the-fence or inactive voters. If your campaign does its research, gets the timing right, and targets the appropriate voter pools, you could see an increase in turnout of up to 3%. Direct canvassing also tends to be more effective when used as part of your campaign’s GOTV efforts as it’s shown to be more motivating than persuasive (though undecided voters can be persuaded to vote for a candidate whose campaign spoke to them directly).
- When Do I Start GOTV?
Voter engagement through GOTV generally begins when voting starts for early vote and vote-by-mail states. However, in states where the vast majority of voters vote on election day, it’s traditional to hold a 4-day GOTV period starting the Saturday before election day and ending when polls close. Preparing for GOTV begins the day your field program starts with major milestones along the way.