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Voter Turn Out is the Key - True, or Not

By Glen Caroline


Prior to every election, we hear the familiar chorus from political professionals and pundits:  "turn out is key."  But is this merely a regurgitation of the obvious, or is there more to what appears to be a well-rehearsed cliché?  The answers are "yes" and "yes".


Political practitioners keenly understand that turning out their candidate's supporters offers the best chance to get more votes than their opponents - the goal of any election.  So, yes, there are no surprises in stressing the significance of turn out.


However, if we drill down deeper and try to understand what actually goes into a sophisticated, coordinated Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign, we realize that there is nothing simplistic about this oft-repeated statement.


One thing in any campaign that is finite is time.  You generally have no more or no less time than your opponent to put in place a strategy you feel confident will produce victory.  Therefore, every minute, hour, day, or week that goes by without strategizing about turning out the vote is one minute, hour, day, or week that you will never get back.  To ensure you deliver the votes on Election Day, your GOTV plan must be in place months before the period in which it will be activated-usually the last two weeks of the election.


As soon as the campaign kicks off, you should use a "reverse calendar" to determine what components of your GOTV plan need to be in place, and by when, to ensure that in the closing weeks of the election, you are implementing, not devising, a GOTV plan.


One of the keys to a successful GOTV plan is accurate voter identification, where you canvas potential voters to find out if they are with you or agin you.  Much of the campaign season will be dedicated to convincing the undecided voters, but during your intensive GOTV operation, the main goal is turning out those voters who already support you, not trying to convince those who show no potential to break your way on Election Day.  Whether you do door-to-door canvassing, phone banks, mail, e-mail, or web-based surveys, you must identify the universe that you will be turning out so that during the GOTV campaign, precious time isn't wasted chasing down, and turning out, voters who don't support your candidate. 


Identify constituencies that have a natural tendency to support your candidate and nail them down first.  Make sure they can be counted on not only to support, but to vote for, your candidate.  Separate these lists from those who support your opponent and those who are undecided.  Ignore those voters who are supporting the opposition.  Then, once you've made every effort to convince the "undecideds", you must determine how much capital to spend continuing to reach out to them in the hopes they vote the right way.  If money is no object, this decision will be made much easier.  If, however, as is most often the case, resources become scarce, you mustn't spend precious currency on those who present an uncertainty, until after you have shored up your base and done what needs to be done to assure they vote on Election Day.


Once you know on whom you need to focus your GOTV efforts, the key is to "leave no stone unturned."  Remember, this isn't the period to spin your wheels engaged in endless debates and campaigns of convincing.  This is the time to ensure all who have indicated support for your candidate take the ultimate step of volunteerism and go to the polls to vote on Election Day!  This means visiting them, calling them, e-mailing them, driving them to the polls, confirming they have received and cast an absentee/early ballot, etc.  It's better that these voters receive five contacts from you during your GOTV crusade, than it is to run the risk they receive none.  You can always apologize for repetitive overtures after the election!


Many in the campaign business think that the GOTV operation ends on Election Day.  Those who subscribe to this theory do so at their own peril.  Win or lose, there is still work to do with supporters after the election.  Regardless of the outcome, those voters who supported (and worked) for your candidate need to be thanked.  The best gift a voter can give a candidate is his or her confidence in the

form of a vote.  Make sure the candidate (not campaign staff) acknowledges how much he or she appreciated receiving this gift. 


Again, win or lose, if the candidate (or lawmaker) is contemplating running again in the future, these lists of previous supporters are a gold mine for future bids.  And for you as a campaign professional, these supporters also can be of benefit to you in the future if you are running a race for a like-minded candidate in the same or nearby geographic area.


So the next time you hear someone stress the importance of turn out, don't dismiss it.  Understand that much planning and preparation has been done to ensure this refrain produces results.


Glen Caroline is Director of the NRA-ILA Grassroots Division.
He can be reached at
Click here to contact this Author.

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