The Lost Art of Changing the Environment

There was a time when voter registration played a key role in every campaign plan. Today, that isn’t the case — especially in Republican campaigns.

Anyone who has run a campaign in a district with up-side-down party registration knows the challenge all to well — sometimes their just aren’t enough people from your party to win an election. It’s not fun being the Republican candidate running in a Democrat majority district, or vice versa. So what’s the solution?

If you have attended a campaign school you have likely heard consultants preach about changing the environment. Don’t like the registration levels? Change them. Register more people from your party until you have the advantage.

This is where most campaigns throw their hands up — you’ll never have the time to register enough voters to swing an election. And campaigns are in fact throwing their hands up on a large scale. Republican campaigns have reached a point where even the most serious organizations aren’t even attempting to deploy voter registration programs. They half-heartedly place voter registration forms in their offices and in packets they give volunteers to take while going door-to-door but large scale organized efforts are seen as tactical dinosaurs. Many managers judge registration as time consuming, work intensive, and better suited to third party groups to carry out.

When was the last time you met the voter registration director for a Republican congressional campaign? You likely haven’t. In fact, many state parties don’t even have unpaid staff tasked to supervising voter registration efforts. To them, it’s a lost cause.

But Democrats and Democrat affiliated third party groups, have been hard at work changing the environment and are celebrating our apathy. Voter registration has become a staple of their campaign culture. At the start of 2012, the Democratic Party was the largest political party in America with 6 million voter registration advantage nationwide.

Following the 2008 cycle, the leading Democratic data management firm Catalist, produced a report on the campaign activity of progressive campaign organizations in 2008. Their research found that just their clients alone were responsible for generating over 7 million voter registration applications, 5.5 million of which actually made it onto the voter roles. Later analysis showed that 3.8 million of them showed up to vote in 2008. No Republican data has been released.

Imagine if in a marginal district, every two years, a campaign registered 1,000 new voters. That means for the average Congressional race you could add up to 4,000 new supporters before you reach a redistricting. For most districts in America, that increase far exceeds the margin of victory. Over time, changing your environment may not be such a lost cause even with token effort.

Today, campaigns have new way of changing their environment that completely alters voter registration equation. Using online voter registration tools backed by advertising, the traditional method of people with clipboards at malls and supermarkets can be replaced with high tech, highly targeted, highly efficient, digital programs. This reduces cost, raises efficiency, and allows registration efforts to occur passively as a full time function of any campaign.

There once was a time when Republican campaigns embraced the idea of voter registration and now other parties are using it against them with high levels of success. It’s time for Republican campaigns to get back to basics using technology to magnify their impact.