Voter Contact Tools and Database Management
By Drew Ryun
CEO of CampaignSidekick
A lot of first time candidates face the question: Now that I have decided to run for office, what comes next?
The initial decisions a candidate takes are critical to the overall success of the campaign. Decisions like: Who will run the campaign? How am I going to raise the money needed to run and win? How do I structure my campaign? Where do I find the votes I need to win?
It is often this mind overload that crushes first time candidates and they spend months trying to get their campaigns on track instead of executing a winning campaign.
I would like to suggest that running for office can be far easier than most think if you have the correct roadmap. That roadmap begins with three decisions: finding and hiring the right campaign manager, committing to fundraising and starting Day One of your campaign with the right software that is the hub around which the rest of your campaign revolves. The days of paper walk lists and maps is over. I want to focus on the latter because it is what my team and I do best.
Picking a Software Platform
There are a lot of software solutions popping up around elections these days and all of them make various claims and as a first-time candidate, you want to verify these claims before signing on the dotted line and handing over valuable campaign cash to pay for the software you choose to use.
Let’s start with certain core elements and functionality that a software system must have, no matter the size of your campaign.
The first is cost. As you budget for your campaign, 65-75% of all the money you spend should be directed at voter contact in one form or another, but a robust, easy to use voter contact tool and database management system should not break the bank. If you are running for city council, school board or some other municipal office, you shouldn’t be paying more than a few hundred dollars for your subscription.
The next is the data set you are building your campaign on. Is this the right data set for you? Where did the data originate from and when your campaign is over, win, lose or draw, who will own the enriched data-you or the company you used? Building out a data set for your campaign can be as easy as going to your local county election board and asking for the most recent election data CD that is likely to cost as little as $5. Make sure you ask for all registered voters and voter history of each voter. Can you ask friends and allies for other data sets? Absolutely, but you want to start with a clean, current and comprehensive voter file. You are, after all, running for elective office and want to converse with voters and not waste your time. Voter contact should be granular and focused. You don’t want to talk to everyone. You want to talk to the people that vote.
As you consider software solutions, there are a few other elements you need to be aware of. What is the backend schema of the system you are looking at and is the system battle tested? How many election cycles has it been in the field? Are there current and past clients who recommend the product?
In my experience, there are a lot of software solutions in politics that have a backend slapped together with bubble gum and bailing wire. Those software packages may function well in stress-less situations, but will break down when the campaign season begins in earnest. A prime example of this is the Orca debacle during the 2012 Presidential election. Claiming to be the solution to the Obama campaign’s Narwhal system, I believe Orca was still being coded in the days leading up to Election Day. Predictably, it crashed on election day and tens of thousands of Republican volunteers were left standing around instead of turning out the vote.
For years, CampaignSidekick was in MySQL, a SQL that I call the garden composter of data management. One can toss unstructured data sets into MySQL and have fairly usable data on the backend. However, because it is based on queing and querying, MySQL backends are notorious for becoming clunky and unusable the more data that is inside them. The need for speed is critical in electoral politics. This is why my team and I spent months rebuilding CampaignSidekick into a NoSQL known as MongoDB. Fast, reliable and robust, MongoDB gives our clients the transactional speed they need when the heat is turned up during the election.
On top of MongoDB, we have built a suite of tools that are easy to use, which brings me to the next question every prospective candidate needs to ask before deciding on a software solution: what tools does this system have and easy are they to use?
How is the data displayed? Are you able to filter the map easily with election data and other data points and make walk lists from it? There are a lot of software “solutions” out there that offer this capability, but then force the client to rely on a would be solution provider to cut walk lists and manage the data for the client. Most of those activities come with an additional price tag. In today’s marketplace, if you as the client cannot map and cut your own walk lists, move on from that software “solution.”
Block Walking App:
Every software solution you are considering must have a block walking app. Your goal is to find the right universe of voters to then go have a conversation with and collect data from. An easy to use block walking app enables you to collect answers from voters (Are they voting for you? Are they undecided? What are their top issues?) that you in turn can use to turnout the right universe of voters on Election Day that will help you win. A cardinal rule of politics is: You don’t turn out every voter on Election Day. Just the ones who will vote for you. You have to take the time to find them.
VoIP Phone Bank:
The goal is voter contact and oftentimes you will have volunteers who are either older and don’t want to block walk or are terrified of having a conversation with strangers face to face. Every software solution you consider should have multiple channels for voter contact that fit the needs of every volunteer you recruit to help you win. A simple VoIP Phone Bank should allow volunteers to plug a headset and microphone unit into a computer and make calls or call from their own phone. The team and I have built the Sidekick Phone Bank exactly with this scenario in mind and without fail, after 30 minutes of training and fielding questions, we have even senior citizen effortlessly making calls through the Sidekick phone bank.
What other components should a software system have? The ability to use the mapping function to create mail and email campaigns to targeted voters. There should also be accountability mechanisms that allow you to track the progress of volunteers and paid block walkers-were they collecting actual voter data or were they sitting at home clicking through walklists and entering fake data that does you no good? How many users will you be allowed inside your subscription? Will you be able to upload and download your own data?
Some of these may seem like small components when you are deciding on a software system, but if the system you have chosen doesn’t have or clearly lay out what you will be charged and for what services, you may find yourself getting nickled and dimed to death.
Okay, so now that you’ve chosen your software, what do you do next?
Winning Votes Door-to-Door
Between 65-75% of your campaign budget should be spent on voter contact and your door-to-door efforts should be the foundation of your voter contact program. This is the broad, strong base of your campaign pyramid.
You need the right software to enable and track your canvassing, volunteers and paid block-walkers to actually contact voters and plenty of time to touch all the voters you need.
A lot of campaigns get stuck in the paradigm of “Voter turnout is reserved for the last few weeks of an election.”
Voter turnout starts the day your data is live in your system and it starts with voter contact. The more time you have, the more data you will be able to collect and the better you will be able to message to voters, motivate voters and mobilize voters. Think of door-to-door work and live voter ID as the ultimate market messaging tool. You are asking a focus group (voters) what they think about the marketplace (politics) and what they think the solution is (what motivates them to buy). You as the candidate (the product) need to know where the consumers are and tailor your campaign message around the issues that are important to them without sacrificing your core principles. You’re also showing your potential constituents that you actually care what they believe and will listen to their concerns.
Not only are winning campaigns built on this premise, it saves campaigns money. Did you know that to identify and persuade a voter through door-to-door activities costs $15 per vote? If you were to try and persuade a voter through radio or television, that number increase 100 fold. This is why smart campaigns are built from the ground up.
These aren’t numbers that I or my team have cut from whole cloth. Alan Gerber and Donald Green, two Yale professors, wrote the definitive work on voter identification and turnout in their book, Get Out The Vote. So the numbers above aren’t hypothetical - they are field tested facts.
Once you have established the broad base of your campaign pyramid and begun to execute, you will be amazed at how simple (and fun) running for office can actually be. Once you know the universe of voters needed to win and you message test what resonates with them through live voter contact, you as the candidate can find the three, four or five issues that are your platform and resonate with the voters.
Stay inside that zone all campaign long and get ready to win. Make your software system and the data you collect inside it work for you.