Turning Principles into Campaign Messages

August 27th, 2009 by Rusty Paul

In the last blog entry, we discussed why it isn’t enough simply to be “the most conservative candidate” in the race…or to run as the “principled candidate” since value-laden terms like conservative, liberal and libertarian have slightly – or sometimes widely – varying meetings to different people based on which issue perspectives they bring to the term.


As we noted, effective campaign messaging first unifies the various sub-groups that share a philosophical bent – the so-called “base vote.”   Typically that is done by being “right” on the valence issues.  Valence issues are those which are almost universally shared by the larger philosophical movement.


For example, most Republican campaigns can’t go wrong promoting limited government, low taxes, reduced regulation and government intervention, and supporting policies encouraging family, individual responsibility and work.


Opposition to abortion approaches a valence issue within conservative circles, though libertarian and some economic conservatives either bite their tongue when the issue arises or they’ve already left the Republican Party over it.


Progressives and liberals believe government has a role in most aspects of life; that a primary government function is to help the less fortunate, the left behind and those outside the mainstream. 


Further, they believe the fortunate have a disproportionate responsibility to the unfortunate to pay taxes so government can meet their ever-growing human needs.  While they understand the importance of wealth creation, they have less faith in private sector institutions which they often see as driven by individual and collective greed and selfishness. 


Pro-abortion or “pro-choice” positions are a valence issue for liberals/progressives.  Meanwhile, for the liberal/progressive, traditional values fail to account for the cultural diversity in the U.S. and they often believe the root of America’s problems in a globalized world is our quest to impose western values on other cultures.


Understanding these varying viewpoints, then, is crucial in developing effective campaign themes and messages.    The key when dealing with valence issues is developing creative or fresh ways to discuss traditional themes.  It’s not enough to be “right” on a valence issue; you must credibly, clearly outline how you are the most qualified candidate in your race to achieve something significant to move the agenda forward.


So, once your campaign has developed the unifying themes needed to bring together your philosophic or partisan base, the next challenge is developing differentiating themes.   Campaign messages are designed to do two things: 1) define you in the minds of voters and 2) define your opponent.


Elections are about choices.   Those choices should be clear, comprehensible and credible.  Most campaign messages are built around three factors:

  • The personal strengths and weaknesses of the candidates
  • Philosophical or partisan differences
  • Ideas


Campaign messages built around the personal strengths and weaknesses of the candidates involve drawing contrasts between your strengths and your opponent(s) weaknesses.


Your strengths could be experience, abilities, integrity, good judgment, compassion, stability or training for the job at hand, while your opponent(s) lack those.   Again, your contrasting messages must be clear, credible and connected to reality.


Many campaigns succeed not by touting their candidate’s strengths, but by focusing on the opponent(s)’ weaknesses, failures or ideas. (We’ll do a later blog on contrast messaging – the so-called “attack ads” that proliferate late in campaigns as candidates go after undecided voters or try to discourage and disappoint supporters of their opponents.)

Messages built on philosophical or partisan differences usually involve situations where one candidate is right on a major valence issue and the opponent(s) are wrong.   That difference can be demonstrated by an opponent’s bad votes, dumb or impolitic statements, organizational affiliations and a host of other factors.


For instance, an opponent running in a Republican primary who voted in several Democratic primaries can be attacked as a “RINO” - Republican In Name Only.   An incumbent who voted for a tax hike, a budget increase or other big government solution can have his/her conservative credentials questioned.


In reality, philosophical differences are the mother lode for most campaigns developing their differentiating messages, particularly in primaries.


The final basis for campaign messaging is ideas.   Novel or original ideas are rare in politics.  In fact, decades can pass before some interesting, game changing “big idea” surfaces.


By convincing Ronald Reagan of supply side economics’ value as a policy and political idea, Jack Kemp transformed the GOP from what he called “the tax collector party for the welfare state” to the party of lower taxes.


In Georgia, the last real inventive idea may have been the worse policy innovation in generations – Zell Miller’s lottery.   Who would belive a candidate could get elected by turning Robin Hood’s “take from the rich and give to the poor” concept totally on its head?


Miller devised a scheme where lower income individuals would contribute to an educational fund to pay the college costs for more affluent families and turned it into a successful campaign message.


Sometimes ideas are what you make them.   In 2008, Obama really didn’t talk about specific ideas, but hammered on the need for change.  He didn’t define change, but let each voter project his/her vision of change on to his campaign.


He capitalized on “Bush fatigue,” without defining exactly how he would be different.  This can be helpful in races against or in succeeding a long-time, high-profile incumbent.   Clinton used incumbent fatigue against Bush I, while Bush II used incumbent fatigue on Gore before Obama used Bush fatigue again on McCain.   


Since big ideas are rare and difficult to develop, most “idea-based” campaigns rely on a lot of little ideas bundled in fresh or novel ways.   Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” contained very few new thoughts.   Most “Contract” elements were proposals the GOP had pushed for years, but were stymied by an entrenched Democratic majority.


Newt gathered these smaller initiatives into a compelling campaign package, slapped the “Contract” label on them and, in 1992, Republicans a rode that set of small, but game changing ideas to control of the U. S. House for the first time in a generation.


Attempts to replicate the “Contract” concept since then have failed, because even creatively packaged ideas need a near perfect set of circumstances to work.  However, nothing is more powerful in politics than an idea – and a resulting message – whose time has come.

So, in the end, developing messages that meet the 3C test – clear, credible and comprehensive – is the most important thing a campaign does.   Campaign messages become the basis for voter decisions about who they hire to fill important public jobs each November.


Thus, the most important thing a candidate can do – even more important than voter contact and fund-raising – is to do something extremely hard:   THINK!


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. Email him at www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com

Principles vs. Message – Giving Voters the Right Information for Decision Making

August 21st, 2009 by Rusty Paul

In campaigns, candidates sometime confuse their principles with their message.   They believe that being “the most conservative candidate in the race” is all the voters want – or need – to know about them. 

If I had a dollar for every candidate that has said, “You should vote for me because I am the conservative in this race,” I’d never have to work again.   Give me another dollar for every candidate that has said “I’m taking a principled stand on the issues,” and no member of my family would ever feel the need to work again. 


This mistake most often happens in primaries where candidates are trying to appeal to a party’s base vote, but it happens in general elections, too.

Often, candidates feel that simply taking “principled” stands on issues will get them elected. In reality, those candidates typically arrive at or near the bottom in contested races.   It’s not that the voters are “liberal,” it’s just that conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism and all the other “isms” we use to label politicians actually mean different things to different people.

If you ask a Republican, “are you conservative?” the answer is almost always “yes.”   You have to scratch much deeper determine what “kind“of conservative that Republican is.   Social conservatives have a different definition of conservatism than many economic conservatives.  

While social conservatives usually are also fiscal and economic conservatives, they typically focus more on a candidate’s moral, ethical and religious values.  Abortion is truly a litmus test for most social conservatives, but a broader range of value-laden issues rank high, too.

Social conservatives are not as static in their views as many candidates believe.  For instance, in recent elections, a significant percentage of values voters have moved more to the left on environmental issues.   They see the Biblical admonition to “subdue the earth” in different terms, interpreting it as a command to be better stewards of God’s creation.

These conservatives want limited government, but they also want government policies that support the values they feel are essential to a virtuous society.  They believe America cannot be great unless it is virtuous and traditional values – usually traditional Judeo-Christian values – define virtue.

Economic conservatives are more focused on fiscal and economic issues and, in fact, may consider themselves “progressive” or “libertarian” on social issues. They want government “to stay out of their wallets and their bedrooms.”They want lower taxes, less government regulation and less interventionist government in most economic and social matters.  They aren’t total libertarians, because they see a role for government outside the libertarian just “tote the mail and defend the shores” mindset, such as providing transportation and infrastructure, schools and delivering other “essential” services.

But once the essentials are done, leave me alone and tax me just enough to pay for those services.

These often are your entrepreneurs – first and second generation business owners or individuals involved in small or medium-sized businesses - who value their independence and who carry forward America’s pioneering spirit.

They get fired up about the flat tax, the fair tax or any system other than the existing complex, counterproductive, intrusive income tax system that falls disproportionately on them and punishes productive, creative work.  

While social conservatives get fired up about the current health care debate, this group of economic conservatives is the driving force behind the Tea Parties and the anger evident at the recent health care forums.

A subset within economic conservatives is what I call business conservatives.   They tend to be executives or “professional managers.”  They see government as a mixed bag.  

Less ideologically driven, they want government to ensure a fair, level playing field for their business and to promote economic development through tax breaks and publicly financed projects, but they also want government to minimize regulations and taxes. 

More important, they want government to be consistent.  They feel they can adapt to any set of rules government makes, but just don’t be changing them constantly.

Many cultural and some economic conservatives are leery when this group calls itself “conservative,” but they do have generally (though often soft) conservative values.   Often called “Main Street” conservatives, other conservatives see this group as “the mushy middle,” thus constituting the greatest obstacle to a true conservative revolution.

However, this group is crucial to the Republican coalition.  They represent a disproportionate share of political contributors and write the business PAC checks that fuel campaigns.

At the other extreme, reside the libertarian conservatives who see government in stark black and white, good vs. evil terms.  A true libertarian conservative has never seen a government he/she likes.   Government isn’t a necessary evil – it’s just plain evil.

Democrats have the same striations and variations within the liberal/progressive political sphere.

In truth, most voters – conservative or liberal - are a blend of various philosophic sub-branches.  So in elections, conservative voters want to know what kind of conservative are you?   

Thus, successful Republican candidates develop campaign messages that reach across the substrata of conservatism (ditto for Dems on the left side of the political dial).

Even divergent wings of a philosophical movement have unifying factors and an effective campaign employs unifying themes to bring its voters together.  An effective campaign doesn’t get bogged down in the differences among the various factions – but finds ideas and issues with broader appeal.

Does that mean you forsake principle and make blatant political appeals designed just to get votes?   You better not.   Philosophical warriors are experts at spotting the phonies among us.

It does mean, however, that in developing effective campaign messages, candidates simply can’t declare themselves conservatives.  They must define their conservatism and outline ways they plan to put principles into action.

After all, a campaign’s message explains why a candidate is running, outlining his aspirations once in office.  It helps voters decide why they should vote for you and not your opponent(s).   And, your messaging must define and explain the choices voters must make voting in your race.

In fact, the most effective campaign messages force voters to decide between opposing viewpoints, unifying various philosophical factions while creating stark choices for them by focusing on what makes you different from (better than) your opponent(s).    

In a later blog, we’ll talk more about messaging, message development and why campaign consultants are always telling candidates to “stay on message.”  We’ll talk about how candidates can draw contrasts with their opponents, while appealing to and unifying the various factions within their philosophical coalition.

Hiring a Poltical Consultant – What Candidates Should Know That Consultants Won’t Tell Them

August 14th, 2009 by Rusty Paul

Seems like every campaign has a consultant, nowadays. In the old days, volunteers ran campaigns, filling envelopes, licking stamps, making phone calls and stuffing mail boxes.


Yes…stuffing mail boxes. It was supposed to be illegal, but campaign volunteers in low-budget campaigns (and in the 60s, 70s and 80s all local races were low-budget) would drive just out of the postman’s view and insert campaign literature in the box before the homeowner collected the mail. It looked like mail, but the campaign saved the postage and back then gas was cheaper than stamps.   There was a lot of “unstuffing” by opponents, but that’s a story for another day.


Let’s refocus on consultants. The growth of modern campaigns gave rise to campaign consultants. Now, like that line in Ray Stevens 1970s hit, The Streak, “they’re everywhere, they’re everywhere.” These days, it seems that anyone who has volunteered in a campaign is qualified as a consultant.


So, being in the consulting business, let me share a secret. Not every campaign needs a consultant. Consultants add a layer of overhead to a campaign that some low-budget races simply can’t absorb. They spend more on consultants than they do on voter contact. That is a misplaced priority. At least 75 percent of your budget must go to voter contact.


Yet, some candidates don’t think they are really a candidate until they have a consultant. So, let’s start with the basics. Every campaign should ask two questions about consultants. Why do I need a consultant? Often, you can find a good local free-lance graphic designer to design your yard signs, brochure and a few mail pieces that talk about the important issues. They can probably do a simple website.


That’s mostly what consultants do for you in most small district, small budget campaigns. If you’re willing to go door-to-door, that’s all you need. Result: major savings. How do you know when you need a consultant?


One, if the district is so large that managing the details of your campaign consumes more time than voter contact and fund raising. Any candidate who spends less than 75 percent of the time talking to voters and raising money is out of balance. Even then, if you have a well organized friend or neighbor who can handle the details, you still may not need a consultant.


Consultants really earn their money in local, district and statewide races when it is a highly competitive race, when a candidate can’t get his/her message to resonate with the voters, professional ads and mail become important and the details overwhelm even the most organized volunteer.


Competitive races mean the candidate must devote his/her full attention to voter contact and fundraising. Some county commission races, mayor/council races in larger towns/cities, legislative races and higher, due to their competitive nature, obviously need someone to help the candidate strategize and articulate their message.


So, if you need a consultant, how do you choose one? Incumbents tend to “dance with the one that brung them.” After all, that consultant got me elected the first time; he/she can get me elected again.


Maybe. Every consultant has a basic formula they follow in races, primarily based on what seemed to work in the past. Like generals who always fight the last war, consultants rely on tactics that worked in the last campaign cycle. Unfortunately, that makes them predictable. If you’ve relied on the same consultant for a couple of races, you may become predictable, too. So, you may need to rethink your consultant.


Consultants compete against each other like football coaches. After a while, you learn your competitors’ playbook and tendencies, so you prepare for them. When they make the move you expect, if you’re a smart consultant – WHAM - you’re waiting on them behind the line of scrimmage. SACK. But the person sacked isn’t the consultant, it’s the candidate. Worse yet is an inexperienced or wanna-be consultant.


A good consultant understands how to fend off an opponent’s attack and get the campaign back on message. Consultants earn their fees when they help a candidate snatch victory from the masticating jaws of defeat by developing counter tactics for an opponent’s attack pieces.


Inexperienced consultants may be unpredictable, but are they skilled enough to handle the crises and attacks that are part of any campaign? If they give you the wrong advice in handling an attack, you may make the attack more deadly. Consulting appears to be a glamorous job, so many who can’t be a candidate wanna-be consultants.


Everyone has to start somewhere, of course. But, do you want your campaign to serve as a technical training school for political consultants?


Maybe. If you don’t have the resources to hire a more experienced consultant, you might try an evolving consultant – but negotiate the fees and rates very carefully. You shouldn’t pay full price – you should extract a “training fee” in the bargain.


When choosing on a consultant, why not shop around? Personal chemistry between you and your consultant is important. So are shared values. Good consultants force candidates out of their comfort zone, but never push them to do things that violate their values, conscience or the law.


And, why not bargain. Campaign consulting is a competitive business and consulting fees vary widely among consultants. Campaign funds are hard to come by, so get the most out of them – including your consulting fees. Also, compare the materials produced by several consultants.


Check out the graphic designs. Do they look professional? Do you prefer one consultant’s work over another? Does the work of one consultant really stand out over the others? Your graphics must stand out in a crowded field – literally – to be noticed. Does the consultant’s work accomplish that objective?


Be sure you understand the consultant’s fee structure and the services you get in return. To help make consultant shopping easier, here is a checklist of questions you should pose to any consultant you consider hiring.

• How long have you been managing campaigns?

• What education or training do you have in campaign management?

• How often do you take refresher courses?

• How do you stay up-to-date on the latest campaign techniques?

• How many races have you managed/consulted?

• How many races have you consulted like this one?

• What’s your win/loss ratio? (Give me the candidates who you managed in the last two cycles and the outcomes in each race)

• Do you work with Republicans and Democrats – or just one party?

• How many races will you be managing this cycle? Do you cap the number of races you take?

• How do you deal with conflicts of interest?

• What is your fee structure and what specific services do your fees cover?

• How often will you and I sit down face-to-face to review my campaign? (Key question)

• Have you ever been fired from a campaign? Why? (Every decent consultant has been fired, usually because of compatibility issues – but you want to find out)

• Have you ever quit a campaign in the middle of a race? Who? Why?

• Are you willing to submit to a criminal background check? (Don’t want consultant’s background to become a campaign issue).

• How do you pay your vendors? (Don’t want unpaid bills to pop up in a race).

• Have you ever been sued by a client?

• How much advertising liability insurance do you carry? (If their ads get you sued, this is a vital question – a million dollars is the minimum).

• Can I see your consulting contract?

• Can I have your cell phone, home phone, business phone, pager and email addresses?

• Are you available 24/7 in case of emergency?


Truthfully, consultants are a necessity in most mid-ballot and higher races today. If your opponent has one, you probably need one to offset the competitive advantage of the professionally designed ads and mail.


While grassroots party activists still can play a big role in races, the days of a dozen party volunteers stuffing every mailbox in the district are long gone. In compact geographic districts, volunteers can still knock on doors – the most effective campaign technique ever invented.


Yet, it’s expertly designed ads and mail, insights into the evolving world of digital media, professional experience in helping candidates articulate their message, while fighting and responding to the inevitable negative ads and campaign attacks from your opponent that can make the difference between winning and losing. But in choosing consultants – choose wisely.


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 www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com

Effectively Using Digital Messaging In Your Political Campaign

August 7th, 2009 by Rusty Paul


Political campaigns are relying more each election cycle on email, texting, blogs, Facebook™, Twitter™, MySpace™, Linkedin™, of course websites, and a host of other emerging technologies in their voter contact, fundraising, volunteer, get-out-the-vote and other campaign activities.  Digital messaging is the next great frontier in campaigns, particularly given Barack Obama’s and Ron Paul’s fundraising and grassroots mobilization success in 2008.

Before wading into the complexities of subject lines, message content, image-to-text ratios, email metrics and the like, let’s first consider how email and text messages should and shouldn’t be used. 


In the digital messaging world, spamming is today’s bubonic plague. Most of us spend too much time tossing out the digital junk mail cluttering our electronic in-boxes.  Somehow spam seems even more frustrating than robocalls, advocacy calls, TV spots and the campaign snail 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, cam-spam (my contraction for campaign spam) can offend potential voters by inundating them with messages they prefer not to receive.


That’s why campaigns rely more and more on opt-in lists, whether it’s their own or a purchased list of individuals who expressed 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 their resources to digital voter file development because the ultimate payoff is so high.


Before purchasing third-party lists, make very sure you can test it to prove its accuracy.   If you get a lot of returns, the list may be too old to be effective.   The third party provider should be credible, dependable and willing to fix any list problems 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 (see previous blog) techniques seeking permission to contact them digitally.   


Just as smart campaigns constantly prospect for dollars, they now prospect 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 do list swaps 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 offers 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 allows supporters to expand your reach by effortlessly forwarding your information to their email networks, too.    It allows campaigns to effectively tap into the growing viral marketing phenomenon.


We’ll look at social networking with Facebook and the other options in a later blog.

But for now, whether yours is 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. Email him at www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com

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.



July 17th, 2009 by Rusty Paul

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 www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com

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.

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 www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com

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 www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com