With each election cycle, political campaigns build ever more sophisticated strategies to earn your vote. In races at every level around the country, plenty of door-knocking and phone calls still take place. But today’s campaign teams juggle traditional tactics with email and blogging, data collection and social media. How do campaigns connect with you, and how do they get you to the polls? Mac alumni and professors weigh in on how campaigns have changed—and how to make sense of it all.

Why do campaign emails work?

A decade ago, campaign communications was like a fire hose: one email was sent to a million people. Now it’s all about targeting, segmenting, and personalizing. You have a much better chance of engaging people that way. You have seven seconds of someone’s time when they’re scanning their in-box, deciding whether to open a message. It’s all about reaching the right audience with the right message at the right time. Your voter file is all public information, and both the Democrats and Republicans have used that information for a long time. Email is different. An email address still feels personal—it’s not the same as a phone number or address. Because of spam regulations, you have to opt in to receive emails. But campaign emails still annoy people. When I worked at Blue State, people would say to me, “So you’re the one sending all the emails.” I say, “You can unsubscribe!” Online fundraisers know the sweet spot of how many emails they can send before someone unsubscribes. If they have a bucket with 100 million email addresses and they’re constantly sending to that list, they’re raising money even as people are unsubscribing. They can do it again and again, as long as they’re still adding new subscribers and raising money.

Zach Teicher ’07 is an implementation consultant at GovDelivery, a nonpartisan agency that provides communication tools for public sector organizations from local government to federal agencies. He previously worked at Blue State Digital, an online agency that coordinates campaigns for nonprofits and other organizations.

How can you be an informed media consumer?

On Election Day, what you have access to is very different from what you had in 2012 or even 2014. There are so many ways to learn what’s happening. That night, I’ll be in my basement with a big-screen TV and my iPad, iPhone, and laptop. CNN will be on the TV. I’ll have a TweetDeck feed on my iPad. My laptop will go between whatever [FiveThirtyEight.com founder] Nate Silver does and something else video-centric, and I’ll have my Twitter feed on my mobile device. They’re all jumping-off points. Keep in mind, this is my plan right now; it could change by November 8. I’ve been profoundly disappointed by the quality of election coverage more often than I’d like to be.

It’s so important for citizens to read stuff they don’t agree with. Read things that will challenge you. There is good, thoughtful analysis and commentary on both the left and the right. Allow your opinion to be challenged—you’ll do a better job making an argument if you listen to the counterargument.

Howard Sinker ’78 teaches News Reporting and Writing and is the web sports editor for startribune.com.


What’s it like to be a field organizer?

My job is to make sure it’s as easy as possible to vote—and to get as many Democrats out to vote as possible. I’m on the ground, organizing folks in southeast Iowa. I coordinate volunteers and reach out to voters through phone-banking and door-knocking. This job is seven days a week and goes from mid-morning until at least 9 p.m. I get tired, but inspiring things happen every day. I meet people who are so passionate, and I see the real faces attached to the policies we talk about. One of my favorite things is to talk with people who didn’t think they could vote because they can’t get to a polling place on Election Day—they’re so excited to learn they can vote from home. Elections are a big process, but there’s so much that an individual can do. My volunteers are wonderful. They have busy lives, but they can reach out to large portions of their communities. On-the-ground work is so important to get out the vote. That’s what keeps me going through long days. What we’re doing in a small part of Iowa really matters.

Lucy Westerfield ’15 is a field organizer with the Iowa Democratic Party, based in Burlington, Iowa.

Why did I change how I teach about campaigns?

In my class Rhetoric of Campaigns and Elections, we act as if students have been hired as political candidates’ campaign managers or communications directors. In the first week of class, students choose the campaign and make a communications plan. They produce bumper stickers and yard signs, design door hangers, and write stump speeches and phone canvassing scripts. This fall my class is profoundly different: Instead of teaching students how to run a campaign in the here-and-now, I’m teaching them how to run campaigns of the future. Most of my students choose to work for candidates who are much like them in terms of race, class, gender, or religious background. But in their lifetimes, this country’s demographics are going to change significantly. We are going to become a far more diverse place. Our campaigns should reflect this country’s principles about political representation. People of color need to run and be elected to public office in far greater numbers.

This year I’m asking my students to hypothetically work on behalf of a candidate of color or a recent immigrant in order to create a “more perfect union,” even though they may not be able to rely on their own experience or background. I want my students to tackle one of the most complicated issues of our time—race—so that when they start taking jobs in politics, they have a fuller appreciation for the challenges and rewards of electing minority candidates. I’m advocating for a stronger attempt to have our politics represent our principles of equality and justice, and to think about what those principles look like in lived practice. I’m not interested in turning out Republicans or Democrats; I’m interested in turning out informed citizens who know how elections operate and understand their own agency in influencing them.

Adrienne Christiansen teaches political science at Macalester and is director of the Jan Serie Center for Scholarship and Teaching.


How can math help us understand politics?

Learning math is about learning how to reason. You think about a problem like it’s a tree—and you have to follow all the branches. That’s how mathematicians think. They’re generally interested in politics and pretty levelheaded. I see students get caught up in arguing why something shouldn’t happen for political reasons. They might get frustrated with a candidate who presents as centrist, without thinking about why that’s happening—that perhaps that candidate needs to sway voters in the middle. Some of my students were upset that Hillary Clinton didn’t choose Sherrod Brown or Elizabeth Warren for her running mate, but there are very good political reasons she didn’t. We need to think about how any vice presidential candidate would be replaced in their current job. The governor gets to pick the replacement, and in Warren’s case, the Republican governor of Massachusetts indicated he would pick a Republican. But Hillary needs the Senate to flip Democrat—so she needs both Brown and Warren in the Senate. That’s how mathematicians think: They think about what happens next.

Karen Saxe is the DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science. This semester she’s teaching Political Participation: Politics of Mathematics and Elections.

What makes a campaign successful?

It boils down to this: an appealing message from an appealing messenger. That’s the core. A campaign has to be based on a set of proposals and solutions that address real problems that people are facing. If a campaign isn’t doing that, it’s fundamentally hollow. The rest is just mechanics: how do we get the message to people, how are we going to communicate it, which tools will we use to educate people about what the candidate believes, and how will we contrast those beliefs with the opponent’s? Here are a few candidates who were effective communicators and ran on ideas: Ronald Reagan in 1980, Paul Wellstone in 1990, Bill Clinton in 1992, Paul Ryan in 1998, and Marco Rubio in 2010. Sometimes campaigns get lost in how much money they’ve raised. Money is a means to an end, not the end. Candidates have money for a reason: to communicate ideas. Do you have something to say, something compelling to tell the people you’d like to represent? You’ve got to address people’s concerns and what they care about.

Pat Shortridge ’90 is president and founder of the political nonprofit Conservative Solutions Project and a former Minnesota GOP chair.

How do campaigns get to know voters?

People ask me all the time how to get off campaign call lists. My recommendation is always the same: vote early, and always vote. Most calls happen the week before the election. If you vote early, the campaigns won’t need to call you. And the more elections you vote in, the less likely they’ll be to call you, because they assume you’ll be voting. Political data has been around since the 1890s, when William Jennings Bryan started collecting his supporters’ names and addresses. Eventually magazine subscriptions became another tool, giving campaigns a sense of voters’ interests. Nielsen viewing habit information became the next wave to hit political data. Now consumer records and purchasing habits give us data. For years, politicians had to start over during each election cycle to build their campaigns. Today, both political parties maintain supporter lists, shared by candidates from local through presidential elections. We’ve reached a point where consumer and public data have maximized their effectiveness—we know a lot about voters. The next step is to identify the best ways to persuade people in the middle to vote. We know how to reach them and what they want to hear, but we can’t seem to make them actually vote.

Andrew Ojeda ’13 is a political analyst at the data analytics firm i360.

Why do blogs matter?

There’s a service element to political blogging. Too often people allow their passions and beliefs to supersede otherwise logically grounded views. Our writing at RRH Elections may come from a Republican perspective, but we work hard to ensure that our analysis is clear-headed. The question isn’t, Who should win the election? but instead, Who is winning the election? It’s not about how we feel about the candidates. Instead, we have an obligation to report things as they are, and how various data point to that conclusion. We’re honest about the fact that we do not report on the issues, unless they influence who will win or lose. We report on electoral politics. We serve a niche that tells it like it is with the electoral reality, while legacy media outlets have a much greater responsibility to tell a fuller story about an election. When done right, blogs and mainstream media should complement each other. We provide half the equation and hope that other blogs with their own niches will pick up the rest.

Danny Surman ’14 is a founder of the blog RRH Elections.


How has social media changed elections?

Social media makes campaigns more accessible. You can take big political ideas and esoteric problems and break them down to what they mean for one family. In the best possible world, social media can make issues more accessible to folks. The more we can distill issues into bits of content you can read while waiting in the grocery store line, the better. Also, when you see what the candidates talk about—and don’t talk about—it helps you figure out which questions to ask. The candidate’s social media staff members are monitoring all the accounts, and they see themes. They notice if every time they post a video about health care, people start talking about prescription drug prices. They want to be talking about the ideas that matter to people. The White House recently rolled out a program in which you can send a Facebook message to the President. A friend asked me, “Why not just write a letter?” I said, “Do you have stamps at home? Stationery?” A Facebook message takes less than five minutes, and that’s something you can fit into your day. Social media allows people to have their voices heard.

Sara Langhinrichs ’08 is social media director at Center for American Progress. She was part of the social media team for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign.

Learning from the Election

News Reporting and Writing: In Howard Sinker’s reporting class, every student must clear the first Tuesday night in November. On election night they tackle the course’s biggest challenge: covering election news as it unfolds. Sometimes that means interviewing high-profile candidates; sometimes it means appearing on local TV. Says Sinker, “This is an opportunity: to be on the floor, to be close to a candidate, to ask questions of other journalists. It’s what contemporary journalism is all about.”

Rhetoric of Campaigns and Elections: Members of the Class of 2020 will cast their first presidential vote this fall—and the 16 of them in Adrienne Christiansen’s Rhetorics of Campaigns and Elections course are already immersed in campaign persuasion tactics. In addition to hearing from political candidates and campaign workers, class members have been analyzing presidential candidates’ communication strategies. They’re also producing their own campaign rhetoric—from press releases to fundraising scripts. By the term’s end, “they’ll have a whole repertoire of new skills,” Christiansen says, skills previous students have later used in real political campaigns.

2-D Design: Art professor Eric Carroll regularly gives students time to draw in their sketchbooks—honing a practice of thinking visually. Those visual exercises are building to a final product with a big audience: Posters using the word vote, which Twin Cities partners will distribute and display in early November. In addition, they are designing an even larger scale element for campus: the word vote—in letters 20 feet high and 3 feet wide—to be hung in their studio windows overlooking Shaw Field. Says Carroll, “They’ll think about the word vote so much the letters will turn into shapes and forms, but they’ll also think about the content and what it means in such a polarizing election season.”

Political Participation—Politics of Mathematics and Elections: Political science professor Julie Dolan and math professor Karen Saxe are focusing on how their fields interact, having students explore issues like redistricting and gerrymandering, weighted voting systems and voting power, and electoral outcome predictions. And they quickly put into practice what they learn: On day one, Dolan and Saxe discussed what makes a race competitive. Then the students chose a congressional race, followed its campaign strategies, and identified what kinds of voters the candidate must attract. Says Saxe, “They need to predict who will win, and by how much. Last time every class member correctly predicted the winner—and with surprising accuracy, too.”

October 24 2016

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