Independent Expenditure Success Starts with a Plan
Here at The Campaign Workshop, we have written a lot about independent expenditure strategy in the past, but the key takeaways never change:
1. Know your goals.
2. Do no harm.
3. Don’t duplicate efforts.
Today, I want to share a little more about that last point. Campaigns are complex beasts, and there are a thousand ways you could stumble into redundant work without careful strategic planning. On the flipside, campaigns are governed by complex laws, and it is critical that you talk to an elections lawyer about what publicly available campaign information you can and cannot use in crafting your independent expenditure strategy. Although the “independent” in independent expenditure generally means that you cannot be in communication with the candidate or their campaign, in many cases it is permissible for you to examine the campaign’s strategy and messaging from the outside and plan your program accordingly.
So let’s talk about how to stay smart, creative, and legal while supporting a candidate with a strong independent expenditure communications strategy.
A communications strategy is the roadmap for what a candidate campaign will say to whom, when, why, by what means, etc. Unfortunately, campaigns rarely have the time or money to reach out to every community through every medium with a perfectly tailored message. Fortunately for IEs, this leaves lots of opportunities to reinforce your preferred candidate’s message without duplicating their work. A high-impact independent expenditure communications strategy will differentiate itself across the four topics below.
Message: Create Contrast
At the heart of a communications strategy is the message. A strong message has something to say about the candidate, about the opponent, about what the opponent is saying about the candidate, and about what the opponent is saying about themselves. In other words, start with a message box.
Notice that three of those four categories involve messaging that anticipates and responds to the opposition. This is where independent expenditures can shine. Candidate campaigns have to be tactful in how they differentiate themselves, especially in primaries or local campaigns where all candidates are well-known or well-liked by community members. Independent expenditures get to be more direct in pinpointing the contrasts between candidates.
For example, an independent expenditure run by an environmental group may run a communications program that contrasts the environmental voting record of the candidate they support with that of their opponent. This draws attention to the opponent’s failures without implicating the candidate’s campaign itself.
One word of warning here. Crafting an incisive message is an IE superpower, but it’s also an easy place to run afoul of maxim number two: do no harm. To avoid this, take your cues from publicly available information about the candidate’s campaign. How is the candidate framing their values? What accomplishments are they proud of? Which topics do they generally try to pivot from? You don’t want to run an ad that steers the public narrative in a direction your candidate usually avoids. Create contrast and use forceful language, but always be thinking about how your message may impact your preferred candidate.
Reach a Specialized Audience
Who is your preferred candidate talking to? The answer will vary depending on their pre-existing communities, policy priorities, and organizing strategy, but there are some things you can count on. For example, during GOTV, they’re talking to mid-turnout likely supporters. An effective independent expenditure strategy prioritizes reaching a specific audience that the campaign does not have the resources to focus on. In our environmental organization example, the IE may pursue a communications strategy that focuses on reaching voters who score high on a climate change model. In this case, the independent expenditure strategy may be focused on a GOTV goal, but their messaging should be tailored to mobilize their particular audience.
Communicate a Specific Message
This leads us to topical messaging. We talked about the contrast with opponents above, but, as you may be aware, candidates often have a fair bit to say about themselves. A candidate likely has positions on a plethora of issues, all of which they would like to communicate to voters. A good campaign will have to make tough decisions and focus its communications on a small subset of those issues to make sure there’s enough message repetition to break through to voters. A strong independent expenditure strategy will help draw attention to a specific issue that may not be the campaign’s primary focus, such as a candidate’s positive voting record on environmental issues or their longtime membership in a local conservation group.
Dominate a Neglected Communications Medium
There are lots of ways to get out a campaign message: mail, tv, canvassing, texting, digital ads, etc. A candidate can rarely afford to do all of them. A good IE strategy will pinpoint the methods that the candidate has not invested in and focus on filling that need. An independent expenditure team may notice waves of weekly mailers from their preferred candidate without a corresponding flood of airtime on local TV stations. If an independent expenditure has the resources, this could be a great opportunity to use TV ads to echo the messaging the campaign is using through other tactics.
This is also an opportunity to test new tactics. The world of political communications is constantly evolving. If you’re playing in an election where you’re struggling to break through the noise or trying to reach an audience that is less receptive to traditional campaign voter contact methods, try segmenting your audience and experimenting with a different communication medium. Especially if your IE operates across multiple campaign cycles, what you learn may equip you to play an even more integral role in the coming years.
Thinking through these independent expenditure best practices will go a long way toward setting your campaign up for success. In each of these categories, focus on what the candidate’s campaign can’t do, then get creative and shore up the gaps.
Have more questions about strategic communications for an independent expenditure campaign or are interested in the next steps? Reach out to us at The Campaign Workshop!