By Trey Richardson
Politics draws from the knowledge and principles of diverse fields of study in order to examine and understand the behaviors that ultimately shape engagement. Given the coronavirus pandemic has caused disruptions and challenges nationwide, many political professionals are scrambling for guidance to create winning strategies over the next six months for federal, state and local campaigns. Transforming outcomes for elections isn’t difficult – it’s science. Using integrated communications through traditional and online tactics, you and your team can forge unique advocacy and engagement strategies to win. The key to success is to understand how and why people act collectively and make decisions to engage politically.
Reducing barriers and encouraging political action is the foundation of a winning strategy. As such, choose tactics that fit your constituents' behaviors and identity. It is easier to engage stakeholders when political actions closely align with their inherent behaviors and beliefs about self. Over the last four years, Sagac has maintained an ongoing study of political engagement among business professionals.
Surveys of 4,725 (6.3% margin of error) business executives from 2017 – 2020 regarding participation rates for specific political activities. Sagac Analytics, May 2020.
Of the 4,725 respondents to date, we found that 83% of business professionals take time to vote in elections, 50% sign petitions for causes or initiatives, 40% write letters or send emails to candidates and members of Congress regarding policy matters, and 35% are actively engaged in their respective trade or membership association’s political efforts. On the other hand, less than 30% of professionals engage with officeholders through in-person meetings or event attendance. Only 16% of these leaders ever serve as volunteers for candidate or issue campaigns. These findings suggest that political mobilization is easier to maintain when people are engaged in behaviors that align with their past actions.
Moreover, it is helpful to frame political action as a personal identity for the stakeholder, rather than simply a behavior. According to “Motivating voter turnout by invoking the self” published in the National Academy of Sciences, people are much more inclined to act when they are asked to “be a voter” rather than being asked to “vote.” Fundamentally, this research shows that people's desire to shape their own identities can be harnessed to motivate political behavior. Get-out-the-vote campaigns are a great example of this science in action. New technologies that drive information to audiences and websites that allow people to find their polling place are useful tools. However, harnessing and deploying language that appeals to people’s identities is crucial. Whether using postcards, email, texting, social media, phone calls or any of the varied communications channels, one fact remains: A person will vote if they believe they are a voter. This is the same for donors. Someone is more likely to donate to a candidate or PAC if they identify as a member of a club or giving level. Humans are fundamentally social and seek acceptance and recognition as a part of a larger group.
Joining people together to create authentic involvement can sustain long-term political engagement. While small in numbers, people who participate as volunteers in campaigns report having more positive experiences, a greater sense of identity, greater intentions to take political action in the future and less burnout. Forming meaningful and experiential connections with others while taking political action is important for sustaining engagement. Not only are volunteers able to interact with peers, but they are led to expect they will be held accountable in the process. From a psychological perspective, people experience more positive emotions when interacting with others than when alone. Traditionally, political interactions take the form of phone banks, canvassing, special events and volunteer nights at campaigns. However, in our current crisis, you may consider implementing team-based activities using technology. Virtual town halls, crowd-sourced events, text2give, team-based peer-to-peer fundraising and grassroots outreach all bring individuals together safely while intensifying the emotional connections people need to perform at a high level. This is one reason certain partisan communications and independent expenditure activities like canvassing, phone banks and rallies are so helpful in generating engagement. Whether working within a restricted class of constituents or a broad base of voters, collective involvement breeds action.
Engaging in political activities that make you and your stakeholders feel good is the easiest way to involve people. If your constituents like attending events, sending emails and texting, but loathe making phone calls to strangers, focus their engagement activities on the former. A common predictor for sustained engagement by volunteers is experiencing positive emotions while performing an activity. The fastest way to burn out volunteers is to engage them in activities that create stress. For example, if your program requires that a busy professional schedule time to appear at a phone bank operation and make calls for three hours each night, it may be too much to handle. On the other hand, if that same busy professional can spend their evening sending emails or texting their friends, family and co-workers on behalf of a campaign, they may feel good about their actions and are more willing to serve for the long term. As the chart above indicates, many busy professionals are predisposed to write letters and send emails either on behalf of a campaign or as part of an association or civic organization’s endeavors. Use their predispositions and implement programming that aligns with stress-free activities.
Another scientific fact is that one of most effective ways to generate positive emotions is by winning. Taking advantage of winning momentum can dramatically affect stakeholder attitudes toward your and your campaign’s activities. Not only does it feel good to win but winning motivates people to act. Advancing to even a short-term win like a successful voter registration drive, petition filing or voter turnout effort, changes the way people remember their actions and encourages them to engage in the future. Effective campaigns are marathons with short-term milestones built in to ensure enduring engagement. Milestones may include voter registration drives, absentee balloting efforts and get-out-the-vote campaigns. As the cycle evolves from primary, to run-off, to general election, each allows you to establish performance measures based upon activities being pursued. For example, if your goal was to increase voter registration among your target audience by 40%, you accomplished it and you engaged volunteers to assist in securing these new registrants, celebrate their achievement before moving on to your next objective. This keeps your volunteers engaged, positively colors their memories and allows you to maintain momentum as the election nears for GOTV or other activities. In turn, if you’re supporting a candidate for a primary and your volunteers participate in GOTV activities, make sure to honor their work, because you will want to reengage them for the general elections. In the traditional environment, honoring your activists may constitute a breakfast, luncheon, dinner or reception with the candidate. In today’s world, it may be best to simply convene the group via a webinar with the candidate who will applaud your volunteers for a mutually successful enterprise.
Applying science to political engagement offers a new perspective through which to identify and address the many obstacles that professionals face in sustaining meaningful participation. By considering the behavioral and emotional factors that influence engagement, you will develop better language and tools to improve your own campaign plans and win.
Trey Richardson is managing partner of Sagac Public Affairs and GR Pro, national firms that provide communications, market research, fundraising, issue advocacy and independent expenditure solutions to hundreds of political, nonprofit and corporate organizations.