By Steve Grubbs
In most elections, it is the undecided voter who determines the election. This group of voters may be partisan or non-partisan, but for whatever reason, they choose to hold an undecided position rather than stake their claim with a candidate. First, let’s understand these undecided voters:
- Early in an election, there are generally a lot of undecided voters, but the number will narrow dramatically the closer one gets to Election Day.
- Many voters are undecided as they stand in the voting booth or stare at their early voting ballot and will ultimately make a decision based on factors like party affiliation or name identification.
- Sometimes a voter will choose not to vote at all if they don’t have a firm opinion rather than cast an uninformed ballot.
- Just because a voter is undecided does not mean they are uneducated about candidates. While it’s easy for voters to have an opinion on the president or governor, races such as city council, school board and state representative are full of information gaps that voters rely on to form a judgment
- Undecided voters can be a a big risk to incumbents. Many pollsters use a rule of thumb that on Election Day, this type of voter will break 2:1 against the incumbent and for the challenger.
As a candidate, challenger or incumbent, it’s important to understand that there is a finite amount of time for voter contact and investing that limited time on undecided voters is critical. If you accept that premise, then here are some tactics and strategies as you prepare to win the vote of the undecided:
- SWING PRECINCTS. First, assume there are geographical areas that are traditionally more likely to have undecided or ‘swing’ voters. These are not necessarily the same thing, but for this purpose, they are close enough. This exercise is fairly simple. If you are running in a presidential year election, you go back to the results of the most recent presidential year and look at the election results by precinct. In each precinct, break the results out by the party affiliation you are running under. If you are a Republican, then you want to look at the percentage of the highest achieving GOP candidate and the lowest. So, let’s say the GOP Senate candidate received 72% in Precinct One and the US House candidate received 42%. Your swing in this district is 30%. But let’s say in Precinct Two, the Senate candidate received 82% and the House Candidate received 60%. This would be a swing of 22%. This means that you are more likely to find voters who are judging candidates by individual merits rather than party affiliation by 8% percent and therefore deserves your attention.
- DOOR KNOCKING. Most candidates will not have time to knock on every door and campaign one-to-one, so they prioritize. That prioritization may come from ranking swing precincts and it may come from common sense. For example, if you are from the town of Blue Grass and your opponent is from Green Grass, but neither is from Red Grass, well, you know you’d better get to Red Grass rather than spending your time in Green Grass or Blue Grass. When you do, going door to door is the best strategy. This is an easy - but time-consuming exercise. In my first election, which as an upset victory against an incumbent, I knocked on 10,000 doors. I prioritized my door knocking. I approached a door with two things: a pamphlet and a notepad. The pamphlet was my persuasion piece and the notepad was the name ID builder. You see, I knew that my pamphlet was likely headed to the garbage within the first 24 hours they had it in their hand. But people don’t throw away notepads. My notepad - with my smiling friendly face and name - sat there for months, building name ID and identifying myself as a friendly candidate.
- POLLING SWING VOTERS FOR ISSUE MOVERS. If you are fortunate enough to have a polling budget, then it’s critical to break out undecided voters on issues that they feel strongly about. Here’s how you do it:
- Take a survey and ask voters the ballot questions: if the election were held today would they vote for candidate A or B. People will have opinions, but some group in the middle will declare themselves undecided.
- When you get to the section about issues, hopefully you have already identified some key issues that separate you and the person you are running against. These questions should be presented to the voter - described in a way that is similar to how they might hear about them on the campaign trail. Sometimes this means that you will argue the position from the side of each candidate and other times it means that you will just present the issue as a straight up one-liner.
- Voters should be given limited options as they make the decision, but it’s critical that you measure intensity. For example, you might ask about teacher testing. One candidate may love this and the other candidate may hate this. Your question to voters might go something like this:
- Jim Johnson believes that teachers should be tested for competency to reward the best one and root out those who are not competent. Mary Smith believes this is an unnecessary distraction and intrusion into schools. She is opposed to this practice. Which candidate do you agree with.
- [at this point, you get an answer, but that’s not enough. You next want to push for intensity] And would you say you strongly agree with Johnson/Smith or just somewhat?
- You will likely find that some voters say they strongly agree with one side or the other. If the results lean your way, you next want to look at what those undecided voters said. What you typically find with polling is that middle-of-the road voters have their own preferences separate from what party-affiliated voters will believe. Once you find an issue that leans heavily to those undecided voters - you know what should go on your pamphlet.
- BUILDING NAME IDENTIFICATION. In some races, voters are faced with races with low-profile issues or non-party affiliated candidates. In this instance, there may be little to be used in the decision making process. This is when name identification becomes very important. Some candidates may be a high profile member of their community and have high name ID, but in my years of experience, we find that most candidates need to spend some money and use some shoe leather to establish that name identification. Here are some easy ways to build name ID:
- Knock on doors, introduce yourself and leave behind a notepad.
- Cover the district or city in yard signs. Make sure the neighbors neighbor has a yard sign. In doing so, you have deployed little standing endorsements in yards across your voting area.
- Use inexpensive ads in social media to get a message out to voters. $1,000 on Facebook is usually going to reach 10,000 - 25,000 voters.
- Decorate your car and the cars of others. Bumper magnets, car door magnets and car toppers will be seen by thousands of voters over a period of months. This will establish name ID very quickly (but be a polite voter)!
Winning the undecided voter is critical to winning elections - that is just as true for the President of the United States as it is for the candidate running for city council. No campaign should chart it’s course for victory without having an understanding of how to approach the all important undecided voter.
Steve Grubbs was elected to office at the age of 24 after defeating a well-liked incumbent. Since then, he has gone on to assist more than 500 candidates win election to office.