Sasha Issenberg on the political conventions and win numbers

How politicians strategically plan campaigns and target voters

Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, recently explained why political conventions don’t matter. Now, he gives us an overview of how politicians will strategically plan their campaigns to achieve a desired “win number.” 


By Sasha Issenberg

All the symbolic signposts have been passed on the road to November: the conventions are over, Labor Day has passed, operatives who plan their strategic calendars in weeks-before-the-election are now comfortably in single digits. It’s time for the real campaign to begin. But what does a real campaign look like in 2012?

Campaigns start with vote goals, and they shape every aspect of strategy. Instead of thinking about how they’ll cross fifty percent in the polls, strategists review past results in similar races to determine how many raw votes it will take to secure victory. Strategists call this a “win number.” Then they draw up a campaign plan to determine how they’ll get there.

Where will the votes come from? How many of them are already guaranteed through reliable base voters?  How many committed supporters are there who require an extra push to the polls through get-out-the-vote operations?  How many likely voters—either undecideds or soft supporters of the opposition—need to be persuaded to change their minds?  If conservative estimates of these numbers don’t surpass the win number, the only way to win is to change the electorate by registering new voters.

Throughout the summer the campaigns and their allies in state parties have been deploying volunteer canvassers and phone banks to interview voters about their preferences and interest in the race. Based on these conversations, each voter in the country gets classified. Three types of voters are pushed aside entirely: those who will definitely turn up and vote for your candidate, those who strongly support your opponent, and those who seem very unlikely to vote. The remainder get separated into two buckets: persuasion targets who will be approached through direct channels like phone, mail, and Web ads with specific (sometimes narrowly tailored) messages; and turnout targets who will receive get-out-the-vote reminders, nudges, and offers of logistical help like rides to the polls.

As campaigns recanvass these supporters after the conventions—to see if their attitudes have changed—these triage tactics start to solidify. If a campaign counts enough turnout targets in September, it will shift its focus away from trying to persuade uncommitted voters. If the number of turnout targets is coming up short of projections, the campaign will likely become ever more desperate in its efforts to win over undecideds and get supporters of one’s opponent to defect.

So as you watch events unfold over the next month, from the candidates’ lines at debates to canvassers’ moves in your neighborhood, try to read those tactics with an eye to decoding strategy. How do Obama and Romney each plan to get to a win number?

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