Vote Goal and Vote Deficit: How many votes do I need to win?

by Ben Holse

Tallies on chalkboard with phrase "Gotta have a vote goal"

Vote Goal and Vote Deficit: What are they?  Why Do I Need Them?

When you’re deciding to run for office, one of the very first things you should do is bust out your trusty calculator and calculate your campaign’s vote goal. Your vote goal is the number of votes needed to win your election. Your campaign has one goal: to convince enough voters to show up to the polls on Election Day or during early vote and vote for you. To achieve that goal, you need to know how many of those voters you need to be successful.

Knowing your vote deficit is equally important. This is roughly an existing group of your base voters that are likely to vote for you no matter what you do as the representative from your party. The vote deficit is the additional number of people you need to vote for you in order to win. It’s a rough calculation for the number of votes you need to make up and earn throughout the course of your campaign to get to a vote goal. 

Both of these numbers will inform all of your strategic assumptions, your fundraising goals, your voter contact, and everything in between. Your vote goal is the starting place off of which you will build your campaign, so you definitely need to know what this number is. You should keep this goal in mind and make sure every decision that’s made moves the campaign closer to this goal.

Luckily for us, you don’t need to raise millions of dollars or hire a fancy data scientist to do these calculations. Even the smallest and most local candidate for office can run a modern, data-driven campaign. You can actually learn a lot about the makeup of your turf and the electorate from what’s available on your local election division’s website. All you really need is a calculator and a working internet connection. 

Calculating your vote goal and expected vote

Before you can determine your vote goal you will need to know some information about your district. First, look back at a similar election (the last off-year municipal, the last presidential primary, etc.). You will need to find the percentage of registered voters who turned out for that election, and second, what the current number of registered voters is. This can be attained from your state or local election division, often online but sometimes you will actually have to call the Board of Elections and ask. 

Next, you need to calculate your campaign’s total expected vote. To calculate the expected vote, you take the total number of registered voters in your district and multiply it times the percent of voter turnout in the most recent analogous election. This number is how many people you estimate will vote in your election.

Registered voters X past voter turnout percent = Expected voter turnout

Your vote goal will depend on what kind of race you are in and the likely percentage of voter turnout for the election. In a two-person race (usually a general election or run-off) it is best defined as “50+1” or one more than 50% of the votes cast on Election Day. If you are in a multi-candidate race you will need to take that into consideration and know that your goal may be less than 50% of the votes cast. In order to account for a margin of error and ensure a victory we highly recommend setting your goal to 52%, or a percentage point or two above the bare minimum you need to win.

Multiply your estimated vote by 52% (in a two-person race) to get your vote goal:

Expected voter turnout x 52% = Vote goal

Calculating a rough vote goal

So, what if you don’t have time to reach out to the Board of Elections and figure out the current number of registered voters? How do you get a rough estimate?  

To produce a rough voter registration estimate, pull the increase in registration from the last two elections you have voter registration data for and apply the same increase in monthly voter percent to the number of months from the last election you have to the current election you have. This should give you a very rough estimate for the amount of voter registration growth there’s been during that time and can get you off on the right foot until you hear back from the Board of Elections in your district. 

Factoring in voter drop-off

It’s an unfortunate fact that down-ballot races typically experience a fairly high percept of drop off. While many voters will turn out to vote in the presidential elections for the candidates they’ve heard about nonstop on the news, many of them simply don’t vote in a race that’s further down the ballot because they don’t have an opinion on the race. When you’re doing the vote goal for a down-ballot race, it is really important that you’re calculating it based on the percent of voters who voted in a similar race, not the number of people who turn out to vote generally. If you do it based on the general turnout number, you are likely estimating a vote goal that’s too high and may be unachievable. 

Calculating your base vote

After you’ve calculated a vote goal and an expected voter turnout, the next thing you need to work out is your base vote percent. This will tell you how many votes a generic member of your party/ideology can reasonably expect to garner in your district.  

To calculate this number, research the worst-performing candidates of your party (or of a similar ideology in a nonpartisan race) in the last three elections in your district. Take the percent of the vote that each of these three poor souls received and calculate the average. This is your base vote percentage. 

Sum of the percent of the vote of the worst performing last 3 Democrats/3 = Base vote percent 

To turn the base vote percent into a hard number, multiply your base vote percent by the expected vote.

Base vote percent X expected voter turnout = Number of base voters

Calculating your vote deficit

Now that you have your expected voter turnout, your vote goal, and your base vote percent, it’s time to calculate your vote deficit. Essentially, this is how far behind the 8 ball a generic member of your party/ideology will be in your district and how many more votes you need to get. To calculate your vote deficit, subtract the number of base votes from your vote goal. 

Vote goal – number of base voters = Vote deficit

This will give you an estimate of how many voters you need to persuade to vote for you and give you a sense of what the size your persuasion universe should be. We recommend making your persuasion universe three times the size of your vote deficit, which assumes that you are successful about 1 in every 3 times you try to persuade someone to vote for you.

If your campaign takes the time to calculate the numbers above, you will have a major strategic advantage over campaigns that do not. You will also be able to speak intelligently about your numbers to potential donors or any groups that are considering engaging in the race. Knowing these numbers will allow you to have a campaign that’s data-driven and impactful, regardless of the size of the race that you’re running. 

Have questions about vote goals and vote deficits? Drop us a note -