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.