Monday, August 3, 2009

Why Campaigns Ask You Who You’re Voting For

Part 8 of our 10-part series: “21st Century Campaigning”

Have you ever received a phone call from a political campaign asking you to name the man or woman you’re supporting in an upcoming election? Have you ever worked on or volunteered for a campaign and had to make such a call?

If the answer is “yes” you’ve no doubt wondered why. After all, one’s vote is traditionally thought of as a private decision - a guarantee of the blind ballot. Yet campaigns have a very good reason to ID voters. In fact, they have three very good reasons for doing so.

1) Knowing Where You Are

Ideally, a campaign will identify over half of the electorate (in a two-way race) as strongly supporting their candidate. If this can be achieved, you know you’re going to win even before Election Day. If you have no idea how many voters are supporting you, chances are that means you’re going to lose.

Watching the polls is helpful to get a rough idea of your support - but it is not 100% accurate. Additionally, you cannot track each individual voter. That means that come time for the Get-Out-the-Vote operation (or GOTV) you won’t know exactly who to remind to vote.

2) Laying a Foundation for Your Party

Politics doesn’t stop after one election - it doesn’t stop at all. When you can identify which politicians a particular voter is supporting you can get a good idea of how they will vote in the future. Only a small fraction of the electorate are truly “swing” voters - most will vote for candidates in one particular party the great majority of the time.

By identifying these voters the party can determine how likely they are to support future candidates. This helps these future campaigns plan how they allocate their resources. If a particular voter is identified as a strong Democrat or Republican there is no point in sending them a piece of mail, giving them a phone call, or sending volunteers to their house to try to persuade them. If they’re identified as a swing voter, they are certain to get more contact with the campaign.

Additionally, precincts that have over 65% of the electorate identified as strongly Democratic (in the case of Democratic campaigns) will be covered tooth-and-nail come GOTV time. Every house in such precincts will be hit before the polls close on Election Day. This tactic is designed to drive as much support to the polls as humanly possible for the party.

3) Solidifying Their Support

One of the most significant phenomena in politics is how voters will commit to supporting a particular candidate once they’ve said they support him or her. By neglecting a Voter ID program, a campaign risks losing voters that lean toward its candidate before Election Day. By calling or canvassing these voters and getting them to say out-loud that they support your candidate, they become much more likely to follow through when they head to the polls.

Where’s the evidence?

In 2008, President Obama won his bid for the White House because his campaign rigorously tracked where they were in swing states, used the Democratic Party’s existing infrastructure and information to plan the optimal use of resources, and convinced voters that leaned towards his candidacy to follow through by voting for him. In the end, the Obama campaign had contacted about 37% more voters than the McCain campaign, and Voter ID is by far the most important tactic in voter contact

But 2008 was important for another reason - namely the use of Voter ID in early voting trends. Early voting increased significantly last year, and it had a major impact on how the rest of the campaign was run. By identifying which voters had already submitted a ballot, campaigns were able to devote more time and energy to those who were waiting until the end.

That means saving time by not trying to persuade early voters to support your candidates or reminding them to head to the polls on Election Day. With the saved time, the campaigns were able to focus on voters known to be undecided going into the last few days of the race.

Early voting is becoming more and more popular, and it will be interesting to watch as it continues in the future. Needless to say, campaigns prefer early voting because early voters probably weren’t persuadable to begin with, and it allows the campaign to be more efficient in its outreach activities.

This trend certainly appears to be the most important aspect of future Voter ID operations.

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