By Trey Richardson
Revised: November 3, 2021
Political engagement can take on many different forms, including contributing to a candidate or political action committee, contacting an elected official, volunteering for a campaign, attending a campaign event or voting. But on every measure of engagement, political participation is strongly related to personal motivations for action whether they be partisan ideology, personal impact or inherent political behavior. Those who are strongly inspired by their motives are far more likely to engage politically than those who are agnostic about the process and its people. As political professionals we have seen this play out over and over during candidate campaigns and through organizational efforts. A campaign or an organization starts out big and fails because it couldn't sustain momentum. If you want to stay the course for the long-term, create a strategic engagement strategy that combines money, issues and, most importantly, people in the process.
1. Direct Contributions
It is a commonly held belief that whoever has the most money in politics wins elections. This may be true most of the time, but money cannot replace a solid plan and momentum. You need all three to win an election. More than $14 billion was spent in 2020 federal elections. Regardless of the pandemic, that number doubled from the $7 billion spent in 2018. With the average U.S. House race and U.S. Senate race costing some $2.5 million and $11 million respectively, campaigns have become increasingly frantic to raise dollars as 2022 nears. Being there with a personal or PAC contribution for your champions in their time of need matters. Don’t just cut campaign checks. Expand your impact by embarking on electioneering activities that have positive consequences to both a campaign’s outcome and to your stakeholders.
2. Issue Advocacy
Part of building and maintaining momentum is your campaign’s or organization’s ability to showcase strengths beyond contributions. Issues, not people, are the driving force behind political engagement. Although citizens sometimes find themselves supporting style over substance, the relationship between ideology and engagement persists. While most donors and organizations begin and end their political activities with contributions to candidates, groups with robust programs move to positively, or negatively, define a candidate or officeholder through issue advocacy communications. Issue advocacy communications generally use the name and likeness of a candidate and frame an issue he or she champions in a constructive or unproductive light. The challenge to citizens who view the communication is to contact the candidate, while the real purpose is to brand the candidate with the issue for better or worse. While most issue advocacy is positive and asks people to thank a candidate or officeholder for their support of the cause, it may also be used to damage a burgeoning election or reelection campaign. Regardless of how issue advocacy is used, it is paramount that implementors closely assess campaign laws to ensure compliance. The benefit of issue advocacy communications to an engagement strategy is that the issues being discussed help construct a narrative for the coming election and other activities being pursued.
3. Voter Registration and Identification
The rulers of our democracy are not officeholders, but us. With a strong voting base that will turn out during the election anything can happen. This is why voter registration and identification efforts are key to winning. Implementation of voter registration efforts must be a central focus of any engagement strategy. People can’t vote if they’re not registered; that’s a fact. With 168 million registered voters in the United States one would think that turnout would be higher in elections; however, only 67% of those registered took the time to vote in 2020. As we move toward the 2022 mid-term elections, this provides an opening for your stakeholders to make a difference in targeted races. If we begin with the assumption that only 67% of your audience will vote, your resources should be focused on the 33% who may not. Because of technology, voter registration drives are simple to implement. Secure a voter file, match it against your stakeholders, find your 33% and then ask them to “be a voter” by registering today. This can be accomplished through any number of means including special events, email, text or direct mail marketing. Phone calls serve to reinforce your request to register but ensure response mechanisms are in place. While some organizations stop at voter registration along the path to engagement, some embark upon more assertive tactics to turn out their voters for specific candidates. Once your registration drive is complete, it’s time to turn your attention to identifying your voters, meaning those among your flock who are most likely to vote for your specific candidate of choice through the use of partisan communications.
4. Partisan Communications
Partisan communication is a term of art used to define electioneering communications sent to a restricted class of employees, association members or other parochial groups. Over the last four decades, partisan communication and those employing it have evolved. Once relegated to use by trade associations and labor organizations, partisan communication is a cornerstone of both corporate and organizational electioneering activity. Tactics include direct mail, email, texting, phone banks, closed-group social media and even targeted digital advertising. Effective partisan communication programs strive to communicate with and educate select voters within a restricted class about supporting candidates for federal, state and local office. Not only do effective engagement programs educate constituents on the important issues the candidate embraces, but expands strength through workplace discussion, grassroots activism and voting. Unlike issue advocacy, partisan communication may include language requesting someone “vote for” or “vote against” a candidate. Partisan communication works well to create an echo chamber of support for champions and create a politically knowledgeable constituency who will actively move your policy agenda forward.
5. Independent Expenditures
If voter registration and turnout are the ground war of politics, then independent expenditures are the air war. An independent expenditure is any communication which expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate using words like “vote for,” “defeat” or “elect.” Unlike partisan communication that is limited in distribution to a restricted class, independent expenditure activities are directed to the voting public. Few developments in campaigning have been as vilified and misunderstood as independent expenditures. Modestly put, independent expenditures serve to shine a light on a candidate’s strengths or weaknesses without interference from the campaign or party committees, thus the element of independence. None of the activities may be coordinated with the candidate. If such coordination occurs, those activities are deemed in-kind contributions, which is an illegal act. The enterprise of putting together independent expenditures is complex, but the tactics are simple. Broadcast advertising on television and radio, direct mail, email, texting, phone banks, social media and digital advertising are all allowed and used to sway voter’s perceptions. As a rule, any communication using the name or likeness of a candidate within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election is considered an independent expenditure and must be reported as such to federal and/or state agencies. Accordingly, independent expenditures most often serve to wrap up the campaign timeline just before Election Day.
The most important element in every election is getting voters to the polls — especially your voters. Get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts make the difference between a candidate winning and losing office. It sounds simple, but there can be many hurdles for good GOTV efforts. Before you start to craft any GOTV program, make sure you know the laws about voting in the districts of candidates you are targeting. It would be a shame for one of your champions to lose an election because you didn’t know your potential voters could register and cast a ballot on the same day, or that early voting is limited to voters who have petitioned to belong on a permanent early voting list. Once you learn the rules, begin to craft a game plan to make sure your constituents get their votes cast. Then, start applying tactics to those ideas. Do this early on in your planning. Every step you take in the political engagement path should lead up to and reinforce your GOTV strategy. A few common GOTV tactics for ensuring your voters cast their ballots include, but are not limited to, identifying your voters, having volunteers to help people with mobility issues get to the polls, ensuring team members poll watch in key precincts, sending information about your candidate of choice to your constituents who request absentee ballots, knocking on doors, dropping literature, making phone calls, sending emails and texting your stakeholders. The importance of GOTV efforts increases as the total percentage of the population voting decreases. As such, effective GOTV efforts have and can make a difference for your campaign’s or organization’s success.
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.