3 min read

You can't win every vote

Winning elections hinges on targeting core voters & independents first, rather than chasing cross-party appeal—focus on what matters most: winning.
You can't win every vote

A top priority when running a political campaign is to win as many votes as possible.


But sometimes the pursuit of this goal, if taken to the extreme, can impede the highest priority: winning the election.


Let's take a step back. How do you win votes? By communicating with as many voters as you can, as many times as is necessary to make an impression.

The second clause in that sentence is the most important.

What do you think wins more votes?

A) A single piece of mail sent to 1,200 voters
B) 3 pieces of mail sent to 400 voters

I would argue option B would likely yield more votes, especially in a competitive race during a busy campaign season.

Sending out a single piece of mail to a voter probably won't win them over, because the message probably won't get through. Sure, some may read it front to back and decide to vote for you, but many won't take the time. They'll glance at the headline with the candidate's name on it, and that's about it. And that quick glance probably won't stick in their brains longer than 15 seconds.

Now, if I can send that same voter 3 or more pieces of mail, there's a much higher chance the message actually gets through eventually, because even if they only glance at it, they're glancing at it three times (or more).

This isn't an exact rule or science. But over the course of countless elections where I've sent out several hundred unique pieces of mail over the years, I generally don't feel as though a message on mail has broken through unless it gets in front of voters at least three times. It's just a rule of thumb.

So let's say we have a Republican running against a Democrat.

To make the math easy, let's pretend there are 1,000 voters.

400 are Democrats. 400 are Republicans. 200 are Independents.

Assuming limited resources (which most local campaigns are constrained by), and assuming the candidate is a Democrat, the choice is:

Communicate with Democrats, with a 90% conversion rate.

Communicate with Independents, with a 60% conversion rate.

Communicate with Republicans, with a 10% conversion rate.

(These specific numbers are obviously created for the purpose of this example, but isn't too distance from what most campaigns would need to consider in real life.)

So each dollar spent on Democrats yields .90 of value, .60 for independents, and only .10 for Republicans.

Needing 50%+1 to win, the obvious decision is to focus only on Democrats and Independents. If you move resources to Republicans, you're sacrificing an expense that returns 60-90 cents in exchange for one that earns 10 cents.

This would not be a good strategy.

Many candidates, however, are allured by the 10-cent returns. In most cases, they feel they've already "checked the box" for their own party and possibly even the independents.

Thinking they've already saturated their base, they either want to see themselves as a truly bipartisan figure, capable of winning over everyone (even Republicans!), or they want to run up their vote count, or a combination of both.

But in some cases, spending time and money trying to win over voters who aren't likely to vote for you means you are spending less time and money trying to lock in the voters who are likely to vote for you. In some cases, it may be true that you have already maxed out your vote share among your own party. But this is hard to do in a non-partisan race (where political party isn't listed on the ballot). And so many candidates feel the box is checked before it actually is.

Here's how this has played out in real life:

Money is spent on reaching out to Democrats & Independents, but likely not enough to feel the message has saturated, meaning the votes haven't been really secured.

With the remaining funds, the candidate asks if we should try to reach out to all voters, because "there will probably be some Republicans who will vote for me," which isn't an untrue statement, but "some" and "a small percentage" are synonymous. So they might get a handful of Republican votes (10%!), but may be sacrificing 30% of independents and 15% of Democrats in order to do so. And so now they're winning only 75% of Democrats and only 30% of independents, which mathematically puts their campaign in peril.

Now, if you've sent resources and messaging to Democrats and Independents five times or more, you can start having the conversation about reaching out to the opposite party. But doing so before you've locked up your core voters is flirting with disaster.

Of course, in difficult races, the registration numbers might be so lopsided that you're forced to win a significant number of voters from the other side in order to have a chance. But you'll still have the same requirement that you shore up your own party and independents first. It just means your campaign will require even more resources to reach saturation with a larger number from the opposite party.

Don't worry about running up the score. Don't worry about cross-party appeal. Worry about winning the election.