In 1996, Democrats in North Carolina professionalized their legislative campaigns. For decades, they had relied primarily on local party bosses and precinct chairs to deliver votes. The system was outdated and ineffective and the 1994 Republican rout exposed its weaknesses.
The end of the patronage system left very few individuals or organizations who could actually deliver votes. Also, the state really did have two parties after almost a century with a single party with two distinct wings. And Republicans seemed to be the party of new ideas, instead of tired ones.
Democrats went from a solid majority in both houses of the legislature to a minority party in the state house and only held the state senate by two votes. Wise leaders realized something had to change to stop the hemorrhaging. Instead of pursuing opinion leaders who could deliver blocks of voters, Democrats would need to take their case to each individual voter. So, they set up a caucus organization that offered candidate training, stressed raising money over personal appearances, and introduced polling, message development and targeted communications.
Initially, candidates resisted. They were sticker shocked by the price of these new campaigns. They didn’t like making calls for money and they didn’t like polling. “Why do I need a poll to tell me what I think,” was a common refrain. But polling doesn’t tell candidates what to think, it tells campaigns about the voters. Legislators and candidates who bought into the system did well and, over the next decade, Democrats re-established their legislative dominance.
All of that changed in 2010 when Republicans gained control of both houses of the legislature for the first time in more than a century. What didn’t change was the way Democrats run campaigns. Like the party bosses who resisted change in the mid-1990s, much of the establishment today is relying on tactics and strategies that are outdated and ineffective.
We are in the midst of a technological and communications revolution. Voters no longer receive information like they did just five years ago, much less 20 years ago. While traditional communication flows one way, from campaign to voter, today’s communication flows both ways and is more conversational. Instead of force-feeding voters information, we need to engage them.
We now have the technology to engage each voter on the issues most important to them. Communications today is as much about collecting information as it is about disseminating it. The more we know, the more specific the conversation becomes.
And these conversations need to start earlier. Traditionally, we’ve told candidates to save their money until last few weeks of the election. Campaigns that wait to begin communicating until after Labor Day will miss the opportunity build and solidify support early. In many races, this support could be the difference between winning and losing, particularly in challenger races.
Still, the largest percentage of a campaign budget should be spent in the final weeks of the campaign and traditional mediums, like television and direct mail, continue to be powerful, cost-effective ways to reach large numbers of voters. However, a new generation of engaged voters gets its information differently than at any time in the past. If Democrats hope to steal a race or two in heavily gerrymandered districts, we should be reaching out to them instead of hoping that they come to us.
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