The Iowa caucuses help frame who is a contender for the nomination, which is especially important in such a large Democratic field. Historically, there are “three tickets out of Iowa.” Only once in recent political history has anyone become President without a top-three finish in the Iowa caucuses (although a whole lot of precedent-breaking is going on, including early California voting right after the Iowa caucus).
One element of precedent-breaking that is certain: online communications matter more. Yes, Iowa is an older electorate and people expect a strong field organization. But it is also heavily wired and online engagement is starting high and growing (although the number one search name nationally in the last 30 days was not a candidate but Nipsey Hussle – I checked.)
Here’s one approach to researching and defining your target online:
1. How many voters do you need? First, decide the size of your initial target. There are complexities in that basic calculus. Democrats have not always released raw totals as opposed to delegate percentages so history is limited and the number of caucus attendees per delegate varies across the state. Additionally, 10 percent of delegates this year will be chosen by a mobile phone caucus held before the in-person caucus event and campaigns will ultimately need to have separate goals for each stage.
As a starting point, (unless your campaign is Sanders or Biden, both of which have higher bars), I recommend finding 75K voters – reasonably distributed across the state – who become committed to your candidacy. The highest Democratic caucus turnout was 239K in 2008. Even with the mobile caucus 300K this year would be a stretch, as it represents nearly half the registered Democrats. Thus, 75K should produce at least a 25 percent popular finish and threshold everywhere; it is also competitive with Sanders who won less than half 2016’s 171K participants, not all of whom will either stick with him or return to the caucuses.
2. How to find your vote. Every campaign will individually target repeat caucus attendees but well under 100K participated in both 2008 and 2016. So talk to the repeats and monitor their choices – at least until they stop answering their phone (although you should have their emails by then).
The next layer is people who will turn out in the caucuses because they are excited about one of the current candidates – that is the factor that ultimately expands the caucus universe; people who are caucusing not out of habit, civic duty, or party loyalty but because they really support someone. Finding your own unique base also means less immediate competition for those voters and time to engage and mobilize them. That’s where online strategies help – in finding the people with whom your candidacy resonates enough to draw their participation and who are not prior caucus attendees (whom everyone will target in field, mail and online).
3. Defining your target online. As soon as interest from outside the regular caucus universe is in the thousands – and preferably close to 5,000 – your internet team can do “look alike” modeling to find people whose internet behavior is similar to theirs. Those who have opted in to your emails, attended an event, contributed money, or simply visited your web site tell the campaign in online terms, rather than simply demographics, whom it is attracting. The most likely next set are people who behave like them in terms of their online habits. Exclude from that modeling regular caucus attendees so you are finding more people who are attracted specifically to your campaign.
Add to the look alike model message-driven targets through affinity targets or search terms. If your candidate is a veteran, people who search for veterans benefits on line can receive an ad about your candidate. Or if your candidate has been a leader on climate change, those who search on that issue should hear about it. If your candidate just announced a student loan policy initiative, perhaps it is time to buy “student loan” as a search term. Such a candidate could use search to drive voters to a web site – and use look alike modeling to deliver ad content.
As voters engage, they will help refine your model and, if they opt in, they become part of your target.
4. Adapt your message for online. The expression of the candidate’s message and narrative is different online than it would be in television or a speech. A 30 second television ad buys emotional impact, especially since those who watch television will see it 20 times. Online ads are more about engaging a conversation – piquing curiosity first rather than creating a dramatic moment. Klobuchar’s recent video promotes her name – and also that she is smart, funny, practical and a mother. That is not her full message but it is an introduction.
Internet engagement is slower than television impact. Start now to build your narrative and the process will tell you a lot.
Your narrative will likely include three elements of message by the end: (1) that yours is the right candidate to take on Trump – because of their fighting personality, because of elements of the contrast, or because a lot of the same voters like them (although careful there). (2) they have an optimistic notion of what the future looks like; while true that we are all going to die, that doesn’t get people to want to talk to you more; and (3) personal intangibles that meet the moment – voters can’t tell you what these are yet but internet testing and modeling may help you figure it out.
Internet response and the results of your canvassing data stream can replace many traditional functions of polling because they can tell you who is attracted to a candidacy and some well-placed questions in the canvas data stream (or in a brand lift survey) can tell you about why.
One question all this won’t answer is who is ahead right now. However, until we can say who the electorate is, that’s not very answerable or interesting. And 75K committed but geographically dispersed supporters put you in the running.
5. Do you need a pollster? You certainly need someone in your campaign whose job is to explore what voters may be thinking, listen to them, figure out how to reach out to them, and quantify their response. That is the pollster’s traditional role: to focus on voters rather than the news cycle or Twittersphere and thus to save campaigns from isolating themselves within their own bubble. Your campaign needs that regardless of how research and communication techniques evolve.