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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How to Spend the Cash

So now that you’ve raised all that money, what do you do with it?

Yards signs! Billboards! High priced consultants! Emery boards with your name printed on them in bright, bold letters! Frisbees with your name printed on them in bright, bold letters!

The possibilities are endless… by which I mean opportunities for candidates to spend their name on truly useless crap.

One rule of thumb is that 75-85% of your budget should go to direct voter contact – and that means that your yard signs, your staff, your office supplies, food for events, t-shirts, and any other little knick-knack you want to invest money in… well, that comes out of that 25-15% not devoted to direct voter contact.

And people, remember, this is for your benefit, not mine. Trying to fudge the numbers and/or push it closer to 25% than 15% doesn’t hurt me, but it does waste your money – money that was given to you by hard-working people who believe in you.

So what does count? What should you be spending the lion’s share of your budget on? What exactly is “direct voter contact?”

Direct voter contact is anything that reaches out to a voter in your universe. A billboard on U.S. 19 spends a great deal of its time reaching out to Canadian tourists. A direct mail piece, on the other hand, can be sent directly to a specific universe of voters that you need (for more information on universes and targeting, see my post on field operations).

A cable television buy is a little more random, but can be targeted at households in zip codes within your district and further targeted by playing during certain programs (for example, a commercial touting one’s support for education can be shown on different channels and during different programs than an ad touting one’s support for the right bring a concealed AK-47 with you to church). Television ads, like radio ads, also provide a certain amount of credibility to one’s campaign. In our culture, when you appear on TV or (to a lesser extent) on the radio, you are perceived as having crossed a certain threshold that legitimizes you.

That is not to say that you need TV. Mitch Kates recently spoke about eschewing television advertising in Kevin Beckner’s recent campaign for Hillsborough County Commissioner. Cable is relatively affordable, as is radio, but you need a lot of hits for a message to sink in. If you don’t have the resources to put up an aggressive and sustained television campaign or if the opportunity cost is too great, then it is a waste of money to go on television.

In most local and legislative races, direct mail will take up a great deal of the budget. Costs for design, printing, and mailing will run you anywhere from 50 cents to $1 per mail piece (most mail pieces are printed on glossy, decent stock, which costs more). There are ways to cut down costs, but cheap mail tends to look cheap and also tends to arrive in voters’ mailboxes the day after the election. Trust me. It’s worth to pay for quality.

For me, a good direct mail program means that at least seven pieces of mail, with every voter in your targeted universe getting at least five pieces (the remaining two could be targeted at subsets within the universe, such as women, families with children, independents, or ethnic communities).

One test I sometimes use in candidate trainings is to ask, if I send out a flyer to nurses, Democratic men and women who are also independents or no party voters – how many hits have we done?

Most folks will say three, but the correct answer is one. Why? Because you never made a concerted effort to hit any particular voter more than once.

Voter contact is all about multiple contacts. It’s about a single voter that you need seeing you on television, seeing you in their mailbox, seeing you knock on their door, and hearing a volunteer call them on the phone.

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