Maximize the interest of your independent spending campaign

Independent spending success starts with a plan

Here at The Campaign Workshop, we’ve written a lot about independent spending strategies in the past, but the key steps never change:

1. Know your goals.
2. Do no harm.
3. Do not duplicate efforts.

Today, I want to share a little more about that last point. Campaigns are complex creatures, and without careful strategic planning there are thousands of ways you can stumble into unnecessary work. On the other hand, campaigns are governed by complex laws, and it’s important that you talk to an election lawyer about what campaign information you can and can’t use to build your independent spending strategy. While independent spending usually means “independent” means you can’t contact the candidate or their campaign, in many cases it’s permissible to outsource your campaign strategy and messaging and plan your program accordingly.

So let’s talk about how to be smart, creative and legal when supporting a candidate with a strong independent spending communications strategy.

A communications strategy is a roadmap of what a candidate’s campaign will say to whom, when, why, how, etc Unfortunately, campaigns rarely have the time or money to deliver a perfectly tailored message to every community through every medium. Fortunately for IE, this provides many opportunities to reinforce your preferred candidate’s message without duplicating their work. A high-impact independent expense communication strategy will distinguish itself across the four factors below.

Message: Create contrast

At the heart of a communication strategy is the message. A strong message has to say something about the candidate, about the opponent, what the opponent is saying about the candidate, and what the opponent is saying about themselves. In other words, start with a message box.

Notice that three of these four categories involve messaging that anticipates and responds to opponents This is where independent spending can shine. Candidates must be strategic about how they differentiate themselves, especially in primary or local campaigns where all candidates are well-known or well-liked by community members. Individual costs may be more direct in determining contrasts between candidates.

For example, an independent expense run by an environmental group may run a communications program that contrasts the environmental voting record of a candidate supporting their opponent. It draws attention to the opponent’s failings without involving himself in the candidate’s campaign.

A word of caution here. Crafting a subtle message is an IE superpower, but this is an easy place to enforce maxim number two: do no harm. To avoid this, take your cues from publicly available information about a candidate’s campaign. How are candidates developing their values? What accomplishments are they proud of? What topics do they usually try to pivot from? You don’t want to run an ad that steers the public’s narrative in a direction your candidate would normally avoid. Create contrast and use strong language, but always think about how your message might affect the candidate you want.

Reach niche audiences

Who is your favorite candidate talking to? The answer will vary depending on their pre-existing community, policy priorities, and organizing strategies, but there are some things you can count on. For example, during GOTV, they are talking to potential supporters mid-meal. An effective independent spend strategy prioritizes reaching a specific audience that the campaign itself does not have the resources to focus on. In our environmental organization example, IE may pursue a communication strategy that focuses on reaching voters who score high on the climate change model. In this case, the independent spend strategy may be focused on a GOTV goal, but their messaging should be tailored to mobilize their specific audience.

Communicate a specific message

This brings us to temporal messaging. We talked about contrasts with opponents above, but, as you may know, candidates often have something to say about themselves. A candidate likely has positions on many issues, all of which they want to communicate to voters. A good campaign has to make tough decisions and focus its communications on a small subset of these issues to ensure enough message repetition to voters. A strong independent spending strategy will help draw attention to a specific issue that may not be the primary focus of a candidate’s campaign, such as a candidate’s positive voting record on environmental issues or their longtime membership in a local conservation group.

Dominance of a neglected communication medium

There are many ways to get the campaign message across: mail, TV, canvassing, texting, digital advertising, etc. A candidate can rarely do these. A good IE strategy will identify the procedures that the candidate has not invested in and focus on filling that need. An independent spending group can target a wave of weekly mailers from their preferred candidate without a corresponding flood of airtime on local TV stations. If there is an independent spending resource, this can be a great opportunity to use TV ads to echo the message the campaign is using through other tactics.

This is also an opportunity to test new techniques. The world of political communication is constantly evolving. If you’re playing in an election where you’re struggling to break through the noise or trying to reach an audience that’s less receptive to traditional campaign voter communication methods, try segmenting your audience and experimenting with a different communication medium. Especially if your IE works across multiple campaign cycles, what you learn can equip you to play an even more integral role in the years to come.

Thinking through these independent spending best practices will go a long way toward setting your campaign up for success. In each of these categories, focus on what the candidate’s campaign can’t do, then get creative and shore up the gaps.

Have more questions about strategic communications for an independent spend campaign or interested in next steps? Contact us at the Campaign Workshop!