The contours of an election year are always easier to see 90 days before the election than they were when candidates begin their campaigns. The political environment is in sharper focus, and the issue concerns of the electorate more baked in. Therefore, it is always wise for candidates to revisit and sometimes adjust their campaign strategy, fine tune their message, refine their advertising budget and niche marketing before the final campaign sprint begins.
I’ve gone through this exercise hundreds of times, and today I’ll share my own checklist of items to review 3 months before an election. They include voting rules, adjustments in the universe of voters you are targeting, sharpening the contrast you’ll make with your opponent, the advertising budget and fundraising plan, and an exercise I call war gaming.
A little about each of these, the what and the why.
The first is when voting starts. That varies by jurisdiction. And so do the rules. It is imperative that you know what those rules are. Are people in your jurisdiction required to request an absentee ballot to get one, or are mail ballots automatically sent? Do voters need an excuse in order to apply for an absentee ballot or can they get one for the asking? When are the absentee ballots mailed to voters? When do early voting locations open? Do you have a mechanism in place to track those who have requested an absentee ballot, when their ballot has been received at the Board of Elections, or when someone has voted at an early voting location?
Absent this information, you’ll be flying blind on your advertising budget. It is imperative that you begin advertising before people start voting, lest they vote knowing little about you. Once they have voted, you should remove them from your persuasion mail and Facebook target list, lest you waste precious advertising dollars.
Likewise, once they’ve voted have a mechanism in place to get them off your GOTV list.
Number 2. Reexamine your target list. Early in the campaign, smart candidates divide the electorate into three broad categories. Voters who will never support them, voters who are persuadable, and voters that are highly likely to vote for them, what we call their base vote.
At the 90-day juncture it is time to take another look at the assumptions and adjust them based on evolving voter concerns, shifts in the political environment, and the campaign of your opponent.
Is your base intact? Do portions of it need to be solidified? Is there a weak piece of your opponent’s base that you might be able to grab? What is the demographic profile of the persuadable voters you are targeting, and the most efficient way to advertise to them? What are their primary issue concerns, and how are you going to define the election to this group on your terms. In a competitive race, this is the group that decides the election. This group bulk of your advertising budget should be spent on convincing these voters that you are the better choice.
Which brings me to the third item on the checklist. Sharpening the contrast you’ll make with your opponent.
The job of your advertising is to make the choice easy for voters. To paint the election in stark terms that voters easily understand. The best way to do that is to highlight issue differences that meet these conditions:
Once you know what that issue is, or issues are, anything and everything you say should be used to draw that contrast with your persuadable voters. Usually that contrast is made based on differences candidates have on policy, but they can also be made on values, notions of right and wrong, accomplishments of the candidates, or a comparison of records in public life. All work as long as they offer a contrast that makes is easy for a voter to decide you are the better candidate.
The fourth item on your checklist should be your advertising budget and fundraising plan.
Very few candidates ever have all the money they need or could wisely spend. And it is folly to pretend that money will magically appear if you have no plan in place to raise it.
Your fundraising plan needs to be on paper, in writing. You need to know where every dime of the money you plan to spend it is coming from, be it candidate solicitation, surrogate fundraising, direct mail, on-line donations, cocktail parties, dinners or large events.
If your fundraising plan does not match what you need for your advertising budget, your mail, palm cards, video, cable, TV, radio, Facebook and internet advertising, then you must look for ways to adjust your advertising costs.
I’ve seen my share of campaigns that had no discipline in the way they spent their money, or budgets once drafted that were tossed into some forgotten desk drawer. Those campaigns never have happy endings.
The final item on your checklist is an exercise I call wargaming.
If you’ve ever watched a great football coach, you’ve seen it. When the coach notices the other team pulling out the star runners, and putting in star pass catchers, they in turn send in players good at defending a pass play. They know what they are going to do in any situation because they have studied game films; they know the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team. They anticipate every stunt the opposing team might try, and what they’re going to do when they see it coming.
Wargaming is something all smart candidates do after they’ve put together their message, execution plan, and plotted their strategy.
1. Jot down what you are going to say about yourself- your bio, story, values, issue positions. And what you expect your opponent to say about their own bio, story, values and issue positions.
2. Next note what you plan to say about your opponent, and how you expect your opponent will respond to you.
3. Finally, anticipate the attacks your opponent will launch against you, the holes they will try to poke in your biography, or your story, your issue positions, and how they plan to define the election on their terms. Then war game. Develop a plan to respond to everything your opponent might do, how you will respond, counter-attack, so that you never lose the upper hand or end up playing defense.
In every competitive election I have ever been involved with we have gone through this exercise, and you should too.
I’ll share an example of one such experience I had.
It was the middle of the night in Santa Barbara when my phone rang. When I answered I heard a familiar voice, the campaign manager of a U.S. Senate race I was consulting in California. He wasted no time getting to business. “Jay. Our opponent last night sent a new spot to the stations. It starts airing at 7 am on the Today Show.” It was a blistering attack ad, which the manager recited to me as I took notes.
We had anticipated this might happen, and we had a plan in place. I called the manager of a local editing facility, and told him we needed to edit a spot at 4 am. I called our voice talent, told him grab some coffee and meet us at the studio. I then wrote the script of our response ad. We finished the edit at 5 am, sent the spot to the stations. We were on with our response before our opponent’s attack ad ever aired.
Nothing had been left to chance because we had war gamed everything. I had pre-selected the editing facility and voice talent we’d use. They knew to keep their phones by their bedside. I had created a large file of pictures and footage so that we had plenty of visuals to use in the spot. We had pre-planned how to quickly get our spot to the stations regardless of the hour. It saved the career of a United States Senator.
There is a price to pay for not going through this exercise. It’s called chaos. Chaos happens when you get hit with something you never saw coming. Chaos happens when you have no idea what to do. Chaos happens when nobody on your team anticipated the attack, when nobody on your team can agree on what the response should be. Chaos is one of the reasons good candidates lose.
The ’90 day from the election’ checklist is essential in any competitive election. If you are running this year, and haven’t done yours, today is a good day to do it.
If you are looking for help with this exercise, I am not hard to reach. Call 845-458-1210. The call is free. If you get my voice mail, leave a message. I will get back to you.
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