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The Secret to Courting the Undecided Voter

Posted At: November 1, 2010
by Libby Page

During the November election, many Americans asked themselves, “Who am I voting for?” In a political world that seems polarized, some may be surprised at the percentage of initially undecided constituents who decide to vote on Election Day. According to a pollconducted by National Public Radio, 6.4 percent of voters were still undecided on the 2008 presidential Election Day. This statistic forms a daunting task for PR practitioners working with political campaigns. Campaign teams must find ways to sway the undecided segment to ensure their candidates win elections.

For campaigns, research is one of the vital components in understanding how to influence undecided voters. According to Public Relations: Theory and Practice(Johnston & Zawawi, 2004), research primarily happens in three steps. The first lies in the pre-campaign phase. At this phase, the candidate and campaign director focus specifically on demographics and past habits of the electorate.

Second, the campaign team benefits from quantitative research, such as polls. Norman Baldwin, Ph.D., University of Alabama political science professor and frequent campaign participant, believes quantitative research should be used to help candidates pick which issues and topics to emphasize.

“After the campaign team identifies the individuals who are voting, it is important to determine overall opinion,” said Baldwin. “Then the candidate will be able to establish a platform based on public opinion.”

Finally, campaign teams should use qualitative research to gain a better understanding of what motivates undecided voters. The qualitative stage also helps develop solutions for PR and advertising problems.

Although research is essential, it is also important to create a fundraising strategy. Such strategies should be developed in the beginning stages of the overall campaign plan. PR practitioners prefer to focus on the issues of research and lobbying, but it is important to remember that fundraising is the driving force of the campaign.

“It takes extensive resources to get a campaign message heard, so fundraising is definitely a large part of a political campaign,” said Lauren Culbertson, communications and new media director for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s re-election campaign. “The frequency of fundraising events varies, but we usually host a few a week during peak campaigning season.”

Before promotional efforts begin, the team makes a decision about the message that will consistently be seen throughout the campaign. This message should be directed at achieving a specific result, so voters will feel the need to support the candidate.

Isakson and his team found the central issues in Georgia are unemployment and job growth.

“As the state’s unemployment rate continues to exceed the national average, the number one issue for Georgians is job growth,” Culbertson said. “Drawing on his many years in the private sector, Johnny knows what it takes to get our economy back on track, and we highlight this particular strength in our overall communications strategy.”

Isakson and his campaign team consistently emphasize the topic of job growth through direct mail, print advertisements, commercials and the senator’s websites. This broad topic allows Isakson’s team to highlight different subtopics, such as lower taxes, fair regulation and private sector growth, in each advertisement or commercial.

Public affairs communication changes with advances in technology. Campaign teams now shape their strategies while considering a new element: social media. Many candidates are beginning to realize that social media touches voters in a more personal way.

“It is my personal opinion that social media encourages people to get involved in politics because it reaches them through a medium that they already use in their daily life,” Culbertson said.

After looking at the elements of research, fundraising, strategy and social media, it is important to ask which element is most vital in swaying undecided voters. Baldwin believes strategy and communication play a large role.

“It is important for candidates to meet undecided voters, especially at the local level,” said Baldwin. “After they meet the individual, the campaigns team should follow up.”

Before Election Day, candidates scramble to get in touch with undecided voters. Candidates’ campaigns speak highly of who they are and what they believe. When candidates are able to construct clear and concise messages that consistently communicate their political beliefs, citizens will be able to place more trust in the candidates.

What PR tactics have you noticed in recent elections? Are any of these tactics targeted to undecided voters?

Photo by Tom Sims

Johnston. J., & Zawawi, C. (Eds.). (2004). Public relations: theory and practice. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

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