The Psychology Behind Voter Decisions

June 17th, 2009 by Rusty Paul
Too few political candidates truly understand the psychology and mental/emotional processes voters use to make voting decisions. The more you understand about the process people go through in deciding how to vote, the more likely your campaign will be successful.In essence, there are five primary factors that drive voter decision-making.  

The voter knows the candidate. Whenever I run, there is one vote I can count on. My mother. I am her baby boy. She is proud of me. She wants me to succeed and she will support anything I choose to do.

Likewise, one vote I will never get is my opponent’s mother. She will vote for her baby boy or girl for the exact same reasons my mother will vote for me.

Everyone else in the electoral universe is on a curve between those two poles. So, the more people you know, the more likely you are to win. Why? Personal knowledge and acquaintance with the candidate typically trumps everything else, unless, of course, what people know about you from personal acquaintance is negative.

Yet, if you are the typical person with the normal amount of likeability, even people who disagree with you politically will often vote for you because they “know” you. They will overlook differences because they consider you an honest, hardworking individual with good judgment and integrity.

Unless you live in a small town or the district you are seeking is relatively compact, developing a personal relationship with every potential constituent is a daunting, if nigh impossible, task. However, the most successful candidates are adept at forming a wide range of personal relationships that can also be leveraged for electoral success. Friends and relatives all have individual networks and voters can get to “know” you vicariously through those who actually “know” you.

The strongest campaign is one where voters “know” or think they “know” the candidate.

An Issue. The most powerful force in politics is an idea. It is also the rarest commodity in politics. It is why so many campaigns degenerate into mudslinging. In the absence of a good or great idea to inspire voters, the candidates simply attack each other hoping to survive a war of attrition.

Some candidates and campaign consultants specialize in attack campaigns because they lack the capacity for original thought. Attack campaigns do work, but a powerful idea that motivates voters is the strongest defense against opponent with an attack strategy.

Most campaigns rely on concepts that are more labels than ideas. Lower taxes. Pro-life. Pro Choice. Education. Job creation. Solving congestion. Fixing roads. These are what political scientists call “valence” issues, which are policy positions with near universal or at least significant voter support.

These well-worn ideas drive most campaigns because developing unique solutions to difficult public policy issues is hard, risky work.

Yet, if you can catch the zeitgeist and latch on to an idea that a large group of people can rally around, you can transform a campaign into an irresistible force.

Former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller did it with his idea to use a state lottery to provide college scholarships for top high school students who attended in-state colleges and universities. Frankly, people voted for the lottery not because of education, but because they believed Zell would make them rich.

Also, from a public policy perspective, the reverse Robin Hood nature of the program – taking from the poor to educate the rich – left a lot to be desired. But it worked as a campaign tactic.

Issues can be local. During my tenure in the Georgia Senate, I tapped into a growing discontent against a proposed new road through a highly developed region to lead a popular revolt that blocked the project. Thousands of people turned out at community meetings across the three counties.

Jack Kemp transformed the Republican Party with his idea – adopted by Ronald Reagan – of a 33% across the board tax cut and an intellectual foundation for low taxes as good economic and public policy. Before Kemp, the GOP was seen as the tax collector for the welfare state since it had always insisted on raising taxes to pay for New-Deal-Great-Society-era projects.

Don’t underestimate the power of a good idea. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of generating unique ideas. Yet, don’t let the difficulty deter you.

Partisan Identity: In the absence of a personal relationship or a transforming idea, the third driver influencing voter decisions is the candidate’s partisan affiliation.

Individuals typically form their political identities in their late teens and early twenties. Barring some cataclysmic event, that identity stays with them for a lifetime. It doesn’t mean that if you voted Democrat at 18 you will vote Democratic at 98.

Remember Churchill’s aphorism: if you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart and if you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no brains.

People do change and evolve. However, a person’s basic political ideology and outlook is formed in those developmental years and they consistently tend to vote for the party or candidate who identifies with those values.
Partisan affiliation offers voters a clue to the general philosophical and public policy inclinations of the candidate. While officeholders don’t always live up to the expectations, voters assume Republican candidates are less likely to raise taxes, more likely to oppose broad government intrusion or intervention into the private sector, put more emphasis on individual over societal rights and to rely more on private sector solutions than government-based programs.

Meanwhile, Democrats are seen to believe government should have a more vigorous role in society and that government is the instrument society uses to deal with broad based problems and challenges. In the absence of more information, voters used these “brands” to decide which candidates to “buy.”

In a primary campaign, partisan identity is a wash. You may argue who is the better Republican or Democrat – but it’s not really a factor since Republican leaning voters will be in the GOP primary and visa-versa with the Dems.

Partisan identity plays a bigger role in general elections and the partisan voting history of a district or state is a major factor in a party nominee’s ability to win.

Met the Candidate: This is different than “knowing” the candidate. To know the candidate is to have, at some level, a personal relationship with the candidate. Meeting the candidate is much more ephemeral.

This is why blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other emerging on-line social networks are evolving as powerful campaign tools. Candidates can efficiently and almost effortlessly “meet” large numbers of people – if the campaign is properly organized to move a candidate effectively through Cyberspace.

Social networks let campaigns confronting big chunks of real estate or a large mass of voters adapt highly-affective, traditionally-local, grassroots campaign tactics, like door-to-door canvassing, to congressional, statewide and national candidacies. Instead of walking through neighborhoods to meet voters, social networks allows candidates to coalesce the politically aware and interested into an on-line neighborhood with an unlimited number of “meeting” opportunities.

However, if your campaign involves relatively compact areas, old-fashioned grassroots tactics still can’t be beaten when it comes to really meeting voters. Wherever possible, candidates should combine high tech meetings with high touch meetings in the real world where voters live and engage them at their doorsteps.

In city council, small town, suburban and urban legislative races, nothing is more effective than door-to-door canvassing to give voters an opportunity to “meet” the candidate.

Door-to-door canvassing is the most grueling form of campaigning and typically only the most committed candidates will do it. Yet, the candidate who commits three-four hours a day and more on weekends to door-to-door work is almost unbeatable – again, barring scandal or other major snafu.

It’s also good for your health. I haven’t seen a candidate yet who didn’t lose 10-30 pounds during an effective door-to-door campaign.

Voters usually are very gratified that a candidate is willing to come to them and personally ask for their vote. If you can’t – or won’t – do door-to-door, show up at every club, church, synagogue, PTA and other gathering that offers opportunities for candidates to “meet” voters.

Name Recognition: This is the least powerful factor in a voter’s decision, but it trumps an opponent who has none. If your strategy is simply to build name ID, you are very susceptible to a candidate who undertakes aggressive voter contact and/or idea-based campaigns.

Unfortunately, this is where most campaigns focus their energies. Mail. Signs. Newspaper Ads. TV and Radio Spots. Websites. These are essential to any campaign.

Yet, any campaign that relies totally on these tools is basing their efforts on the least effective tactics. Some campaigns – particularly races with a lot of territory and large numbers of voters are almost always limited to campaigns built around image building and name recognition strategies.

Yet, a local candidate who relies solely on name recognition to win races is a lazy candidate and will probably be a lazy officeholder. It can be done. It is done regularly. But the most successful campaigns are those which blend all five voter motivators into an effective campaign.

The Likeability Factor in Politics

June 17th, 2009 by Rusty Paul
Why did Barack Obama beat John McCain? Why did Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter? Why did Bill Clinton, with all his baggage, beat Bob Dole? Ditto George W. Bush over Al Gore and John Kerry.Chalk it up to something called “the likeability factor.”

Not long ago, the New York Times asked me to contribute to a post-election op-ed series on that year’s campaign. I wrote about the likeability factor while thinking about a couple of candidates who had everything in their favor except a likable personality. Of course, they lost.

In that article, I wrote that “if voters like you, they will cut you a lot of slack. If they don’t like you, they won’t even forgive your good points.”

Some argue that likeability is one of life’s intangibles. Candidates either have it or they don’t. You can’t teach it. You can learn it. I’m not so sure. Alcoholics and drug addicts change and reform, why not sour people?
Nixon didn’t have it. Lyndon Johnson didn’t either. Yet, they were somehow able to fake it for awhile. In 1964, Johnson had the advantage of the Kennedy aura and an opponent who, outside those hardcore true-believing conservatives, obviously wasn’t too likeable either as far as 60% of the voters were concerned. By 1968, his lack of likeability made Johnson a goner.

Likeability is more than Reagan’s sense of humor and timing. More than Bill Clinton’s good ole boy persona and even more than George Bush’s awshucks self-deprecating personality.

Likeability engenders loyalty. In politics, you need friends and staff who are loyal, dedicated and who tell you the truths that other people won’t tell you. Likeability involves treating people well while also respecting and appreciating their opinions – even if you think they are wrong.

Likeability inspires trust and confidence. It’s the ability to laugh and smile. For years, Congressman Bob (Impeachment Bob) Barr’s wife Jere kept telling him to smile more on TV. Bob’s response? “I am smiling.”

In private, Bob Dole may have been America’s funniest politician. On the stump, his dour “quit lying about my record” demeanor was a killer.

Likeability is the trait that makes other people want to be around you. It requires you to genuinely care about people – or at least pay attention to them. In a group setting, some candidates are too busy scoping out the room trying to spot the important people to notice the people with whom they are allegedly conversing.

Lady Thatcher was not Britain’s most loveable leader, yet twice I had the up-close chance to watch her work a crowd. She was the most polished one-on-one politician I ever met.

She spent about two-three minutes with each person she met. For those few minutes you and she were the only people in the room. Then, she gracefully disengaged and connected with the next individual, who now became the only other person there. You left not just having an encounter, but believing you had a relationship.

Before becoming a candidate, check out your likeability index. Ask people you trust to tell you frankly and honestly about your likeability. Listen carefully to what they say and ask them what could be done to make yourself more likeable.

Of course, if you’re not a very likeable person, you may not like what you hear. Your reaction, then, would explain why you aren’t as likeable as you need to be.

Effectively Using Digital Messaging In Your Political Campaign

June 17th, 2009 by Rusty Paul

Political campaigns are relying more each election cycle on email, texting, blogs, Facebook™, Twitter™, MySpace™, Linkedin™ and a host of other emerging social networking technologies in their voter contact, fundraising, volunteer, get-out-the-vote and other aspects of their campaigns. Digital messaging is seen as the next great frontier in campaigns, particularly in light of Barack Obama’s and Ron Paul’s success in mobilizing grassroots activists and raising dollars in the 2008 elections.

Before wading into the complexities of subject lines, message content, image-to-text ratios, email metrics and other the like, first consider how email and text messages should and shouldn’t be used. Also, candidates need to understand the cost comparison with other media and to have reasonable expectations regarding outcomes. 

Spamming is the bain of the digital messaging world.

Too many of us spend a large portion of our day tossing out the digital junk mail cluttering our in-boxes. Somehow it seems even more frustrating than the robocalls, advocacy calls, TV spots and the campaign mail that also clutters the lives of voters.

So, just because political messages are protected by the First Amendment and political emails and text messages are not subject to the Federal CAN-SPAM Act, doesn’t mean you can – or should – litter Cyberspace with your campaign messages. Given their high irritation factor, you can offend potential voters by inundating them with messages they prefer not to receive.

That’s why campaigns are relying more and more on opt-in lists, whether its their own or lists purchased from a third-party of individuals who express an interest in receiving political communications.

Every campaign should have a plan to gather email and text message data at every opportunity - by capturing email addresses on the campaign website, at rallies, in door-to-door canvassing, during fund raising and in advocacy mail and phone calls.

Smart campaigns now dedicate a portion of its resources on digital voter file development because the ultimate payoff is so high.

Before purchasing a third-party list, make sure you get a chance to test it to ensure that it is accurate. If you get a lot of returns, the list may be too old to be effective. The third party should be credible and dependable and willing to fix any problems with their lists at no cost to the campaign.

But relying solely on opt-in and third-party lists also handicaps campaigns in developing and growing their email and text message data bases. So, is there an alterative?

More and more campaigns are adapting direct mail or telemarketing fundraising techniques to build a file. Campaigns and political parties are constantly doing prospect mailing and telemarketing. They contact individuals based on demographic data or microtargeting techniques seeking permission to contact them digitally. Just as smart campaigns are always prospecting for dollars, they are now prospecting for email and text messaging information to generate low-cost voter contact opportunities. 

Also, campaigns that share geographical boundaries can also do list swaps. How does a list swap work? Two groups share their digital lists and each group can prospect a specific number of times – usually once or twice – on the other’s list. The campaign must contact the names on the swapped list to get permission to communicate with them, but it should be a rich lode of names to mine since they have already opted to receive political information from another source.

Digital messaging is an effective, low-cost means of communicating during a campaign. It also allows supporters to expand your reach by effortlessly sending out your information to their email networks, too. It allows campaigns to effectively tap into the growing viral marketing phenomenon. 

Whether you are a low-budget campaign or one with plenty of resources, digital messaging allows you to tap a wider audience more frequently at less cost than any other communications medium.


Rusty Paul is long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns.  He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University.  iSquared Communications is a political consulting firm specializing in state and local races. If your campaign is interesting in talking to him about campaign consulting services, email him at

Yard Sign Strategy
Managing a Campaign Essential.

June 17th, 2009 by Rusty Paul

Political yard signs are a necessary tool for any size campaign to boost name ID and keep the campaign constantly visible to voters. The biggest challenge for yard signs is poor design.

The typical yard sign is 18 x 24-inches and are viewed in automobiles at between 25 and 65 miles per hour at between 25 and 100 feet away. So, your first consideration is to make sure the name is readable under those conditions. What looks good up close may be absolutely unreadable in real-world yard sign campaign conditions.

Anything that diverts or restricts the readability and visibility of the candidate’s name must be avoided. That also means not trying to cram every bit of campaign information (date of election, district number, pictures, etc.) on the sign: only name and office usually work best.

Preferably you should use a professional graphics designer to create your signs – one with experience in designing campaign signs. Look at your proposed sign designs from a distance to ensure it can be comprehended in real world conditions. (Check out the signs created by Robert Simmons, our art director, elsewhere on our website and you’ll see what makes great yard sign design).

Color Scheme: The most common colors for political signs are red, white & blue because they evoke images of patriotism and the colors are highly visible. Unfortunately, using these colors can make every sign look alike so they simply blend into the background scenery instead of being noticed. Don’t be afraid to use other colors as long as they are good, strong colors that are highly visible. Use the same color scheme in all campaign communications.

Once your signs are effectively designed, you can start putting your sign strategy together, including where your signs should be placed and when.
Obey the Law: Voters are frustrated by candidates who want to make laws, but break them during their campaigns. Many cities and counties have ordinances that govern yard signs and when they may be posted, so check to make sure your campaign complies with the regulations in each jurisdiction within your district.

Typically, unless there is a strategic or financial reason, yard signs should go up soon as legally possible. Avoid putting signs in highway rights-of-ways and other prohibited areas, so figure out what the law allows and stay within the law. Finally, make sure you always have the landowner’s permission to put a sign on the property. 

Sign Placement: Obviously, the more visible locations are best, so your first priority should be major thoroughfares and high traffic areas in your district. Place fewer signs in areas that you know you won’t win and more signs in areas where there are more favorable swing voters.

Too many candidates ignore neighborhoods. That’s a huge mistake. For every sign legally placed in someone’s yard, you can expect approximately 6-10 votes to result. Uncommitted voters look in their neighbor’s yard and say, “If the Smiths are supporting him/her, they must be a good candidate.” It’s a powerful endorsement that reverberates throughout a neighborhood.

Party Affiliation: Earlier, we mentioned that name and office are the only two items that should go on your sign. One exception is in highly partisan areas, putting your party affiliation may be important. Using party affiliation is terrific if the district is highly Republican, but not so good if Republicans are in the minority.

Candidate Pictures: The answer is “No.”

Campaign slogans: Again, no. Put it on the mail, the ads and other campaign materials, but not the sign.

Getting Sign Locations: I wish there was a simple way to get sign locations. The only way I have found is “to ask.” When going door-to-door, I gauged the receptivity of the voter and after I did my initial presentation and they had committed to vote for me, I upped the ante. If they indicated support, the next thing was to ask for a sign. About half the time, I was successful. You can work the phones and call landowners at major intersections or use your phone volunteers to ask for signs when they are making advocacy calls.
How do I make my signs last: Today, political yard signs are printed on highly durable material and should maintain their visibility throughout any campaign. Avoid saving money on cheap cardboard signs because rain and sun destroy them and you’ll waste a lot of time and money replacing cheap signs. No matter how many yard signs you put up, some will disappear.

Sign stealing is as old as politics. The most common cause of sign removal is the land owner removing them to cut grass and failing to put them back up.

Look for locations in the yard that are visible from the road, but where landscaping maintenance is not so regular. In suburban yards, most homeowners have a planting area that has flowers and shrubs. Putting your sign in that area may keep it visible and the owners won’t have to move it every time they cut the grass.

Regardless, you must have a plan to replace signs on a regular basis, especially in your key targeted areas.

Sign Team: Recruit a couple of volunteers – or pay someone – to put up your signs. Once the signs are up, the sign team should regularly ride the district to ensure they remain up and replace any that are missing.

Signs are an essential component of every campaign. Effectively managing that facet of the campaign is one of the most critical aspects of your candidacy.

 Rusty Paul is long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns.  He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University.  iSquared Communications is a political consulting firm specializing in state and local races. If your campaign is interesting in talking to him about campaign consulting services, email him at

Opposition Research - The Misunderstood Art of Political Campaigns

June 24th, 2009 by Rusty Paul

Probably the most misunderstood aspect of campaigning is opposition research.   For many, it is synonymous with “digging up dirt.”   Without question, if there is dirt to dig, opposition research should find it.

But real opposition research is more about finding information that will help voters reach conclusions about the candidates’ character, integrity and fitness for office.

Real opposition research has two functions:  research the opposition and research youself.   First, forget the cloak and dagger aspects of op research.  An opposition researcher’s  real work is done on-line, in libraries and at courthouses plodding through dusty records, old newspapers and whatever Google™ can find floating through cyberspace.

Without question, the opposition researcher is looking for past behavior that highlights an opponent’s lack of character, judgment and integrity.   After all, past performance may indicate future conduct in office.

That’s why the first person you should research is you.  Google yourself.   You may be astonished by the personal information that is stuck to the worldwide web for anyone to reach out and grab. 

In one recent campaign, we found some deadly information about a candidate.   Where?  On his own Facebook page – complete with every picture we needed to persuade voters he wasn’t mature enough for public office.

Assume that anything you can find about yourself can be easily found by your opponent.  Few issues are automatically fatal if they are managed properly during a campaign.

The worst thing that happens to a campaign is to be unprepared for an attack based on something the candidate knows or should have known was in his/her past.   Good op research will discover what is discoverable about you and allow the campaign to prepare for it.

After cataloging potential avenues of personal attack, develop pre-determined responses and counterattacks to deal with them.    Have them already “in-the-can” so they can be dealt with immediately as they arise.

This is particularly true of incumbents.  The longer you serve in office the longer your voting record grows and the more public statements you’ve made.  You probably forgot that bill, ordinance or resolution you co-sponsored as a favor to a colleague.   Yet, it’s lurking out there in the public record with your name attached.

Every election cycle, incumbents should have someone re-evaluate their votes and public statements since the last election so the campaign can prepare responses about what you said or did, and why.   Ditto your personal life, too.

In an era of camera phones, who knows what incriminating, embarrassing or unexplainable photo may be out there.   Don’t be paranoid, but be cautious and be prepared.

Several years ago, an opponent attacked our candidate for failing to pay child support.   Within hours, our candidate’s ex-wife appeared at a press conference and blasted the opponent for exploiting her children for political gain.

We had researched our candidate, assumed this would be a potential attack and had discussed this ahead of time with the ex-wife.   The attack backfired and our candidate won.  Without this internal analysis, we would have been caught unprepared.

So, only after researching yourself should you look to your opponent.

First, opposition research isn’t about tracking down every rumor and innuendo that a campaign hears about its opponent.  If you waste time chasing rumors, you will likely miss the real information buried in some archive that sheds a factual light on your opponent’s character.

That doesn’t mean you ignore the inevitable chatter that occurs during a campaign, but you do need to focus on real, verifiable issues that truly matter to voters.   Not paying taxes, personal bankruptcies, divorces based on philandering, arrest records, failure to pay child support, abusing authority, and using office for personal gain do reflect on a candidate’s character, competence and fitness for office.   This information is the true substance of opposition research.

Second, family issues must be dealt with delicately – if at all.  Wives, children, parents and other relatives should be out of bounds unless there are highly compelling reasons to involve them.

As demonstrated by the earlier cited ex-wife’s reaction to a political attack, family matters - even seemingly legitimate issues – are fraught with danger.   Handle with care.    

Also, use professional opposition researchers with a history of success, an understanding of what really matters in a campaign and who can painstakingly document any information that they gather.

Any information gleaned from op research must be fully verifiable – preferably from multiple sources.   In the very first campaign in which I volunteered, the candidate used a newspaper clipping in a mailing.  The campaign made several inferences about the published information that may have been accurate, but were difficult to verify.

Within days, the campaign faced a $1.5 million libel suit.  Though it was eventually dismissed at trial, it still cost the candidate thousands in legal fees and some unpleasant publicity.  We won the primary, but lost the war – the general election – due to the libel trial’s recurring publicity.

Also, avoid hiring a private detective.  Since you must disclose all campaign expenditures, the detective agency will turn up on your disclosures.   If you pay someone to tail your opponent surreptitiously it can be easily spun by the media and your opponent as underhanded campaigning.   This doesn’t apply to video or audio taping an opponent in an open meeting, but to snooping through the windows, trash or other easily misunderstood invasion of privacy.

At least one candidate I consulted with hired a private detective without informing me.  He wanted video proof of activities that were eating at him, but that, in the big picture, didn’t matter.  When the two individuals being tailed discovered their privacy had been violated, they went justifiably ballistic.  Not only did it waste campaign resources – money and candidate time – it backfired.

A professional opposition researcher would have understood that the things getting under the candidate’s skin had no relevance to voters.   A professional researcher also would have brought the candidate’s request to my attention so we could have dealt with his unwise fixations.

Finally, once you have documented evidence that reflects on an opponent’s character, integrity or fitness for office, the campaign must decide how to use it.   Three things matter:  relevance, tone and accuracy.

Polling the data will help determine its relevancy.   Testing the message with real voters, not campaign insiders, will help set the proper tone.   Documenting the information completely will take care of accuracy.

Rusty Paul is long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns.  He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University.  iSquared Communications is a political consulting firm specializing in state and local races. If your campaign is interesting in talking to him about campaign consulting services, email him at

When Political Figures Fall Short, It’s a Long, Hard Fall.

July 5th, 2009 by Rusty Paul

No one is perfect.   Virtually everyone has done something they do not want to see on the front page of their local newspaper.  

So, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s troubles are simply the latest reminder that high-profile people get high-profile treatment when they don’t live up to expectations.  

First, let me acknowledge my relationship with Gov. Sanford.   For almost a decade, we have served on the Awakening conference’s board together.  In January, Ms. Sanford moderated an Awakening panel on which I participated and annually our families have joined over 400 individuals for the annual Awakening gathering on the Southeast coast.

Like most others who know him, I considered him to be the straightest of arrows.

Yet, when confronting embarrassing situations, Mark Sanford’s handling of his ordeal offers a solid blueprint for how NOT to do it.    As The State newspaper characterized his press conference, for “the next 18 minutes he thought out loud.”
In other words, he mistook a microphone for a confessional.  It’s not the first time that a guilt-ridden, embarrassed political leader has poured his/her emotions into a camera and microphone.  However, it’s not a good way to manage a difficult, personal and political crisis.

First, let’s look at what he did right.   He faced the cameras alone He accepted responsibility for his actions and apologized.   He didn’t try to shift accountability or blame.   He acknowledged the pain and embarrassment he caused the State of South Carolina, its citizens, his family and his staff.  He said he would do everything possible to make amends.

That’s about it on the positive side.   Let’s use this situation as a primer for priority setting and decision-making in the initial moments of a crisis.

When dealing with emotional, personal information, you must first prepare very carefully what you are going to say and stick to the script.   Sanford arrived with no prepared remarks and hence spent 18 minutes thinking out loud – something even the most savvy, articulate individuals cannot do well when facing excruciating admissions.  

Anything over 10 minutes is too long …and five minutes or less is better. At a press conference, you are almost required to accept questions, but no more than two or three.

The statement should provide enough information to explain what happened and, if possible, why.   If you can make amends, discuss briefly how you plan to do that.  The answers to questions – like your statement - should be brief and concise, but not abrupt.  

This is not a time to let your thoughts wonder or give answers that would arouse additional speculation.  Avoid details – particularly the sordid kind – and get off stage as soon as possible.   If you feel a need to expunge guilt or discuss details in depth, find a minister or therapist – not a reporter.

Meanwhile, think about the impact your words will have on those closest to you.   Your family must be foremost in your mind.  Your actions not only embarrass you, but they pain and mortify your kin.

Don’t make your spouse suffer further by asking that individual to appear at the press conference or, for that matter, any public appearance while the controversy rages.  Do everything to create a zone of privacy for the family that reduces exposure to further injury.

Ultimately, they have to face their public, too, but time helps.   Also, don’t do or say anything else that adds to their discomfort – particularly if children are involved.   Adolescent kids can be earth’s cruelest creatures, so don’t provide more ammunition for those who would be unkind.

At the same time, resolve your situation quickly as possible.   Affairs of the heart, for instance, aren’t easy to resolve, but this isn’t a time to play mental ping-pong.  Develop a course of action that gets you out of limbo.

Next, think about the people who put their trust in you – the voters.   Can you continue to serve effectively?   If you decide to stay in office, is it for personal reasons or do you truly have the interests of the voters in mind?

If criminality, malfeasance or indictments are involved, you are probably fighting a losing battle to hang on to office.

Regardless, talk to people whose judgment you trust – not just those who depend on your position for their jobs.   Smart politicians keep people around who will tell them the truth – no matter what.   At times like this, these people are worth their weight in gold.

Not every mistake will disqualify you from office. More and more, people today seem to separate personal problems, mistakes and foibles from criminality when determining whether a political figure can stay in office – but not always.

Get a consensus from those trusted outsiders and let that inform your decisions.

Finally, time does make a difference.  Ultimately, this too shall pass – though don’t expect even those who forgive to forget.

As the Bible says, we have all sinned and fallen short.  But when high-profile people fall, the fall isn’t short.   It’s a long, hard drop. And, the impact is painful.


Rusty Paul is former Georgia GOP Chairman, state senator and long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns.  He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University.  iSquared Communications is a political consultant helping Republican candidates in state and local races. Email him at

Grassroots Political Campaigning - Substituting People for Cash

July 10th, 2009 by Rusty Paul

Grassroots campaigning is as old as American democracy.  Grassroots political campaigning was the driving force in America’s first contested presidential race, the 1800 match between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. 

Partisans on both sides started newspapers to attack their opponents, influence uncommitted voters and mobilize their supporters.   Since that era’s culture prohibited candidates from campaigning for office, each candidate’s supporters enlisted thousands of regular citizens to do voter contact work.

Campaigns had rallies, parades and other activities that involved the general public in the process.   American grassroots campaigning took another step in sophistication during the 1828 race between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson – a campaign that literally lasted four years and had one of the highest voter participation rates in our history. 

More than 15,000 campaign workers stormed the White House on Jackson’s inauguration day because they felt they had more to do with Old Hickory’s win than he did.

In the Tammany Hall and big city machine era, grassroots campaigning evolved into “ward politics” as parties organized down to the street block level to ensure every voter turned out.

In an age of paid media, Internet communications, political consultants and high-tech campaign strategies, grassroots campaigning is becoming a lost art.   But, low budget campaigns – particularly municipal and legislative candidates - can tear a page from history and create a real advantage against even a well-financed opponent with a well-organized grassroots effort.

Essentially, using Twitter™, Facebook™, MySpace™ and other social networks for voter contact is simply applying new technology to old campaign tactics.

Campaign consultants typically hate grassroots campaigns.  They want candidates raising money to fund more mail and paid media.  However, some campaigns – particularly challengers – simply lack access to big bucks and we’ve had success using grassroots tactics in low budget campaigns.  

Recently, we used modified grassroots tactics in a statewide challenger’s race to take down a well-entrenched, well-financed incumbent.   It was the only successful statewide challenger race in that cycle.

Grassroots campaigns replace cash with people-power.

The first thing a grassroots campaign needs is a plan and a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.  After all, time is a precious commodity in a grassroots effort – particularly when dollars are scarce.   

Each second of campaign time must focus on maximum voter contact and the plan outlines how it that occur.  It will outline very precise tasks and the timeline for completing each one.


Start by determining how many votes you need to win. If a district has 150,000 voters and it typically has a 60 percent turnout rate, you need 45,001 votes to win (150,000*60%/50%+1).   Your plan should analyze past district voting history at least on a precinct basis so you can focus you efforts on areas where you are most likely to get those 45,001 voters.   


Next, people are the most valuable resource in a grassroots campaign - particularly volunteers.   The more the better, but you don’t necessarily need a cast of thousands.   Successful grassroots campaigns in small districts sometimes involve a dedicated, focused candidate’s family.

Of course, family and friends make great volunteers as do properly motivated party activists.    So, to attract volunteers, a good grassroots campaign must understand what motivates people to get involved.  

Some people are motivated by ideology.  These are typically the party faithful.   Others are motivated by issues, such as the environment, guns, abortion and local issues affecting their neighborhood.  

Identify groups in the district who support your issue positions and work to mobilize them. For instance, if education is a big issue, local PTAs may offer a great volunteer pool.  If neighborhood protection or property taxes are key issues, seek out homeowner associations or local taxpayer groups.

Others are attracted to campaigns as a social outlet.  Many people like the excitement of campaigns or the opportunity to meet new people.   This is typically a good way to get young people involved.

Some people get involved because they aspire to a career themselves in government or politics. Just remember, if you win – these volunteers expect help from you with their own aspirations.

In developing a volunteer base, there are two ways to go – top down or bottom up.   Top down approaches involve going to an organization’s leadership to seek help.  This includes asking for lists, invitations to meetings and other ways to enmesh your campaign with the targeted organizations.

The primary downside is you become associated with these groups in the public mind, so pick your groups wisely.  Yet, a grassroots campaign’s primary goal is to assemble a coalition that can generate the 45,001 votes you need.

If you want to avoid being beholden to a group’s leadership, you can always go “bottom up.”   Bottom up approaches require much more work.  You must rely on a few key members to help build lists and it involves significant follow up. 

Bottom up approaches also help if the leadership isn’t particularly keen on your campaign.   You can bring pressure on a group’s leadership from the rank & file.   Also, bottom up approaches allow you more control over the information going to the membership.

The biggest mistake a grassroots campaign makes is failing to ask people for help and not getting a specific commitment.  Your requests for help must be very specific.  Can you be at the headquarters at 6 p.m.?  Can you put up these 100 signs at the following addresses?   Can you call these 50 people and ask them these questions.   

You must also match the job to the volunteer’s skills and interests.   If they volunteered to put up signs and you have them making fund raising calls, your volunteer may disappear.  That doesn’t mean volunteers can’t multi-task, but not every volunteer can – or will.

Another mistake is not asking for enough.  Always ask for more and people will feel relieved if they opt for less.  But worst is not getting everything a volunteer is willing to give.   Make the tasks as simple as possible and ensure volunteers have everything they need for the job.

Also, volunteers want access to the candidate and they need to feel their work is meaningful.  So, don’t assign tasks and leave.   Spend time working with the volunteers.  If they see you stuffing envelopes, going door-to-door and making voter contact calls, they will sense you have assigned them a meaningful job instead of scud work.

Before sending volunteers out for door-to-door work, check out the targeted neighborhood to ensure it is safe and appropriate for door-to-door activities.

Finally, verify that tasks are done.  Tasks you thought were finished, but that are uncompleted will kill a grassroots campaign.   If a volunteer isn’t performing, give the job to a proven performer.   As Reagan would say, trust but verify.

In an upcoming edition, we’ll cover the activities that make a grassroots campaign successful.

Microtargeting – the Latest Tool for Reading the Voters’ Minds

July 17th, 2009 by Rusty Paul

Among the greatest challenges any campaign faces is deciding how to invest its limited resources – particularly candidate time and campaign funds.Targeting in campaigns is as old as politics. The goal is to determine who supports, who won’t support and who can be persuaded to support the candidate so resources aren’t wasted persuading the persuaded or attempting to persuade the non-persuadables. Campaign resources are most effective when concentrated on the unpersuaded who can be persuaded.

In today’s world, you also want to know if they are early voters, absentee voters or Election Day voters so you know when to turn them out.

Historically, the basic predictor of voting behavior was primary election participation. If a voter participated in four or five recent GOP primaries, they were labeled Republican leaning voters. If they voted in the same number of Democratic primaries, they were considered Democrat leaners. If they voted in a couple of GOP and a couple of Democratic primary – or only voted in general elections - they were considered swing voters.

How many primaries they participated in determined whether they were hard or soft partisans.

Voter history is a reasonably good predictor of future behavior, but it isn’t perfect. As campaigns became more sophisticated, candidates began combining demographic information with voting history to develop more precise predictors of voter behavior.

The problem with these voting indicators is it gave campaigns little indication of which voters were affected by different campaign messages. Soon, campaigns started incorporating their polling data into the voter analysis, assuming that if 80% of a district’s white, college-educated, executive/managerial males were opposed to increased taxes, the campaign should target anti-tax messages to that group of voters.

Soon, however, campaigns began asking what was different about that 20% of white, college-educated male population that weren’t anti-tax. They wanted to know what messages could motivate anomalous groups to vote for their candidate.

To answer that question, political consultants developed a new tool called microtargeting. Borrowed from current business marketing analytics, microtargeting is an diagnostic tool to help campaigns find the messages that best move the herd. Equally important, microtargeting helps identify subgroups of voters that don’t run with the herd and determine what motivates them, too.

Presidential and statewide campaigns have been using microtargeting for several election cycles. George W. Bush used it very effectively against John Kerry in 2004. By 2008, the Dems caught up and surpassed the GOP in their microtargeting sophistication.

For instance, the Obama campaign blended microtargeting with highly effective email, text messaging, viral marketing and social networking tactics to generate its massive advantage in capturing and turning out young voters.

Microtargeting helps campaigns answer the most important strategic questions they face. Who should we be talking to? Why should we be talking to them? What should we say to them? What media is most effective in reaching them? When should we talk to them (are they early voters, Election Day voters, absentee voters, etc.)?

In addition, microtargeting can pinpoint voters who are already with you or will never vote for you, so you don’t waste resources talking to the “saved” and “the eternally damned.”

Microtargeting incorporates a wide range of data, such as the kind of car you drive, where you shop, magazines you read, what you buy, racial, religious, ethnic, economic data – all information campaigns can purchase from credit card companies. Basically, microtargeting taps into the data which credit card companies and retailers like Kroger and Publix with shopper cards use to learn more about you than your mother knows.

Every time you swipe that credit or shopper card, some computer somewhere records all your purchases and categorizes you based on what you buy. They take your data and lump it with other people who bought the same items you purchased and make certain assumptions about you and your fellow subgroup members.

Campaigns are now doing the same thing. A campaign needs an ability to digitally store, archive, analyze and quickly retrieve massive amounts of data.

Then, you need savvy data crunching and sharp-eyed analytic capability working together to find the subgroups that most campaigns don’t understand or know about.

But with the right approach, microtargeting can be effective in finding groups of voters that are outside the norm and who have a hot button that motivates them to support your campaign and vote. These analytic tools are particularly helpful when the election is expected to be close or when you’re running in a district where the partisan trends are normally against you.

It’s not something a small budget campaign typically can afford, though software developers are beginning to produce programs that can handle many of microtargeting’s analytic chores. For example, Caliper Corp. developed a product originally designed to help state and local legislatures with redistricting efforts.

Realizing the campaign applications for this technology, the company released Maptitude for Precinct and Election Management™, and later released Political Maptitude™. Users can load the programs and add their voter files, consumer data or any figures they wanted to see displayed as a multi-faceted map. Versions of Political Maptitude™ even allow users to calculate how long it takes to walk a precinct and the hot issues in each neighborhood.

The ultimate goal of microtargeting is to let candidates understand the key issues that are important in each household within the district. Using widely available data, they can almost read the voters’ minds. Then, using that information to craft campaign messages precisely for individual households, they can figuratively place the candidate at every kitchen table in the district.

With newly emerging software packages and more powerful PCs, microtargeting will begin to show up in local elections during the 2010 and 2012 cycles. If your campaign isn’t prepared to explore this option, your candidate may be at a significant disadvantage to campaigns that do.

Microtargeting is not a silver bullet that guarantees success. It is simply a more sophisticated tool to do what campaigns have always done.

Yet, when it becomes more widely available, microtargeting local races will become a valuable weapon for campaign targeting and messaging.

Rusty Paul is former Georgia GOP Chairman, state senator and long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns.  He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University.  iSquared Communications is a political consultant helping Republican candidates in state and local races. Email him at

July 17th, 2009 by Rusty Paul

Why Media Polls Frequently Get It Wrong

July 24th, 2009 by Rusty Paul



Not long ago, a local TV station asked me to look at a political poll it had just commissioned.   The poll showed a well-known incumbent unexpectedly in trouble and they wanted an outsider review to make sure they weren’t missing something.

While I have commented frequently on media polls, it was the first time in 30-years of consulting that a news outlet contacted me to review a poll before they ran with it.   Their “top lines” – the numbers from all voters surveyed – accurately showed the incumbent had problems.   But, I simply glanced at those numbers before immediately turning to the “crosstabs” – the grey pages at the back of the poll which few people actually read.

Crosstabs are, in fact, the most important part of the poll.  They are the statistical tables that break out the details of how various demographic groups responded each question.  Using that data and knowledge of traditional voting habits and patterns, I showed the reporter that while their “top lines” may accurately report what respondents told them, the top lines didn’t really reflect how voters would behave once they entered the voting booth.  Drawing on an understanding of past voter behavior and other data, I pointed out why certain demographic groups were unlikely to behave according to their poll answers once in the privacy of their voting booth.

They looked like prophets when they reported these anomalies in their poll and just days later the election played out exactly like they predicted.

Media poll data is frequently accurate, but the data are frequently reported wrong.   Why?   Because the media typically reports the “top lines” of the poll without performing the hard analysis of comparing voter responses with voter history and other “predictors” of voter behavior.

First, polls are snapshots in time.   A poll in September is not valid for predicting November.   Remember the famous “Dewey Beats Truman” Chicago Tribune headline that Harry Truman held up on Election Night, November 1948?

The news media was overly influenced by a September poll of Readers Digest subscribers – a group that was then disproportionately Republican.   It was also in an era when polling was still unsophisticated.  Yet, it convinced the media that Truman would lose.

It was conducted before Truman crisscrossed the country during his famous whistle-stop train campaign and brought “home” certain Democratic voters who the poll indicated were straying from their party.  Dewey, equally convinced by the poll, curtailed his fall campaign trips and relied primarily on radio speeches to reach voters.  Thus, Truman eked out a win, much to the “Trib’s” embarrassment.   

Even today, when polling methodologies are more refined, challenges remain in properly reading poll results,   For instance, it may surprise you, but some people lie to pollsters.   

Yet, in spite of that fact, most methodologically sound polls are fairly accurate if you realize that poll responses are simply one aspect of discerning likely voter behavior.  Even the best polls require sophisticated analysis to predict voter behavior accurately.

In the 1998 Georgia gubernatorial race between Guy Milner and Roy Barnes, the Milner campaign conducted a poll showing its candidate with a seven point lead in September.   Everyone was trumpeting this as a major news item.

Later that week, pollster John McLaughlin was in my party office and asked if he could look at the poll sitting on desk.   He, too, ignored the “top line” data at the front of the poll and flipped to the statistical tables at the back.  After two or three minutes of examination, he announced, “Milner is down by five points.”

How could a professionally conducted, methodologically sound poll be off by 12 percentage points?  It wasn’t.  The data was correct; the analysis was wrong.

“Look at the black voter percentages for Milner,” he responded.   “They are at 17%.   They won’t vote that high for a Republican.   By election day, their numbers will drop to the normal single digit level and if you extrapolate that across likely voters, Milner’s down five-to-seven points.”

Those were almost precisely the election results two months later (okay, in this case a September poll did predict November.  Also, Milner’s pollster probably understood the discrepancies, but used the top lines to influence media coverage of the campaign).  
To use polls accurately in campaigns, you must compare what voters tell pollsters against what they typically do on Election Day.  It doesn’t mean voters won’t behave differently than they normally do in certain elections, but the analysis must determine which factors exist that will cause certain demographic groups to depart from their normal voting patterns. A properly analyzed poll will find those factors when they exist.

This kind of information is rarely found in the aggregated numbers that the press typically reports, but can be easily found by comparing the poll’s crosstabs with voter history and other past behavioral patterns from defined voter groups – white men, black women, college-educated Democratic females, blue-collar Republican males, etc.

There may be valid reasons at any moment in time when Republican males would be upset with a Republican incumbent.  That was the case in the TV poll I reviewed.  However, history shows that demographic is among the least likely group to vote Democratic in  November.

They almost always “come home” on Election Day.   I pointed that out in my off-camera analysis of the poll and, sure enough, when they voted, their anger took a back seat to partisan loyalty.

Ditto with black voters.   As the Milner example showed, they, too, almost always come home in November, meaning a 90+% Democratic vote.

Barring a watershed election where partisan loyalties shift, normal elections hinge on decisions by swing and independent voters as well as partisan turnout – which party’s voters are most motivated to vote.   While few call 2008 a “watershed”, it did feature abnormal elements.  Data from the 2008 election shows America’s most habitual voters - older whites - stayed home, while the country’s least likely voters - the under 30 age group - came out in droves.  Why?  McCain never excited his base, while Obama electrified America’s youth.  Shrewd pollsters were picking up those signals as the campaign closed.

These are the anomalies that pollsters look for to help them arrive at accurate predictions and these factors often are overlooked in media polls - and poorly drawn campaign polls, too.  

So, the next time you see a media poll that misses the mark in an election, you’ll look like a Frank Luntz-ean genius at the Waffle House when you tell everyone “their prediction was way off base because the media ignored some anomalies in the crosstabs when they reported their top lines.”

While no one there will understand a word of what you just said, they will all nod in wonder at your insights.   It might even get you an election morning invitation to the local Optimist Club every four years to predict the presidential election outcome.

At least, it worked for me.