Running a political campaign is like building a Fortune 500 company: hiring or recruiting dozens, hundreds or thousands of people for a sales force that has just one day — or, with the advent of early voting, only a handful of days — to make the sale.
Parties and candidates spent more money on this year’s midterm elections than ever before, battling over thousands of contested races and millions of persuadable voters.
Some candidates experimented with new ways to reach voters. Others stuck with the basics, pounding the pavement to reach voters who might not otherwise show up to the polls.
We asked more than a dozen campaign managers from some of the most hotly contested races around the country what they learned this year that will inform them in the future — what lessons they took away from this year’s election, and how American political campaigns are changing.
Here’s what we learned:
For years, the political calculus has held that winning a statewide race in Georgia is all about winning the Atlanta suburbs. Highly educated white voters are persuadable, and they show up.
But Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor, and Brian Kemp, her Republican rival, both threw out that playbook. Their campaigns deployed staffers and opened offices in rural communities across the country, some of which hadn’t seen a political campaign actually show up for years.
“We had put more field staff on the ground than had ever been on the ground in Georgia,” said Lauren Groh-Wagner, Abrams’s campaign manager. “People want to overcomplicate things with media and digital and the rest of it. You still have to also put people on the ground.”
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R) had the advantage of a day job that allowed him to travel across the state. Scott made a point to visit every Florida county in the first three months after he kicked off his race, and his constant presence in the Panhandle overseeing the response to Hurricane Michael gave him free media in the race’s closing weeks.
“You have to show up, every day. He was in sometimes three to four cities a day talking to voters,” said Scott’s manager, Jackie Schutz Zeckman. “You just have to constantly be on the ground and meeting with people and hearing what they need.”
Scott beat Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonNASA spacewalk delayed due to debris threat This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Two trajectories to Mars by the 2030s MORE (D) by a hair, and the results could easily have gone the other way had Scott mismanaged the hurricane response.
House Republicans avoided town halls in many districts over the last two years, anxious to avoid confrontations like those Democrats faced after the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed during President Obama’s tenure.
But that opened the door for Democrats like Dean Phillips and Angie Craig in Minnesota, Jason CrowJason CrowHillicon Valley — Facebook shutters its facial recognition system House passes bills to shore up small business cybersecurity The United States must lead the way on artificial intelligence standards MORE in Colorado and Colin Allred in Texas to accuse their Republican incumbents of failing to listen to their constituents.
“There is some tendency to shy away from folks and not do town halls, and not make your candidate really open and accessible and transparent, because it’s harder to control the narrative that way,” said Alex Ball, who managed Crow’s race against Rep. Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard CoffmanColorado remap plan creates new competitive district Colorado governor says he was not exposed to COVID-19 after Aurora mayor tests positive Colorado mayor says he called protesters 'domestic terrorists' out of 'frustration' MORE (R-Colo.). “You can’t shy away from exposing yourself to anyone in the district, be they Democrat, Republican or independent.”
Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillLobbying world Ex-Rep. Akin dies at 74 Republicans may regret restricting reproductive rights MORE (D-Mo.) may be a prime example of that. Though she lost this year, she won her reelection bid six years ago, after she endured hours of angry town hall meetings over the ACA.
“What we’re seeing right now in politics is a demand for a new level of accessibility to the public,” Ball said.
Go globally viral
Easier said than done. But for a handful of candidates this year, viral videos or interviews on new media outlets like NowThis led to a rush of small-dollar donations, money they desperately needed to get their message on television.
“While call time and those best practices are always important, having a viral video or having NowThis come out to your district and film your candidate raises a lot of money as well, especially online,” said Zack Carroll, who managed Rep.-elect Andy Kim’s (D-N.J.) race against Rep. Tom MacArthurThomas (Tom) Charles MacArthurChamber-backed Democrats embrace endorsements in final stretch Republican David Richter wins NJ primary in race to challenge Rep. Andy Kim What to watch in New Jersey's primaries on Tuesday MORE (R).
Some Democrats who went viral raised millions more dollars than any of their recent predecessors, in many cases outspending even their Republican opponents.
There’s a lesson there for potential Democratic presidential candidates, too: A strong video presence can help break through a crowded field.
“You can’t get distracted by the shiny objects of viral videos,” Carroll warned, but he said: “I don’t know, if you’re running in 2020, if you can run a serious race without a kick-ass intro video.”
Go locally viral
When Anne Caprara managed then-Rep. Betsy Markey’s (D-Colo.) campaign in 2008, the campaign’s best volunteers wrote dozens of letters to the editors of local newspapers.
These days, letter writers are replaced by influencers who tweet, blog or Instagram. The volunteers working for Caprara’s candidate this year, Illinois Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker (D), spent some of their time sharing organic content online, from local leaders or supporters who blog about parenting or community issues.
“You want people to engage with you online,” Caprara said. “You have to start organizing around organic online content the way we organized around other things.”
J.P. Twist, who managed Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s (R) reelection bid, said local newspapers hungry for content can offer an avenue when larger outlets are slower to respond.
“Need an op-ed placed and the big guys won’t run it or are dragging their feet? Find the best local [news outlet] with an online version and just get the thing up,” Twist said. “In the age of social media, you can boost the post and get decent mileage out of it.”
Define your own electorate, and plan ahead
2016 Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE’s campaign hit its turnout targets in big Florida counties in 2016. She lost the state, in part because President TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE’s campaign found a ton of new voters in more rural parts of the state.
In other places like Nevada, Democrats are the ones who benefit from a big turnout operation. The party went into Election Day with a huge advantage of about 75,000 registered voters, and those voters showed up.
“You can’t rely on the ability to persuade soft voters alone,” said Kristin Davison, who ran Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s (R) campaign for governor there. “In a blue state like Nevada, you need to run a minimum $10 million campaign focusing on voter registration alone. If not, there won’t be enough voters left by the election year that are open to persuasion.”
Laxalt lost to Democrat Steve Sisolak by 39,000 votes — about half the registration advantage Democrats had built up over years of work.
Experiment with GOTV
Reliably Democratic voters in Georgia may have gotten used to frequent messages from Stacey Abrams’s campaign popping up on their phones. The campaign used text messaging to raise money, build crowds and even to contact newly registered voters.
“We really pushed the bounds of what you can do via text messaging,” Groh-Wagner said. “We did a ton of experimentation, and that was a whole new platform.”
Virtually every major campaign in the country experimented with new ways to reach voters by text message, either to get those voters to the polls or to persuade them to listen to a new appeal.
“We did a lot of get-out-the-vote with texting,” Rick Scott’s manager Schutz Zeckman said. “It was a new way we could reach out to voters.”
Professionalize your campaign
Campaigns run on shoestring budgets, and they may not always be the most professional of environments. Booze in desk drawers is not rare in campaign offices.
But as budgets and staffs grow, larger campaigns have to operate more like a business.
“In the past, campaigns have been run as these ad hoc committee things. And nowadays you have to approach this like I’m setting up a very formal business,” Caprara said.
Pritzker’s campaign employed a human resources department and labor attorneys who could deal with an employee complaint if one arose. The campaign set guidelines to govern younger staffers who might be used to putting everything in their lives on social media. They held sexual harassment training and sensitivity training.
“The culture has changed for the good. This is a job and I should get treated like an employee at any other company,” Caprara said. “The management structure we’ve set up hasn’t always been able to deal with it.”
Building a modern campaign also means picking the right staff — people you can trust to do their jobs without too much oversight.
“People are the cheapest thing that a campaign buys. The amount that you spend on a salary for someone is minuscule compared with these million-dollar weekly TV buys,” said Peter Hanscom, who managed Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyBiden to have audience with pope, attend G20 summit Biden taps former Indiana Sen. Donnelly as ambassador to Vatican Republicans may regret restricting reproductive rights MORE’s (D-Ind.) reelection bid. “Making sure you surround yourself with people who you are 100 percent confident can do their jobs without your supervision is critical.”
Diversify your inputs
Pennsylvania Democrats have a rural problem, one that cost them the Keystone State’s electoral votes in 2016. Gov. Tom Wolf (D), the only Democrat up for reelection this year in a red state, wanted to know what rural voters were thinking, and to let them know he heard them.
Wolf’s campaign broadened the number of ways they could hear from voters. Beyond the traditional polls, they conducted both in-person and online focus groups, message-tested Facebook posts and spent time talking to voters in areas that favored President Trump in 2016.
“We knew we could not confine ourselves to traditional research, rather we diversified how we heard from voters, and this helped inform our communication,” Wolf’s manager, Jeff Sheridan, said in an email. “A key lesson learned as a campaign is to diversify the research you do in order to hear directly from voters and to not be afraid to experiment.”
Wolf won by 17 points, and he won six counties that Trump had carried in 2016.
Danny Kazin, who managed Rep. Jacky RosenJacklyn (Jacky) Sheryl RosenFirst openly transgender Miss USA contestant eliminated before round of 16 Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall America's clean energy future cannot stop at state lines MORE’s (D-Nev.) winning bid against Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerNevada becomes early Senate battleground Nevada governor Sisolak injured in car accident, released from hospital Democrats brace for tough election year in Nevada MORE (R), said his team spent money on late focus groups to try to understand how voters viewed the campaign as it unfolded, therefore crafting a message in the final stretch.
“Plan to close with your strongest message, especially in your most crowded media markets. Even if you've litigated it earlier in the campaign, late undecided voters should hear the message that penetrates the most right before they vote,” Kazin said in an email.
For Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), that strongest message was all about projecting calm, even as her opponent accused her of treason.
“It’s hard to sit back and let the other side overreach, but they will and they did,” said Andrew Piatt, Sinema’s manager. “We had spent months laying down a very strong, positive argument about Sinema’s independence that our opponents could not easily uproot.”
Did President Trump just tweet about your candidate? Is the local paper about to run a negative story? Did your opponent take some outrageous swipe at you?
Chill out. This too shall pass.
“Campaigns are a long game,” says Justin Barasky, who managed Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownPowell says Fed will consider faster taper amid surging inflation Biden faces new pressure from climate groups after Powell pick Five Senate Democrats reportedly opposed to Biden banking nominee MORE’s (D-Ohio) reelection bid. “What seems like the end of the world in one hour of one day of one month of a two-year cycle is almost always fixable, and not as big of a deal as it seems.”
One good way to put things in perspective, Hanscom said, is to find a stable of friends and relatives who aren’t plugged into the campaign. If they haven’t heard of some minor scandal that’s lighting your hair on fire, it’s probably not a big deal.
“It’s so easy to get yourself worked up into a frenzy over something that isn’t even registering with people,” Hanscom said.