How the Democratic Party's campaign strategy is failing America

How the Democratic Party's campaign strategy is failing America
© Greg Nash

In polling places across America, the ground has shifted. The “ticket splitter,” who once ruled election outcomes, has almost disappeared. According to Public Opinion Strategies, a leading Republican pollster, in the year 2000 ticket splitters comprised 36 percent of the electorate. In 2020, that figure had fallen to 11 percent.

Meanwhile, measurements of the effectiveness of political persuasion ads show a medium generating hardly any effect at all.

In a 2017 study of 49 control group experiments measuring the effectiveness of political mail — mailings sent in primaries and ballot referendums — showed statistically significant effects. Mailings sent to support candidates in general elections with party on the ballot showed no effects at all.

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These two developments represent the most unnoticed earthquake in the history of American campaigns.

Compared to changing a voter’s party, a candidate choice is almost insignificant.

If 90 percent of voters are choosing parties rather than candidates, why are we spending all of our advertising dollars to distinguish candidates? 

Convincing a voter to cast a ballot for a candidate is a one-time decision affecting one election contest in one year. Getting a voter to move party allegiance might be a hundred times more valuable.

If voters are voting straight tickets, then a change of party usually affects every candidate on the ballot. But the benefit is larger still. Analysis in states with party registration suggests that a decision to register with a political party is a decision that lasts in excess of 30 years. A Democracy Fund study showed that between 2012 and 2017, 13 percent of voters changed their party registration or, 2.6 percent per year. If that is the average party switching percentage per year, then the average length of a party registration would be 38 years. If an independent or a Republican becomes a Democrat, the decision could benefit Democratic candidates up and down the ballot possibly for three decades or more.

Getting a voter to change parties might seem a difficult task, but it is happening now in dramatic way. The Gallup Poll measures party affiliation on a regular basis. In the fourth quarter of 2020, the Gallup Poll showed that, with leaners, Americans supported Democrats and Republicans in equal numbers, 45 percent each. By the end of the first quarter of 2021, Democratic affiliation led Republican affiliation by nine percentage points: 49 – 40

This shift is the result of egregious Republican behavior — claiming that the 2020 election was stolen, demonstrating blind allegiance to a disgraced and discredited former president, and blocking a bipartisan inquiry into the Jan. 6 insurrection.

It’s worth noting this shift has been unaided by Democratic efforts in any way.

More recent measurements, especially in the aftermath of the Afghanistan crisis, show movement back in the Republican direction.

But the point is that movement does take place.

If 90 percent of voters are voting straight tickets, this movement — more than candidate choice — is driving the outcomes of American elections today.

If elections have become contests between parties far more than candidates, it is imperative that Democrats press the advantage. But the Democratic Party continues to follow the formula of the last 70 years: Raise money. Ignore dramatic and vote changing events, and save all the money for candidate ads in the fall of the election year.

So — the first change has to be to shift our focus from candidates to parties. But given the ineffectiveness of most campaign ads, how do we change how we conduct our advertising campaigns?

The first thing we have to do is to become more opportunistic. In other words, run our ads in the news cycle and use them to amplify and enhance news stories currently before the voters.  Let me offer some examples.

A majority of American voters believe that the 2020 election was fairly decided. Yet a majority of House Republicans voted to overturn the election. How many Americans know this? Ads run in the aftermath of Jan. 6 could have had a profound impact on many voters.

Eighty-five percent of American households received a $1,400 stimulus check. Yet every single Republican senator voted against these checks. How many voters know? Is not an ad — at the time the checks are arriving — much more powerful than waiting until October of 2022, when the checks have been spent or mostly forgotten?

Seventy-one percent of American voters want the Republicans to work with the Democrats for the good of the country. Yet Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden signs bill to raise debt ceiling On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan Schumer, McConnell headed for another collision over voting rights MORE (R-Ky.) has stated, on video, that he is “100 percent focused on stopping this new administration.” Why are Democrats not sharing this video with voters?

Tying ads to events currently in the news adds credibility to the messages delivered.

Instead of heavy-handed ads that tell the voters what to think and what to believe, we need to simply add information to events already in the news.

In 2018, I was involved with a mail experiment that shed light on the effectiveness of moving from propaganda to clean information. That year, a well-funded experiment tested three mailing concepts in a special election for congress in Pennsylvania’s 17th congressional district.

One of the pieces was a traditional mail format with pictures, color and dramatic headlines.

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One of the pieces portrayed the opponent taking controversial positions, as if the opponent had sent the mailing himself.

Neither had any effect.

The only mailing that moved voters in a statistically significant way had no pictures, no colors and only one font. It was lasered onto an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper and folded in half with the voter’s address on the outside. Inside was a letter. Remember those? The letter said: “We are the Center for Voter Information, we do not endorse candidates, but we provide information about candidates for office.” The letter listed three issues and stated the two candidates’ positions on each issue. Each of these issues was stated in a clinical way to avoid any appearance of bias. Simple. Basic. Unadorned. It was the neighborhood watch mailing without the picture of the dog.

The mailing added 1.5 votes for every 100 voters mailed.

Among the three mailings tested, the issues were the same. The only difference was that the winning piece had no endorsement, a carefully neutral description of the issues and a respect for the voter in allowing her to draw her own conclusion.

The obvious inference is that this mailing worked while others did not because it was more credible to voters.

In the general election, the Center for Voter Information rolled out and measured the effect of 5.5 million pieces. The result was that the mailing produced 1.15 votes for every 100 voters mailed. 

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Traditional political advertising is barely working at all.

While voters are choosing parties, we are telling them about candidates.

The reckless behavior of the Republican Party is a historic opportunity to change voter allegiances — but in the midst of this change, the Democratic Party has not responded at all.

Hal Malchow is a Democratic political consultant who co-founded MSHC Partners, which before it closed in 2010 was the largest voter contact firm in America. He was a leading voice in moving campaigns to advanced data analytics in voter targeting and was a founder of the Analyst Institute, which uses control group experiments to measure the effectiveness of campaign tactics. In 2016 he was inducted into the American Association of Political Consultants Hall of Fame.