By all accounts, this has been a great month for Hillary Clinton. If this continues, the Clintons are likely to be packing on November 9 for a return trip to Pennsylvania Avenue. They may have the trio of Donald Trump, early voting, and a sophisticated ground game to thank. Here’s why…
Know your message strategy
Donald Trump’s seriously inappropriate comments and corroborating allegations by eleven women focused the campaign on his behavior and away from what otherwise would have been an explosive and ongoing news story covering the release of Secretary Clinton’s campaign and State Department emails and their content. This is happening at the critical time when millions of voters are finally focusing on the election, making up their minds, and voting.
Political insiders have known since the nominating process ended that both major parties selected deeply disliked candidates. Each campaign has responded by working overtime to shine a bright light on the other candidate’s negatives. Essentially, the goal for each campaign has been to keep the public focused on the other candidate’s weaknesses and to convince undecided voters that their opponent is unfit to be President.
Donald Trump didn’t get that strategy memo.
It’s a critical rule for effective campaigns; everyone, even the boss, must be on the same page.
Mr. Trump has seemingly gone out of his way to be the Clinton campaign’s best spokesperson by keeping the spotlight firmly planted on questions about his character and fitness for office. His self-obsession has left a treasure-trove of negative Clinton campaign email revelations gathering dust on the newsroom floor.
Media bias? Hardly.
While Trump campaign supporters may not like the fact that our nation’s major news outlets, including Fox News, are devoting so much paper, ink, and air-time to negative allegations about Mr. Trump, the real explanation for their news coverage decisions is simple, the news media is in the business of selling papers, clicks, and commercials. By all accounts, they’ve had a banner fall, thanks to Mr. Trump. It’s hard to imagine them having the same level of success quoting lines from the Clinton campaign and State Department emails.
And that brings me to early voting
The timing couldn’t be worse for the Trump campaign because it’s all happening as early voting ramps up. Each time Mr. Trump says something that a portion of the undecided electorate views as offensive or does something that appears shockingly unpresidential, it’s jet fuel. The Clinton campaign takes those stories and uses them to light a motivational fire under a targeted segment of potential voters to get them to a) vote, b) vote against Mr. Trump, and c) thanks to early voting, do it NOW.
So, who votes early? A significant portion of early votes have always been cast by campaign workers and partisans and we can assume that is happening again in 2016. None of the above should have a significant impact on these dependable early voters. However, the remaining early votes tend to be cast by younger voters, a group both candidates have had difficulty winning over. The recent media focus on Mr. Trump’s negative words and deeds is occurring at a critical time in the campaign and may provide the fire power Secretary Clinton needs to motivate this younger generation and could also help her campaign increase the traditionally low numbers of minority voters who cast their ballot before election day. One report suggests that is already happening, at least with California’s Latino/a voters.
And, for the potentially millions of undecided voters who make a decision to vote early for Secretary Clinton during this media pre-occupation with Mr. Trump’s words, no amount of favorable media coverage of Mr. Trump (or negative coverage of Secretary Clinton) between the time they vote and November 8 can change those votes, that die is cast.
The importance of a strategic ground game
For these reasons, early voting is changing campaign get-out-the-vote (GOTV) strategies. No longer is it simply a ramp up to election day. Campaigns must be prepared with state-specific strategies and the flexibility to leverage and activate their ground game in rapid response to the daily news headlines.
A strategic and well-executed ground game is especially important in swing states this year where early voting represents a significant portion of the electorate. For example, nearly 8 million votes have already been cast. In eight battleground states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania) likely to decide this election, only New Hampshire and Pennsylvania limit early voting to excuse-only absentee ballots[i]. In all-important Florida, more than half of all votes were cast early in 2012. This trend is expected to increase nationally in 2016 with 30-40% of all votes expected to be cast prior to election day, November 8.
And all of this is happening while the 24-hour news cycle is fixated on whether Donald Trump has (or has not) assaulted women.
By all accounts, Clinton’s ground game in most early voting states is more sophisticated and prepared than the Trump campaign (Iowa appears to be an exception). Had Clinton not made this a priority early in the campaign, it would be too late to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by recent news. This preparation will likely boost Democratic operatives’ efforts to target segments of potential voters where campaign data suggests current news stories may be the fuel that motivates them to vote.
The takeaway for public affairs professionals
All of this demonstrates the critical importance of being prepared with a good strategy and a team that can execute when windows of opportunity open.
The Clinton campaign understood the importance of early voting and prepared accordingly. Now, the campaign many thought was stalling less than two months ago has a golden opportunity to build a firewall against traditional gap-closing trends that occur as news stories fade and November 8 approaches.
The point, as always for us at Clear View Strategies, is the same…look over the horizon to tomorrow, plan strategically, and act accordingly.
See Tomorrow, Act Today
[i] National Conference of State Legislators. https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx. Accessed October 26, 2016.