ATLANTA — Whether it’s the antique boat show at Lake Hartwell or the carnival surrounding the Masters Tournament, candidates have begun the visible phase of their primary campaigns.
The months of fundraising and phone calls to party bigwigs were supposed to lay the foundation for this new phase of ads, debates and canvassing. While the fundraising and schmoozing never really ends, it has to be sandwiched between public appearances and campaign activities.
Campaign managers who had been hoping their war chests would be full for this phase are now hoping they have devised an effective message strategy – and that their candidates will stick to it.
Those messages are aimed at the rank-and-file party members who are making up their minds now with the intention of voting early. Independents, who are the least engaged and tend to decide on a candidate at the last moment – often in the voting booth, are also a target audience, just not the main one yet.
Delivering those messages will be advertising, largely determined by budget. The richest candidates use television. At this stage, the ads will be around news broadcasts before shifting to the sitcoms and reality shows watched by late-deciding independents – particularly women – who avoid the news.
Cable shows, online ads, direct mail, radio spots, Web videos, yard signs, bumper stickers, billboards and printed nail files constitute the order of effectiveness, cost and sophistication of the other media. Candidates with enough money will use all of them, and the absence of any elements illustrates the limit of a campaign’s financial resources.
Missing from the list is newspaper advertising because campaign managers concluded long ago that newspaper readers aren’t swayed by ads but by facts objectively reported, which ensures the necessity of “earned media” in the form of news coverage and opposition research in the form of tips to reporters about opponents’ flaws. A classic tactic is to get some newspaper, even a small one with limited circulation, to produce a negative headline that can then be used in a TV ad to persuade the independents.
What aren’t visible in this phase of campaigns are efforts being made to boost turnout.
The Barack Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 developed stunningly effective techniques to reach reluctant voters, largely through social media, e-mail and precisely targeted canvassing. By their nature, these techniques are only obvious to the receiver rather than to rival campaigns, which is why Republicans were caught off guard by them both years Obama ran.
Staking yard signs on busy roads is a clear tipoff of a campaign’s activity. Blasting thousands of text messages to individual voters isn’t.
The question of get-out-the-vote tactics is also a mystery to pollsters because they don’t know how to adjust the raw results to match expected turnout. If the tactics are successful, there may be more young voters or women or blacks than in a typical off year, rendering a poll inaccurate if it is adjusted to account for the demographic mix of past elections in non-presidential years.
While political junkies can only speculate about what campaign is using which turnout techniques, they do have a front-row seat for the television ads. They’ll be making particular note of who has a coherent message and who switches to attack mode and whether the attacked candidates respond in a way that furthers their own message or that strays from it. There should be scorecards printed up for tracking the hits, strikeouts and errors.
For amateur scorekeepers, the first step is to isolate the core message from the trappings. Consider who the target is. Candidates talking about taxes or national defense are usually going after men. One talking about education or abortion rights is after younger voters and women.
Then, analyze future messages to see how closely they stick to that original message. It can actually make watching political ads fun.