The smaller an electorate, the more unpredictable the results become. 135,835,472 voters showed up in the November 2016 General Election (67% of registered). Only 14.8% of registered voters participated in the GOP Primary. Out of those, 14,015,993 supported Trump, which translates to 7% of the electorate.
Now think of the effect on even smaller races, like those for your state legislature.
If state legislative elections affect your organization or interest in any way, you need to be tracking what happens in State House, Assembly, and Senate races. Moreso, you should be using this information to inform your contributions, efforts, and energy.
Look at Historical Voter Data
Think about this: A couple thousand people could determine if your House Speaker is re-elected or not, assuming the district has a Republican or Democratic primary turnout of 5,000 or so. The key is to know ahead of time exactly who those 5,000 voters are, which is possible by looking at historical voter data. No. Not historical election data.
Humans are creatures of habit. Their past behavior will predict future actions. If a voter has a sporadic primary participation history, they have a low propensity to turnout in the upcoming primary election. Likewise, a “super voter” will always turnout, assuming her or she is not dead…(though we’ve heard that doesn’t apply to Democrats). Kidding!
Don’t fall into the trap of just looking at the old-school 3-of-4 or 4-of-4 voters. Instead, look back at the past eight elections of any type, then filter over that primary participation to get a more accurate look. Pay attention to geographical breakdowns as there is such a thing as “being from the wrong part of the district.”
Play in the Primaries
The polarization of politics has led to fewer competitive general elections, forcing the real races to be decided in primary elections. Just look at Congress over the last sixty years.
Polarization in Congress is directly attributable to districts that reward candidates of a certain party in addition to a more populist electorate in the Midwest, South, and now Rust Belt. And we’ve yet to see what affect populist Bernie Sanders voters will play in Democrat primaries moving forward.
Therefore, if you want to build relationships with candidates and elected officials, you must participate in the primaries. That means giving to primary candidates, which can be scary if you haven’t done so in the past. For that reason, it is imperative to know who is likely to win and could/does support your issue. The imperative here is “could,” because you have to initiate a relationship first to be successful.
Plan Financial Support Ahead
If you usually give half your money to Republicans and half to Democrats in a general election, participating in primaries requires more planning. Work with leadership of your organization and of the legislature to determine which incumbents are running again and deserve your support.
Then conclude what criteria a challenger candidate or open-seat candidate must have to be given a contribution in the primary. Give half the expected amount upfront and hold back the rest for when the candidate needs it. Remember to keep a percentage of your primary giving in reserves for those heated races where you need to go above and beyond in your support.
Always plan to participate in leadership’s unified effort if there is one, because it continues a positive relationship between you and those making the big decisions.
Conduct Internal Polling
Although polling got a tough rap in the 2016 election cycle, that was only public polling for the most part. Our firm and other counterparts in the polling industry had solid, accurate numbers for clients conducting internal polling. Why? Because we have a profit motive to be right; public pollsters have no account for their irresponsible reportings.
[Steps off soapbox.] If you are giving hundreds of thousands of dollars (or millions) each cycle, you need to conduct your own internal polling of key races. Why invest $10,000 in a race where your candidate is guaranteed to win or guaranteed to lose?
Don’t think a quick brushfire poll (favorability questions, head-to-head, and an issue or two) will cost you an arm and a leg. They’re feasible for around $4,000, and you could even split the cost with several other like-minded organizations. Remember, information is power in politics, so by conducting your own polls, you are gaining more than just insight into a given race. You are also producing highly-valued information in your political circle.
Passiveness is for pansies. If that stung, then it’s time to adjust your political efforts and shift strategies to one that will yield fruit. Get involved in primaries, but only after you’ve done your homework and made a commitment to continually tracking important races.
It can be scary to completely change your approach to electoral participation, but the times they are a changing! Change with them or get left behind.