Are Elections About Mobilizing or Persuading Voters? It Depends on the Race and Who You Ask
One of the basic critical questions campaigns must ask themselves is what voters will or will potentially vote for their candidate. Not every voter is up for grabs. Some Democratic voters will vote for Democrats no matter what, and some Republican voters will vote for Republicans no matter what. Apart from those voters, people have varying degrees of attachment to a party, if any at all.
Yet even then voters that would choose that candidate aren’t necessarily a guarantee to actually come out and cast a ballot in favor of that candidate. Some voters don’t need to be urged to come out and vote because they are so involved in politics, or pay enough attention to political news, that they know elections are happening and have enough emotional investment in them that they’ll participate no matter what. Other voters, even if they tie themselves fairly strongly to a party, may need to be coaxed to come out. Still, other voters are unlikely to come out or will even never come out regardless of any appeals.
Thus, it isn’t simply a matter of which voters will or might vote for a particular candidate, but whether they will come out to vote at all. This brings us to the question in the title of this post: Are elections about mobilizing or persuading voters? Mobilizing refers to pushing for those voters you know will vote for (or are likely to vote for) your candidate to get out to the polls. Persuading is about convincing those voters that are more predisposed against, but not adamantly opposed to, your candidate to change their opinion.
But how much mobilizing or persuading is needed varies greatly depending on the race. Each race is different. There are a lot of variables to consider.
What Factors Affect the Need for Mobilization or Persuasion?
Below are some things to consider when determining how much mobilization and how much persuasion is needed, but it is not a comprehensive list.
- The level of government being voted for: Presidential elections usually see the highest turnout rates. It’s the preeminent office in the country and generally gets the most news coverage. Yet there are many other levels of government to vote on: Congressional, state executive (e.g. governor, attorney general), state legislative, county, municipal, and special district. How much voters care about these other races — or even know they are happening — varies greatly.
- The year and when in the year the election is happening: There are plenty of elections that don’t happen when presidential candidates are being voted on. There are midterm elections that happen halfway between presidential elections. Special elections can happen at nearly any point in the year, depending on state law, when certain offices are vacated for any reason. Then there are certain elections that normally occur in odd-numbered years. Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia regularly hold their state legislative elections in odd years, and many municipalities do the same thing for mayor and city council.
- Generals vs. primaries: General elections have the highest rates of turnout, but many of them have primary elections to determine who even makes it to the general. Some races also require runoffs if no primary or general election candidate receives a majority of the vote, but most races only require a plurality (i.e., the highest number of votes, but not necessarily the majority) to win. General elections see higher rates of turnout than primaries. Runoffs will sometimes have higher rates of turnout than their normal counterpart, depending on factors such as the level of government and who is running. Some partisan primaries are also closed, where only members of a party can vote in that party’s primary, meaning there is no point in making appeals to voters outside the party when you are at the primary stage.
- The partisan composition of the electorate: Not every election is relatively evenly matched between Republicans and Democrats. In fact, many states and districts are quite lopsided against one party or the other. There could also be a lot of voters that are unaffiliated with either party or could even be a plurality of voters in the district.
The Debate Over Persuasion Versus Mobilization
There is no straightforward guide to determining when you need to bank more on persuading voters or if the focus should be on mobilization. Sometimes, multiple campaigners could look at the same exact factors of a district and come to different conclusions.
There are, however, certain guidelines that are good rules of thumb. For example, let’s say there is a district that is 60% Republican, 30% Democrat, and 10% that are unaffiliated with either. All else equal, the Republican candidate is more than likely going to want to focus primarily (or maybe even solely) on mobilizing their own base since they have such a big advantage in registered voters. The Democratic candidate, on the other hand, is almost certainly going to have to heavily engage in persuading not only the unaffiliated voters to come vote for them but pull away some Republican voters.
Here is one more example. Some local elections are nominally nonpartisan. Since some voters need the party label to help make their decision, a lot of would-be voters are not going to participate in the election by default. However, many nonpartisan election candidates still receive financial backing and endorsements from Republicans and Democrats. These candidates can use these endorsements to mobilize voters of that party to pick them or persuade somebody that is predisposed toward that candidate but still is on the fence to commit. Still, this is only one piece of the puzzle.
In conclusion, there is no absolute answer to whether or not mobilization of supporters or persuasion of non-supporters is the answer to winning an election. Like many things in politics, that are too many variables that complicate matters. The opinions of campaign operatives can also vary when looking at the same information. Being on one side of the race versus the other also factors in.
Some elections call for primarily or solely mobilization. Other elections prescribe predominantly persuasion. Others require a more even mix of both. Yet having a good sense of what to look out for will help give a more well-informed answer on how to craft campaign plans. It can even help those outside the campaign but still invested in political ongoings understand certain elements of a campaign’s strategy.