Assembling a Majority: Initiative Campaigns

When winning matters, targeting must be smart and set simple numerical goals.

Members of AGENDA, the community organizing arm of SCOPE, are veterans of civic engagement work, including nonpartisan voter turnout and ballot initiative campaigns. For both, organizers start by looking at the areas where the communities they want to reach live. One of the organization’s primary missions is to mobilize people of color who live in the inner city and hold low-wage jobs, but they’ve also reached out to white and middle-class communities in order to broaden and strengthen their movement, as Anthony explains in the video. Campaign planners don’t take on every precinct that meets the demographic criteria. The “second cut” identifies precincts where their efforts will have the greatest impact on the election – and ultimately help them and their allies to gain the most political power.

The most effective use of resources is to target precincts that have, historically, relatively low voter turnout. In districts with high voter turnout, people are either on your side or they’re not (to put it very simply). Sending in volunteers to try to change people’s minds is an inefficient a use of resources as is sending them in to rouse folks who’ll vote your way in any case. Like a presidential race that ignores the sure-thing states in favor of those elusive swingers, time and money is better spent preaching to those who haven’t been converted one way or another. 

The basic process of targeting in an initiative campaign begins by gathering as much of the data that was discussed in the introduction to this section as possible. Based on this information as well as your predictions, zero in on the districts you think you can win. And then the calculations begin. We’ve prepared a simple, interactive Zoho spreadsheet that will open in a new browser window, allowing you to follow along as we work through these calculations. Then you can manipulate the numbers to make projections for your district.

The Winning Number

Begin at the whole district level. The winning number is equal to 50% plus one of the total votes cast on Election Day. The calculations are based on:

  1. Projected voter registration: As of April, there are 98,000 registered voters in Voterville. We’re projecting that voter registration on Election Day will be 100,000. Why? Because there were big voter registration drives in Voterville two years ago; there’s not going to be a similar drive this year, so the rate of registration won’t shoot up significantly in the summer and autumn months. However, part of our campaign goals is to register new voters so we’re estimating voter registration on Election Day to be 100,000.
  2. Likely turnout, based on past elections and political environment: This is not a presidential election year so voter turnout won’t be as high as it was two years ago (70%). Four years ago, in a similar election, the voter turn-out rate was 60%.
  3. Likely number of votes to be cast: We’re projecting a 60% turnout rate, so we’re expecting 60,000 votes to be cast.
  4. Likely percent who will vote the whole ballot, down to and including our issue: Four years ago the rate of folks who voted on every contest was 90%. We’re taking that as our projected percent.
  5. Likely votes to be cast in our contest: 90% of 60,000 is 54,000 votes.
  6. Number of votes needed to win: 50% plus one of 54,000 is 27,001 votes. But we’d like a healthy cushion, so we’re aiming for 52% of the vote, which is 28,080.

Baseline Performance vs. Swing Voters

Calculate the likely baseline performance of your initiative and the number of swing votes at play:

  1. Using data from comparable elections, identify the best and worst performance outcomes of progressive issues or candidates (assuming that you’re on the progressive side of the initiative): In Voterville’s  2000 mayoral election, the progressive candidate won with a landslide 60% of the vote. The conservative candidate got just 35%. But in the 2002 senate race, the conservative candidate won with 55% while the progressive candidate got 40%.
  2. Calculate the percentage of residual swing voters (the difference between the best and worst outcomes): Since the worst performance for the progressive candidate was 40%, we can assume that those folks will vote progressive no matter what. They represent Voterville’s progressive base. Likewise, even in the best year for progressives, 35% of voters supported the conservative candidate, so that’s their base. The grey area in between – 25% of voters – are the swing voters.
  3. Likely baseline performance: 40% of 54,000 is 21,600. Those are the Voterville voters we’re assuming are going to vote our way.
  4. Likely swing voters: 55% of 54,000 is 13,500.  Those are the persuadable swing voters.
  5. Calculate the minimum number of votes that you must “pick up,” from either swing voters or unregistered voters, to win (the difference between the winning number and the progressive base): 27,001 less 21,600 is 5,401. But we’re aiming for that cushion: 28,080 less 21,600 is 6,480 votes.


Now, repeat the exercise in every precinct you’re considering working in. Once you’ve completed the calculations you can compare the districts to find which ones your campaign can gain the most ground in, through a combination of registering new voters and turning out swing voters. Keep in mind that the precincts you choose to work in you’ve really got to win them by a landslide in order to temper the precincts where, for example, the other side’s campaign is working and your side will get only 35%. A good rule of thumb is to aim for winning in your priority precincts with 75% of the vote.

At this point, you should also do some research (talk to your membership and volunteers!) to assess the feasibility of working each precinct: Do you have volunteers that live there? Have you organized in this area in the past? Are there many apartment buildings (which can make door-knocking well nigh impossible)?

Meanwhile, in Voterville...

In Voterville’s Precinct 6, there are 5,000 registered voters. Compared to the city as a whole, the turnout rate and percentage of registered voters is low. The progressive base is 20% and swing voters make up another 65%. Demographically, the precinct is made up of a mix of Hispanic and white lower-income families. It’s a good precinct for our project because its residents match our target constituency and the low registration rate means that we can register 300 voters, which we’re projecting will translate to about 100 votes.

 If, through our registration and turnout work, we can bump the low turnout rate to the citywide average, there will be about 3,000 votes cast, about 600 of which is our base. So we’re estimating that there will be 1,950 persuadable voters. If we can get 75% of those to vote our way, we’ll collect a total of 2,062 votes in this precinct.

That means we have just over 4,000 more votes to pick up in other precincts to reach our district-wide goal.

Click to see a sample worksheet

Click on the thumbnail to view the Zoho spreadsheet that'll take you through these targeting calculations.

Click on the thumbnail to use the interactive targeting spreadsheet