What Does "Field" Actually Do on a Campaign?
We have already tons of articles touting Sen. Obama’s massive field operation, both in Florida and across the country. We have also read less convincing accounts about how Sen. McCain’s operation is catching up (it’s not).
We have also all read about this year’s unprecedented ground operation by a presidential candidate is going to change the electoral map and be the difference maker in this election.
I’m actually going to limit my comments on that issue, because the plain fact is, I just don’t know what’s going to happen. This is, as I said, unprecedented. It involves not just traditional field operations (which I will discuss in a moment), but also massive voter registration operations (which are not, typically the purview of presidential campaigns; not because they don’t see the value, but because they are notoriously expensive in terms a dollars per voter registered and turned out ratio – much more expensive than focusing on already registered voters who are more of a “sure thing”).
What I can intelligently talk about (I hope) is what a traditional field operation, including GOTV (Get Out the Vote) looks like and what is can achieve.
In larger races – from Congressional races to statewide races (and even larger legislative races – such as in California, where State Senate Districts are larger than Congressional Districts), conventional wisdom says that a strong field campaign is worth 1-5 percentage points. So why is it so important? Because truly competitive races come down to around that margin.
The confusion sets when people misunderstand the role of field in the campaign.
Congressional races, for example deal with such large numbers of votes that a field operation is generally limited to moving the needle the aforementioned 1-5 points. In our own, much discussed (on this blog, anyway) 10th Congressional district, almost 200,000 voters cast ballots in a race that was about as unexciting (to a political junkie, anyway) and non-competitive as you can get around here (Young trounced Simpson by a 2-to-1 margin). Congressional races usually have relative small numbers of staff – a campaign manager, a fundraiser, communications director, field director, and maybe some additional part time and junior staff, including, on some races, a paid canvass team. What they do not have is 50 people knocking on doors for six hours a day, seven days a week. The hard work of their staff and the commitment of dedicated volunteers can work miracles, but even miracles have their limits.
If you’re down by 15 points, your field operation can’t move you to a dead heat. That’s the responsibility of your media operation. A field operation carries you across the finish line, but if you’re not near the front of the pack when that moment comes around, you’re still not coming in first place.
On smaller races – our local state house races, city council and mayoral races – field plays a much larger role. Why? Because everything is smaller.
In one of the most contested local races in recent memory – Darden Rice’s challenge to sitting St. Petersburg City Counciman Earnie Williams – barely 31,000 people turned out to vote for the run-off.
With such a comparatively small “universe” (political jargon for a group of voters, defined by certain characteristics – in this case by the characteristic of having turned out to vote for the District 6 city council races), it is possible to knock on the door or make a phone call to virtually every likely voter through a combination of efficient use of candidate time, a hard working campaign manager, and dedicated volunteers.
I have worked on races where the total votes cast, in a field of five candidates, was less than 3,000. In a race like that, it is often the case that the candidate who knocks on the most doors (provided s/he is doing that efficiently – knocking on the doors of likely voters, for example) wins.
So what does a good field plan look like?
It contains two basic components – the persuasive and the GOTV stages.
The persuasive stage is the first stage and it involves targeting and contacting the persuasion universe. The persuasion universe consists of people who may or may not vote for you. If you are a Republican, there are Democrats who consistently vote in Democratic primaries (and not just in presidential years), the best criteria to determine when someone strongly self-identifies with their party, and these voters are not part of your persuadable universe. Why? Because they have probably already made up their minds to vote for the Democrat. Yes, but it is possible to change their mind – if they just see where the Republican stands, surely we can convince them too… Yes, yes. I understand where you’re going, but the most important resource on a campaign is time, because it is the one resource that you can never get more of. Every minute that Republican candidate spends trying to convince that strong Democratic voter of his/her merits is a minute not being spent on the undecided voter two doors down.
For this same, hypothetical Republican, a registered Republican who votes regularly in Republican primaries is also not in the persuadable universe. Why? Because they are probably already persuaded by the “R” after the candidate’s name. Why waste your resources persuading them of what they already believe?
During the canvass, the goal is to identify voters who indicated they will likely vote for your candidate. These voters will eventually be put into your GOTV or “run” universe (on election day, reminding voters to turn out and getting them to the polls is calling “running votes,” hence run universe).
The goal is to create run universe that is equal to your “win” number (the number of votes you think you need to win – plus a cushion, so you’re not just threading the needle). However, it is unlikely you will identify that many voters, so your run universe will be boosted with voters who are likely to be on your side without needing to be persuaded. That will include not just partisans, but also people who identify with the candidate for other reasons. An example of that would be Mayor Bob Hackworth run universe for the Democratic primary for CD 10 including not just identified voters, but also all Democrats in Dunedin, who are sufficiently likely to vote for their hometown candidate over the other candidates to run virtually all of them leading up to the primary.
A good field plan includes multiple contacts to the run universe over the last week. I like to make one contact to everyone over the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday before the election, another contact the day before, and then nonstop efforts on Election Day to keep contacting everyone in your universe until they have voted or the polls are close.
If you do this people will tell that you will lose votes. They are wrong. Winning campaigns rely on multiple contacts to every voter. The trick is to vary the contacts so they are not all on the phone (see this article about Obama’s text messaging campaign). As a final rebuttal to the naysayers, I will point out President Bush’s 2004 contacted their voters many times leading up to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November and, well, things seemed to work out ok for them.
The one issue I haven’t mentioned is absentee ballots. Campaigns generally encourage their run universe to vote absentee and their persuasion universe also includes virtually everyone who has requested an absentee ballot. Why? Because someone who requests an absentee ballot is a very, very likely voter. The question is less whether or not they will vote, but who they will vote for.