How can local candidates engage the busy, low information voter ?

By Henri Makembe on 12.20.11

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Editor’s Note: The blog post below is by Mike Kondratick who ran  as  Democrat for Virginia state delegate from the 87th district.

Running a campaign for a local office, for me, turned into a decidedly low-tech enterprise.  Though, that’s not how I had initially planned it.

I ran as a Democrat for Virginia state delegate from the 87th district earlier this month.  The 87th comprises most of eastern Loudoun County and the northern tier of Prince William.  The technology we employed was basic: our websiteFacebook fan page, our campaign database, and, of course, the VAN.

Though this was my first time as a candidate, I had some well-developed ideas for how to communicate with voters and develop a base of supporters given my day job as the Director of Grassroots Advocacy for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).  At JDRF, technology is essential to our ability to build a community of advocates around type 1 diabetes issues and to motivate that community to take action when necessary.  Our approach to using social media to foster engagement has become a critical part of communications strategy.  In early November, we completed a program that generated over 100,000 signatures on a petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), most of which were generated through Facebook and Twitter.

My eagerness to apply this experience to my campaign was quickly tempered, however, by the realties of local campaigning.  First among the harsh realities is the low turnout.  We were hoping for 30%.  We wound-up getting about 27% turnout, which equated to 11,000 voters.  The vast majority of those voters, of course, were solid, party line voters. The universe of ‘persuadables’ that we were targeting was no more than a few thousand.

Since we live in an era of highly targeted and well-maintained databases, Facebook ad units, etc.  I still felt like this narrowcasting exercise was primed for a technological solution.  This notion was met with the second, and in my opinion harshest, reality of local campaigning—the low information voter.  Voters in these local elections don’t pay attention for very long and make their decisions based on precious little information.

If voters were going to make their decisions on just a small amount of information, I wanted that to be a personal visit from me or someone else from our campaign.  So, I decided to base our narrowcasting efforts mostly on our database and our canvassing efforts and use those tactics to drive online activity.  I started knocking on doors in April 2011 and, by the fall, I had mapped out a clear picture of where our voters were and what issues they cared most about.  This complemented our polling and informed our mail and field strategies in the final six weeks.  To drive online activity, we focused on linking content through our email program and including QR codes on our mailers and door-knockers.

But, as well as our field and mail campaigns worked, I never noticed our online efforts bearing much fruit.  Traffic to our campaign website was relatively low, spiking in the last two weeks.  Our list of Facebook followers and our email universe were comprised of the group of dedicated Democratic activists and operatives that were either already voting for us or didn’t live in the district.  The QR codes on our mail pieces and door-knockers drove little additional online interest.

After losing by just 51 votes, I’ve asked myself why our offline efforts didn’t drive more online activity repeatedly.  The low information voter making a decision in the campaign’s waning days is certainly one part of the answer.  A second piece is that there is no constant media coverage of the campaign or the important issues.  In Loudoun, we only have two small weekly newspapers.  The political blogs are active but tend to cater to a very small number of people that are party stalwarts.  Going further, the 87th district is a district of mostly young families and commuters, which is bad combination for drawing attention to local politics.

Ultimately, these factors conspired to prevent the validation of my candidacy from a persuadable voter’s friends or neighbors for which social media provides the perfect platform.   At JDRF, our volunteers are motivated to engage with us online because of a personal connection to diabetes.  The media environment surrounding statewide and national elections drive attention and conversation that social media can enhance and magnify.  With neither of these advantages in my campaign, I had a limited ability to drive conversation among neighbors through social media, even though I knew where I had supporters and what issues they were interested in.

Is there a technology solution that can help to engage the busy, low information voter in this extended conversation?