• Joshua Jones

It’s time for Republicans to reimagine campaign spending.

Joshua W. Jones | February 7, 2019

With an ever-increasing number of screens, more affordable digital printing and boundless technological advances, candidates and causes have more options than ever as they choose how to reach voters, persuade opinion and produce action on Election Day. Combined with traditional broadcast media, campaigns are faced with the question of how to spend finite campaign dollars in a world of infinite communication channels.

Campaigns need to begin weighing decisions in the same manner businesses make decisions about spending: “What is the return on investment?”

In the political world, investment can be measured in both dollars and time.

One thing is clear: as technology has increased so has the accessibility of campaigns to produce direct mail, televisions ads and digital media. While technological advances have leveled the playing field, the ease they provide has lead virtually every candidate to spend a significant percentage of their campaign budget on these impersonal communication channels.

As candidates permeate our airwaves, mailboxes and social media accounts, voters experience a type of fatigue in which campaigns begin to blend together, failing to leave a lasting impression that engages voters in a memorable, unique dialogue.

Perhaps, more devastating to a candidate is the fact that while some targeting does exist within these traditional channels, much of the message continues to focus on general issues rather than personality. Campaigns send a generic message and hope for the best.

Would an individual approach enhance a campaign’s return on investment?

Let’s take a look at some math.

In their book, Get Out the Vote: Every Vote Matters, Ivy league researchers Donald P. Green and Alan Gerber find that door to door canvassing costs $31 to produce one vote—making it more than three times cheaper than executing direct mail which ranges from $91 to $137 per vote. Commercial phone banking, another effective means of campaigning, costs between $58 and $125 per vote.

“Given the cost-effectiveness of in-person campaigning, here’s the bigger question: Can knocking on enough doors actually win an election? If it’s close, yes,” state Green and Gerber.

Green and Gerber find: the more personal interaction between the campaign and potential voter, the more it increases a person’s chance of voting. Door-to-door canvassing…is the gold standard mobilization tactic; chatty, unhurried phone calls seem to work well, too.

“One careful analysis contends that on-the-ground campaign activity in presidential battleground states nowadays raises turnout by more than 10 percentage points,” continued Green and Gerber.

Studies confirm that door-to-door canvassing can sway voter decisions. Vincent Pons, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, provides an estimate of the impact of door-to-door canvassing in François Hollande’s campaign in the 2012 French presidential election. In his research, Pons concludes that door-to-door canvassing produces one earned vote out of every 14 doors knocked.

According to Pons, the five million doors knocked by Hollande's campaign “increased Hollande’s vote share in the first round and accounted for one-fourth of his victory margin in the second.” As the impact of canvassing persisted in later elections, it suggests a lasting persuasion effect.

When door-to-door canvassing is not feasible, due to time constraints or a more rural landscape that cannot be easily walked, live operator phone banking proves to be the most effective and efficient means of communicating with voters. Allowing the campaign to reach voters in person, by phone, builds a personal connection while reaching a large number of voters in a very short time. Ideally, campaigns should combine canvassing and live phone banking in order to reach the largest number of voters multiple times.

It is important to note that live phone calls are increasingly important as a majority of American households have only wireless telephones, which, due to restrictions imposed by the Federal Communications Commission, are prohibited from receiving robocalls.

In order to win, campaigns need to tailor individualized messaging.

Voters need to feel listened to and respected. Canvassers have the highest chance of a successful interaction each time they talk to a voter with targeted messaging at the door. These messaging should focus on shared backgrounds, native languages at non-English doors and issue-based advocacy.

Today, door-to-door canvassing is much more than knocking on a door and just talking to voters. Voter mobilization has become a deeply data-driven science. Canvassers can engage with voters on social media, show videos at the door and capture data in real time all while engaging voters in a meaningful exchange that creates a personal connection.

Data in door-to-door canvassing can be collected and later used to maximize the impact of future voter contact through phone calls and more traditional communication channels such as direct mail. These tailored messages can focus on issues that voters have identified as important.

Democrats have been aware of the importance of on-the-ground campaign activities, with different programs and groups teaching organizers how to train grassroots volunteers and paid canvassers. A number of digital tools such including NGP VAN, New Voter Army, OutVote, VoteWithMe and VoterCircle, among others, prove to be extremely effective at mobilizing voters. These tools help to effectively target the voters that a campaign wants to engage.

Democratic campaigns have a distinct advantage as they have embraced and continued to develop tools that allow for direct voter interaction, while Republicans have continued to primarily focus on passive communications such as generalized mail and generic television ads. Having remained focused on grassroots activities, Democrats maintain a competitive advantage in preparing canvassers for door-to-door canvassing while many Republicans continue to use outdated data, printed walk lists and potentially unreliable volunteers.

While some Republican firms, such as September Group, LLC have shown demonstrated tremendous success in organizing door-to-door canvassing and live operator phone banking, many candidates simply fail to understand the importance of building a personal relationship with voters. And, many general consultants simply do not find the work "sexy."

As we enter the next election cycle, winning campaigns will most certainly be defined by a strong ground game where voters are engaged on a personal level that allows the campaign to speak directly to them about the issues that will persuade them and mobilize action on Election Day.

Will your campaign join the conversation?


Joshua W. Jones is the President and CEO of Halifax Strategies, Inc. and Red|Clay Communications. As an award winning public relations and public affairs practitioner, he has provided strategic counsel to some of the world's leading corporations, political candidates and associations.