I’m often asked by political candidates what methods and strategies are most effective in a local election campaign. As a former political campaign consultant and a current elected official, I’ve been able to test just about every candidate marketing vehicle you can think of, and have a pretty good general feel for what works and what doesn’t work in local campaigning.
So here’s my two cents: if done correctly and vigorously, door-to-door campaigning is the single most effective political campaign tool you can employ in a local election. Targeted direct mail, though, runs a close second, and in some cases is even a more pragmatic method than canvassing neighborhoods.
Remember my mantra: the harder it is to do, the better it works in local political campaigns. Door-to-door campaigning is very difficult to employ without an army of volunteers. Visiting every home in your district, while an extremely effective way to earn votes, can take months of tiring dedication.
An effective targeted direct mail campaign, though, can be equally difficult to launch. Not only because of the research that is needed to create targeted mail lists and design effective mail pieces, postcards and literature. The real difficulty with direct mail comes from raising the large amounts of money that it takes to get your campaign mail into the hands of the voters.
Of course, door-to-door campaigning and direct mail are two methods that overlap a bit in terms of materials used. For instance, I always make sure that the direct mail postcards, fliers and literature that I have printed for local campaigning can also be used as a door card to drop at someone’s home. You’ll usually have excess copies of a flier or postcard even after the mail goes out to voters, and it’s never a good idea to waste any resources.
But let’s get back to the strategies you should use in direct mail and what you should consider when designing and printing your postcards and fliers. Remember, we are talking about targeted direct mail here. And that means that each of your mail pieces are designed to target a specific voting bloc or demographic.
Yes, targeted mailers are a good campaigning practice even in the smallest local elections. Your average inexperienced local candidate will print a single postcard that he uses to drop at every single door in his district and send to every single voter. While this might work if you’re a shoo-in incumbent or don’t have a serious opponent, it’s not a very smart strategy.
Instead of just printing a single postcard or mailer to send to every single voter in your district, take a moment to consider what message might appeal to the different groups of people in your community who share common interests and backgrounds. I’m not necessarily talking about political affiliations, either.
Even if you’re running for office in a very small local election with just a couple of thousand voters, you can still divide the electorate into segments that will respond favorably to different messages. Homeowners who are raising young families, for example. Female voters, senior citizens, Independent-minded voters, residents who are particularly affected by an issue that is unique to their ward . . . you get the idea.
There’s nothing wrong with still sending out a common mailer to every voter in your district, of course, which includes a generalized campaign message. But consider taking the extra time to identify voter groups that might respond even more favorably to a postcard or flier that is designed especially with them in mind.
For some candidates, identifying those groups won’t be a problem, but actually figuring out how to create the mail lists to target those voters might be a tall order. It’s really not as difficult as you might think, but it does take a while to put together.
Using the Excel voter lists that you can obtain from your local board of elections (or by going through your local political party leadership), it’s simple to start organizing voters into lists of males, females, age groups, addresses and so forth. While it might take a few weeks to categorize a list of thousands of voters, you’ll find that it’s time well-spent in the last month of the campaign when your direct mail starts going out.
The final–and most important–part of implementing your local targeted direct mail campaign is, unfortunately, raising enough money to actually pay for postage. Political campaign mailers are expensive . . . but there are ways to save money on each mailer. That’s a topic for another post, and we’ll focus more on fundraising and postage later.