I am still thrilled with the election results here in Virginia. We did better than we expected in our wildest dreams — picking up 15 seats in the House of Delegates and sweeping the state-wide elections by a huge margin.
Many are saying that that these results were fueled by a wave of anger against Trump, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Anger might have been the fuel, but something had to tap into that anger to turn it into positive energy that delivered voters to the polls in record numbers.
First of all, many outstanding candidates were motivated to run. Credit goes to this group of people who stuck their necks out, worked incredibly hard and sacrificed a great deal. To all the candidates who ran this year and made this wave election possible — thank you!
Those candidates couldn’t have done it without their terrific campaign managers and staffers and the hundreds of volunteers who worked incredibly hard. Thank you to all of you!
Also, we are enormously grateful to all of our UpRise supporters and donors who made it possible for us to spend the time and provide the tools to help these candidates and their staffers and volunteers.
While more than 40 campaigns statewide used our platform to recruit volunteers for tasks and skilled roles, our most innovative work was done here in the Richmond area. We worked with many campaigns in the region to encourage them to embrace more volunteer-driven person-to-person outreach and visibility activities.
Since the election, I have been interviewing candidates and campaign managers to get their feedback on what worked and what didn’t. Here is what they had to say:
Visibility Played a Huge Role
While each individual part may not be a deciding factor, the cumulative effect of seeing signs of the campaigns everywhere you go created a huge sense of momentum and excitement in the greater Richmond area.
Campaigns embraced lawn signs, distributing them earlier and aggressively seeking placements. Successful campaigns actively promoted their programs in person and on social media and delivered the signs themselves, rather than asking people to pick them up.
Billboards and 4×8 Signs
Candidates found that billboards and four-by-eight signs are great for name recognition and building momentum, and they are cost effective at reaching people by the tens or even hundreds of thousands. Plus, they don’t take up a lot of valuable candidate or volunteer time.
Street Teams and Roadside Rallies
Hanging around waving at passing traffic feels more like a party than work, but we found these activities to be extremely effective at both reaching a great number of people at a low cost, and at generating earned and social media.
This one highway overpass sign event was seen by over 10,000 passing cars, and the photos and video were shared extensively on social media. Not bad for less than $100 in materials, and two hours work for seven people! One of our roadside rallies even appeared in a televised news story about the campaign.
A Totally Different Approach to House Parties
House parties used to be a central part of campaigning, but have been phased out by campaign managers who only saw them for their fundraising potential and decided they weren’t worth the candidates’ time. By recognizing the value of house parties for persuasion, our candidates tapped into neighborhood networks with great success!
Some of our Supervolunteers even hand delivered invitations to their entire neighborhood or precinct. This helped to round up undecided voters and made sure that even folks who could not attend were aware that someone in their community was supporting the candidate — which carries a lot of weight.
Research shows that for every ten people who attend a house party, an average of more than 250 people hear about it later through word of mouth.
Making Direct Mail Personal
Local chapters of the Liberal Women for Chesterfield County gather to write postcards for candidates
Recent studies have shown that it doesn’t help to send more than 5 pieces of mail. Our candidates worked to have more impact with less mail by making it more personal. Several sent long letters to voters all about who they were and why they were running. Some had volunteers even hand address the envelopes, which results in a much higher open rate.
The big hit this year was post-card writing parties. A hand-written postcard carries far more weight than an ordinary printed mailer. Local activist groups like the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County (LWCC) had these parties as many as several times a week. LWCC volunteers hand wrote over 40,000 postcards for candidates in or near the county.
In heavily Republican “exurbs” like Chesterfield County, parties like these provided solidarity and a safe place to be Liberal. Sorry — I meant formerly Republican exurbs. The LWCC played a critical role in flipping Chesterfield County blue for the first time since 1961!
The Creation of Ongoing Volunteer Communities
Many activist communities arose after the 2016 presidential elections and then went on to play a really unique role in 2017 — that of a volunteer pool that candidates could tap into. Members of these activist communities like LWCC, Together We Will and Indivisible Richmond took it on themselves to work with candidates and organize volunteer outings that often benefited multiple candidates.
UpRise has long advocated for volunteer communities that create social bonds and provide peer recognition, help volunteers work for multiple candidates and allow volunteers to shop among different types of activities to find ones that meet their needs. This helped encourage rapid community growth and was a great help to the campaign staffers. These groups haven’t slowed down since the election. They rolled right into issue advocacy work without missing a beat!
Campaigning Smarter and Cheaper, Face-to-Face
Fifteen seats were flipped from Republican to Democrat in the VA House of Delegates. One of those winners was Dawn Adams in the 68th District (Richmond, North Chesterfield). When it comes to cost-effective campaigning, Adams and her Campaign Manager Lizzie Drucker-Basch deserve a big round of applause for spending only $5.50 per vote.
The other 14 seat-flipping campaigns spent, on average, more than $40 for every vote received, ranging from $19 per vote to more than $80 per vote.
One big reason for Adams’ success was the thousands of doors she knocked on personally. She made it her focus to meet as many voters as possible one on one and started canvassing early in the primary season.
Research shows that meeting a candidate in person is the most effective thing you can do to win over a voter. Candidates have to decide whether the money they raise during “call time” is worth the loss of opportunity to spend those hours face to face with voters.
One candidate who decided that the trade off wasn’t worth it was Jenefer Hughes (above with dog and billboard). Hughes opted to spend her time out meeting voters at churches, schools, public events, parades, meetings and anywhere else she could find them. In a county-wide race for Commissioner of Revenue, she wouldn’t have been able to knock on enough doors, so she focused on meeting people in group situations.
Face to face outreach, combined with billboards, lawn signs and postcards allowed Hughes to win in a landslide county wide at a stunning under one dollar a vote. Hughes actually received a thousand more votes than Ralph Northam did for Governor in Chesterfield County! She gives a great deal of credit and thanks to the many volunteers who hand wrote postcards for her and delivered her postcards while going door to door for other candidates.
What Did You Experience?
I would like to interview people who participated in campaigns across the state (candidates, staffers and volunteers). I hope to gather more supporting evidence that shows how people can win or improve Democratic performance through volunteer participation and creative campaigning. I also want to hear what you think didn’t work. Please get in touch with me at antonia[splat]uprise.org to arrange a call or get together. I look forward to hearing from you!
I know that it is hard to stay positive with all that is going on in the news, but the election results in Virginia are a sign of good things to come. We have a lot of momentum going into the 2018 midterm elections. People across the country are finally realizing the power of volunteer participation and hopefully that will translate into more effective, affordable campaigns and big wins for Democrats next year.
Thanks for everything you do. Stay positive, and take care of yourself and your loved ones!
Co-founder and Chief Mission Officer
All photos by Antonia Scatton (all rights reserved).
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