Friday, July 10, 2009

Small vs. Large Campaigns in Today’s Elections

Part 3 of our 10-part series: “21st Century Campaigning”

It doesn’t take a political scientist to know that there are big differences between larger and smaller races. From the bigger turnout to saturated ad markets, large statewide and national campaigns completely overshadow local ones.

But despite the lack of attention from the voters and media, there are some real pluses to running a smaller campaign.

For one thing, a candidate in a small race can literally talk to every single voter before the election - sometimes more than once! Nothing is as effective as a face-to-face connection between a voter and a candidate. Larger campaigns cannot do that because it just isn’t practical - there are too many people! So they turn to TV and radio ads, direct mail, and robo-calls out of necessity.

It all began when progressive reforms to dismantle political machines took effect in the 20th Century. As it happened, campaigns began to shift from being party-centered to candidate-centered. The result was that the traditional mass volunteer base that the parties relied on diminished, leaving candidate-centered campaigns with less man-power.

So began what Professor J. Cherie Strachan refers to as the “professionalization” of elections: larger campaigns began to rely more and more on modern forms of communication (radio, television, and later internet) and other sophisticated marketing tactics. Meanwhile, smaller campaigns could continue the traditional way of campaigning because they never required a lot of man-power in the first place.

Except that this appears to be changing. More and more often, smaller campaigns are beginning to employ the same sophisticated tactics as the larger ones - targeted direct mail, radio ads, polls, and even TV spots. A survey Strachan conducted of mayoral candidates nationally found that 88% used one or more of these tactics for their campaigns.

Why are they doing this when they can just meet the voters personally?

In her book, High-Tech Grass Roots, Strachan says

“One of the best predictors of whether an innovation will be adopted is the perceived relative advantage it provides over the idea it supersedes…In this case, local government candidates would consider using sophisticated tactics when lower initial cost and the improved ability to target desired voters enhanced their perceptions of the relative advantage that such tactics could provide.”

It’s not just a perceived advantage - it’s real. Knocking on doors is time-consuming for a candidate. When you can narrow down voters by their likeliness to vote (and more importantly, their likeliness to vote for you) with a voter file, you can save a considerable amount of time meeting them.

Then, rather than going back to their house 3 or 4 times throughout the campaign, you can send them a mail piece addressing their specific political concerns and maybe meet them in person only twice.

And when you’re able to raise the money, a poll can go a long way towards solidifying your message and overcoming your opponent. TV or radio ads, if you can afford them, can help foster an image of your legitimacy as a politician.

And looking like the guys on the national stage is becoming easier (and in many cases, cheaper) than ever. Campaign websites are easy for interested voters to access while email and social networking services like Facebook and Twitter can keep your supporters up-to-date on fundraisers, field events, and more.

So long as these “professional” tactics are supplemented with the most effective campaign tactic - meeting voters in person - small race candidates should be encouraged to use them.

Ultimately, the methods pursued will come down to cost-benefit analysis (“how much money can I raise?” “what can I get with that money?” “how many votes would doing those things actually get me?”) and no two campaigns are exactly the same. However, smaller campaigns across the country are all beginning to look more and more like the bigger ones in terms of strategy and tactics - and in order to run for a smaller seat it’s becoming a greater necessity too.

Come back Tuesday for Part 4: Fundraising!

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