Getting Democrats to vote Republican

Read the news and you'll see how Congress and most state legislatures have devolved into what the late political consultant Joe Scarola describes as "two armed camps". That's because since the 1990 census -- the first of the personal computer era -- precise political gerrymandering has created increasingly safe legislative and congressional districts. Which means that for two decades most lawmakers haven't had to reach across the aisle -- neither in the Capitol nor in their districts.

It's as if they've forgotten how. Or never learned.

Fortunately a few of us were involved in GOP races in the era before Reagan and Gingrich, before Excel (and Lotus and and VisiCalc before that) and before Republican-controlled reapportionment. Back then, winning in Democrat districts was both essential and routine.

Here is what we learned:

If they know you, they'll vote for you.

It's hard pill to swallow for someone who lives, eats and breathes politics, but most people don't. They don't pay attention to it. They don't watch it on the news. It doesn't come up in discussions with their friends. They wouldn't even vote were they not reminded by all the election-week TV ads, junk mail and robocalling. So they show up at the polls and cast a more-or-less informed vote in the high-visibility races (President, governor and maybe US Senator) and then choose the remaining names on the basis of party affiliation. If they consider themselves Democrat, they check the boxes next to the D names. And vice versa if they're Republicans. (Very few are truly independent, despite what we hear. When they're staring at the ballot, they choose R or D. Every time. Your precinct research proves it.)

Habitual Democrat voters will "split their ticket" and vote for a lesser-known Republican candidate if they feel they know that candidate, i.e. they remember meeting the candidate or they recall hearing from a friend or colleague who's supporting that candidate.

In some cases they'll vote for an opposing-party candidate if they remember both the candidate's name and his or her position on a heartfelt issue. That's a big if. Please don't think it can be done with mailings and Facebook friends. Your media campaign will never be as effective as you'd like because if it's early in the game, people won't remember and if it's late in the game, your message will be lost in the noise of other, better-funded candidates. If you rely on social media and targeted online advertising, you'll never reach enough people to make a difference.

To win you must do two things:

1. Get the Republicans to the polls.

2. Make sure enough Democrat voters remember you fondly when the ballot-booth curtain closes.

Don't make it any more complicated than that, and you'll find it easier to manage the task.

Personal contact works

Open your Filpac system, and pull a sample of 100 from any one precinct. If could choose only one, which would be the can't-miss method of getting the most to vote for you?

Send them a mailing? Post a sign in the neighborhood? Hope they see your Facebook posting or online ad? Pepper them with automated calls? Or knock on their doors and follow up with personal notes?

The answer is obvious. Personal contact will yield the best results.

Personal contact means addressing the voter by name and asking for his or her support in a method they'll appreciate. And remember.

The greater the degree of personalization, the more effective the result. For example, if you knock on a door and nobody's home, leaving a preprinted card will show them someone stopped by. But the effective is no greater than a simple "literature drop". If the card is signed with a message that addresses the members of the household personally, i.e. "To the McGee family", the effectiveness is multiplied. If the household receives another visit or note in the week before the election, referencing the earlier visit, you've sealed the deal.

The Filpac system makes it easy to record thousands of these contacts on a weekly basis. So then the election approaches, you'll know whom you reached months before.

But then the list in the example above is only one hundred. In the real world it's closer to a hundred thousand. What then?

Multiply yourself

The way to win is to replicate a system of personal contact across the county or district. You can't do it yourself. Which is why recruiting makes all the difference.

Precinct Canvassing

Read the interview with Dave Brat's campaign manager. It works! It takes lots of time and people but it's been proven over the years to be the most effective method of turning votes. If you work from a walking list you'll avoid the homes where no one's registered and you'll be able to address the person by name when he or she answers the door. And if there's no answer, you can still make personal contact by leaving a short note that addresses the person by name. If you've checked off that household in your Filpac system, you can reference your visit in follow-up mailings.

If they see that you remember knocking on their door, they'll remember you on election day.

Endorsement post cards

The general method by which supporters send personally-addressed and signed cards to households on the precinct lists. This is the best way to establish personal contact in areas that can't be canvassed. Gather a group of supporters from the precinct and have everyone select the names of those they know. Then, once they've written out the cards, they can fill the rest of the time addressing and signing cards to those who were not selected from the list. The basic message is the same: "Please vote for my friend ________ on Tuesday." The completed cards are stored and safeguarded for mailing late in the week before the election.

Neighborhood coffee parties

Everyone likes to entertain. So most supporters of yours will be happy to host a one-hour "coffee party" in their neighborhoods. (We use the term "coffee party" as a reminder that there's no alcohol at these events.) Once the date and time is established, a post card is sent to the neighborhood advertising the event. The host is responsible for generating a turnout of at least 15. The effect is huge and twofold: 1) everyone in the neighborhood will see the personal endorsement of the person willing to host the candidate, and 2) many of those in attendance might become important volunteers and recruiters, if properly approached.

Schedule two coffee parties on a weeknight: 6:30 and 8. This enables the candidate to spend an hour at the first and then sneak away to arrive at the second in time. Once you've done a few, you'll develop your own method. That's when you recruit someone to fill the open weeknights with coffee parties throughout the district.

Methods that don't work

It's easy to become enthralled by social media, which can be effective because of the thousands of personal endorsements conveyed when hundreds of supporters "like" a particular candidate. But there's no way of knowing exactly who's been reached, and how many of those are registered to vote in the district. Which is why a social media campaign that's employed to shortcut the hard work of recruiting and personal contact is bound to fall short. Elsewhere on this site we've expressed our reservations about robocalls and "cookie targeting". The problem with email marketing is that, unless you can prove that recipients have opted IN, you won't find an email firm willing to handle your list.

Phone-calling works if there's a live voice on the line but usually only as a reminder to vote or to follow up a mailer about a local event. (Check into renting an automated phone system that auto-dials from an imported phone list and opens the line to your volunteer only when someone answers. We've seen one case where six volunteers completed about 1,000 dialings in an hour.)

Don't try to mimic the Democrats' digital campaign

Much has been made of Obama's success -- and Romney's failure -- in reaching voters through social media and online ads. Most of the post-mortem discussion among Republicans jealous to "catch up" is blind to the very clear fact that the Democrat vote is concentrated in cities while the Republican vote is dispersed throughout the suburbs and countryside. If you wish to digitally reach a large enough bloc of voters to make a difference, then the only way to do it, as far as we can tell, is geographically. Which is why Democrats will always enjoy the advantage in this particular technique.

This doesn't mean you should eschew digital campaigning -- just be realistic about its effect and reach. It can be invaluable in the week before the election, once you've recruited an army of helpers and then turned them loose with a Facebook strategy.