Campaign Smarter: 3 Strategies For Winning Tight Races in 2020

How forward-thinking campaigns can outsmart their opponents in the final weeks of this cycle. 

Advice and strategies that you still have time to execute.

We’re taking a moment to share our analysis on ways forward-thinking campaigns can outsmart their opponents in the final weeks of this cycle.

This analysis comes from findings in our polling, as well as conversations with our partners and clients. 

Specifically, we cover:

  • Planning for unprecedented levels of absentee / early voting

  • Finding the voters who will make the difference in this election

  • What to do if your race tightens in these final weeks

3 dynamics shaping the 2020 election

There’s been a lot of attention on how COVID-19 is impacting how campaigns operate, and rightfully so—but in many ways, COVID-19 simply accelerated shifts that were already taking place. 

Every campaign has been forced to become more creative in outreach to voters and donors, but some campaigns are more prepared than others to handle the challenges of 2020. 

As you head into the final weeks of this cycle, we want to help make sure your campaign prepared to deal with the challenges of 2020.

1. Unprecedented levels of voters are planning to vote early / by mail.

According to our most recent CNBC States of Play polling, one third of likely voters nationally intend to vote by mail this year. 

Democrats are considerably more likely to vote by mail compared to Republicans: over half of Democrats intend to vote by mail compared to just 10% of Republicans. 

There are also real concerns among voters about the security of voting by mail. 

“Every campaign is figuring out how to communicate—should they talk about voting by mail, voting early in-person or voting on Election Day? All of this depends on local laws and policies and also the political atmosphere in states.”

Amanda Loveday, South Carolina campaign strategist and Change Research partner

2. Republicans and Russia are exploiting social media to spread disinformation to the voters who may make the difference in this election.

Trump, Republicans, and Russia continue to evolve their tactics; the viral spread of disinformation appears to be impacting voter opinion in key districts in a meaningful way.  

We are troubled to report that we’re beginning to see references to QAnon conspiracies and other disinformation in responses to open-ended questions in our polling. 

These findings are very preliminary, and we’ll be watching whether this trend continues, but it’s worth taking notice.

Here’s why this matters: In many races, the voters who will make a difference are probably the ones most susceptible to disinformation.

We believe that traditional polling methodologies risk missing voters scattered across our fractured media system—those who are less engaged or have opted out of traditional communications channels, and who may be critical to winning this election.

  • Despite the ups and downs of the cycle, Biden has shown striking consistency, and many elections, up and down the ballot, will be won or lost by just a few points.

  • Whether your individual campaign’s strategy focuses more on persuasion or turnout, less-engaged voters may be key to winning tight races. In fact, people most likely to change parties are less-engaged voters, and across our own polls, we see that people likely to be undecided in 2020 or vote for a different party than they did in 2016 are more likely to be less educated.
  • Voters who are less engaged are also more likely to get their news from social media. Those voters could be more susceptible to disinformation, because they are both more likely to encounter disinformation and less knowledgeable about current events. 

Winning the communications war over those voters begins with identifying them in research—and that requires meeting them where they are, on the platforms where they’re most likely to engage. 

Given the volume of disinformation peddled online, it is also critical to get a clear picture of exactly what disinformation may be getting through to and resonating with voters in your specific district. 

3. Democrats are dealing with a volatile communications environment

Scott Arceneaux, a campaign strategist and Change Research partner in Florida, notes:

“Digital is speeding things up—you no longer just have news cycles, you have hourly cycles.” 

We don’t yet know if this year’s historic events will have a long-term impact on public opinion. In the short term, news events can shift voter focus and enthusiasm, as we saw in polling on criminal legal reform with Color Of Change

Furthermore, our CNBC States of Play polling shows significant fluctuations in voter perceptions, for example, on economic indicators.

trend lines showing changing voter opinion on economic incidators

And of course, Trump and some of his acolytes excel at distracting media and voters from the issues that really matter. It’s critical to know if and how to react to Trump—and when to let him fall on his face. 

These dynamics have real implications for how you run the last weeks of your race. Let’s dig into what to do. 

Step 1: Nail down your vote-by-mail messaging

Here are some findings from our pollsters:

  • Don’t use the threat of COVID-19 as a way to frighten voters into voting by mail. 
  • Don’t ignore voters’ concerns about the security of voting by mail. Our research has found there is no downside to talking to voters about ballot security.
  • Talk about how voting by mail allows you to protect your family and community from contracting COVID-19. 
  • Take a proactive stance against disinformation. Communicate with voters about ballot security measures that are in place. 
  • Encourage voters to return their ballots early.
  • Make sure your tracking polling asks if they have requested and returned their ballots. This information can be used to draw some inferences about ultimate turnout. 
  • Consider when voters will begin receiving their ballots when finalizing your program spending and tracking schedules.


Step 2: Make data your best friend.

Making data-driven decisions helps virtually every aspect of your campaign, whether it’s determining which forms of media yield the largest ROI, how best to spend time fundraising, or what messaging resonates with voters.

When it comes to polling, more frequent data can be a huge advantage.

How helpful is a poll that you conducted 6 weeks ago, considering the volatility of 2020 news cycles? 

Traditionally, polling frequently has been cost-prohibitive and only available to the most well-resourced campaigns. Online polling changes the equation. In the words of our partner and South Carolina campaign strategist Amanda Loveday,

 “Having a constant flow of information helps you be a better campaign manager.” 

Work with your pollster to figure out a research schedule that maximizes frequency and allows you to stay ahead of shifting voter sentiment—and ahead of your opponent. 

Step 3: Be more nimble, make decisions faster. 

The world is changing rapidly, and it’s hard for all of us to keep up. Fires, hurricanes, police violence, and protests are forcing campaigns to stay on their toes.

One way to be prepared for the unpredictable is to be ready to poll quickly. If your opponent floods the airwaves with a strong attack ad, or external forces flood social media with disinformation, poll results in ten days won’t cut it. 

Back in June, we partnered with the Yes on 802 (Oklahoma Medicaid Expansion) campaign when they needed to navigate an influx of spending by the opposition in the final weeks of their race. We conducted daily polling, and the campaign used that continuous stream of fresh data to adjust their strategy as support for their initiative steadily declined. The election was close, but close enough for Yes on 802 to deliver the win. 

We believe polling strategies like the one we executed with Yes on 802 are the future of effective, smart campaigning. 

We’ll be following up next week with advice about understanding accuracy and choosing a pollster.