Oct 4, 2018

Targeting in the final stretch

Get Out The Vote (GOTV) programs are one of the best opportunities for impact in the final days before an election.

Catherine Tarsney

Outreach in the final days before an election has the biggest effect on getting voters to the polls, making Get Out The Vote (GOTV) programs one of the best opportunities for impact. GOTV is also the time when inefficiencies and mistakes carry the highest risk. Over these next weeks, every campaign should be asking the strategic question: are we talking to the right voters? The stakes only get higher from here to Election Day, and every dollar or hour spent talking to voters who are already certain to vote – or who are certain to support your opponent – is wasted at best and counterproductive at worst.


So, who should your GOTV program target? The best voters to talk to in this final stretch are people who definitely favor your candidate, but who are inconsistent voters, likely to be on the fence between voting and staying home. Campaigns often find these voters using GOTV models, which rank potential targets by combining two pieces of information – expected support and turnout – into one clear metric. If you don’t have a GOTV model, use the data available to your campaign to identify likely supporters (high support score or identified support in the field or in polls) with a mixed turnout history (middling turnout score or inconsistent vote history in similar elections).

Here are three guiding principles to keep in mind as you identify target voters and build a plan to reach them over the next month:

  1. Start with people, not program.
  2. Build a framework, and be ready for the details to change.
  3. Improve future targeting: don’t stop entering data.

Start with People, Not Program

Mobilizing the right people to vote – supporters who might not turn out if they don’t hear from you – is your central job during GOTV. And you have a range of tactics available for reaching these voters: field outreach, digital ads, mail, and more. But none of these on their own is your GOTV strategy.

We recommend building a strategy around the people you need to reach rather than around the programs you want to run. If you start with people, it’s easier to take a comprehensive view of how voters are experiencing your campaign – and to make sure no votes are being left on the table. Here are a few specific tips:

  • Make sure your best GOTV targets are all covered through some program. Think about the available options for reaching target voters, and assign them to specific lists (mail, digital ads, knocks, etc.) based on a combination of factors: 1) available information (e.g., you can only text people who have cell phones); 2) information you know about which mediums they’re most likely to be responsive to (e.g., have you already had an effective interaction with a voter through a specific outreach type?). In general, the first GOTV conversation you have with a voter is the most effective one, so it’s better to have one good contact with a larger list of voters than to talk to a smaller number of voters multiple times. But including someone in a list doesn’t guarantee a successful contact. So, targeting people through multiple programs and planning for 3 to 4 “attempts” within each medium can increase the chance of having one good conversation before Election Day. As you get a clearer sense of your GOTV capacity over the final weeks, take a step back, look holistically at the voters you need to reach, and make adjustments to ensure you’re talking to as many good targets as you can at least once across mediums.

“The first GOTV conversation you have with a voter is the most effective one, so it’s better to have one good contact with a larger list of voters than to talk to a smaller number of voters multiple times.”

  • Give voters a cohesive experience. The more you can connect the dots across your points of contact with a voter, the more they’ll feel like they’re having an ongoing conversation with your campaign over time. If you’re collecting information at the door about the issues people care about, have a plan for following up to give them more information about those issues. If voters are filling out “commit to vote” cards, remind them of that commitment, for instance by mailing that card back to them close to Election Day.
  • Trust your targeting. Once you’ve set up a targeting framework, be cautious about throwing it out the window just because you have capacity to expand a specific program. I’ve seen numerous campaigns scramble to find more voters to text on Election Day because volunteers are excited about this new tactic. This comes with real risks – both of errors because of sleep-deprived GOTV list pulling, and of inefficiencies from talking to voters you know less about with data that hasn’t been thoroughly cleaned. Instead, be ready to redistribute capacity – get volunteers knocking doors or making calls to your top-tier targets who haven’t been successfully contacted.

Build a Framework, And Be Ready for the Details to Change

A lot can change in a month, so balance early planning with using the most up-to-date information in the final days. Concretely, this means:

  • Figure out the parameters of your GOTV universe in advance, but don’t lock in the final lists until you have to. Know the logic you’ll use to identify target voters while at the same time understanding that the specific people on your list might be different in a month because of updated models, or because you’ll have collected more information through field contacts. Add newly identified supporters and new Democrats you’ve registered to vote; remove anyone who has already voted early before you finalize your universe. Internally, your team should identify deadlines for locking in exact lists; it’s easier to make last-minute adjustments on digital lists (mobile canvassing, SMS, digital ads) than on printed ones (printed canvass packets, mail). Know the dates you’re working toward, and think about how you’ll “refresh” your universe to identify new, top-tier targets and make sure they’re folded into a program.
  • Use the data you collect before GOTV to refine your targeting. Beyond identifying supporters and non-supporters over the next month, use voter contact programs to improve the quality of your data by by scrubbing bad phone numbers from your list, learning what houses are inaccessible to canvassers, and so on. While conversations in the final days have the biggest direct effect on turning out voters, this pre-GOTV list cleaning is key to maximizing your efficiency in the final stretch.
  • Build your GOTV universe in tiers or ranks. Having tiers makes it possible to scale the size of your lists up or down in the final weeks. Rank order your GOTV targets, with the people who are most likely to support Democrats but need to be nudged to turn out at the top of the list. Slightly weaker supporters, and supporters who are more likely to vote without a reminder, should be a bit lower on your list, and may fall into a second tier that you’ll reach only if you have budget and capacity. Within a tiered framework, you can make quick strategic decisions without having to rebuild your plan from scratch when your available resources change in the final weeks.
  • Prepare for Election Day needs. Things might feel crazy now, but the intensity will only go up from here. Prepare in advance for targeting needs that you anticipate arising on Election Day. Many Election Day lists are needed because polling locations or hours shift at the last minute and you’ll want to quickly share updated information about where and when to vote with supporters in the affected area. If you have a base universe defined in advance (saved as a list or search in your CRM you can easily access), you’ll be able to quickly narrow down to specific parts of that universe – such as targets in a single precinct – to create a list in the final hours.

Improve Future Targeting: Don't Stop Entering Data

One final thought (and general plea): Keep entering organizing data as Election Day approaches. Mobile canvassing apps and other digital engagement tools are a great starting point for minimizing data entry needs. You could also host post-election data entry parties. Future campaigns will learn from the work you’re doing in this final stretch, from the voters you’ve talked to, and the data you’ve collected. You are contributing to a foundation that will help organize and support future candidates for years to come.

The last month of a campaign is a special time. Focus on the things that matter, remember why you’re doing this work, and go talk to some (targeted) voters!

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