Listen to Off-Year Issue Campaigns To Help Form Your Election Message

Originally posted on and written by Michael Cohen

This article originally appeared in Winning Campaigns Magazine.

In getting ready for next year’s races, we should all take note of what is going on right now on issues voters are seeing play out right now.  Issue campaigns in off-years can provide clues as to what might drive voter decisions on Election Day – even if it is over a year away.  Remember, voters always remember your positions and so do your opponents.


Modern issue campaigns are interesting creatures created out of the 1993 campaign by the Clinton White House for healthcare reform.  A relatively obscure group, Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA) commissioned targeted ad campaigns featuring “Harry and Louise,” a fictional couple who would discuss the downside of Clinton-style reform casually at home.  The ads resonated with the public, leading to the downfall of the plan and a Republican takeover of Congress the following year.

The Harry and Louise issue campaign redefined politics.  Healthcare helped turnover Congress.  No longer could candidates ignore the off-year and explain votes or positions only within the context of the election campaign.  Issue campaigns have life cycles of their own and your candidate may be a part of the story or not.  Either way, your candidate needs to at least have an opinion on what he or she would have done at the time because voters are paying attention.

The New Rules

So what are we left with?  Issue campaigns can come out of nowhere and dominate the political landscape and all who work within it.  Sometimes the issue can be inspired by a president who is seeking reform like healthcare or Social Security.  Other times the issues are more local such as sugar taxes in Florida or the right of Ringling Brothers to have trained animals in their circus in Denver, Colorado.  To recognize them as signs of Election Day importance they need to have the following characteristics:

    * Interest group sponsored
    * Well funded effort
    * Targeted media buys
    * Inspires talk

Almost every time an issue campaign is launched it is from the outside.  Since Harry and Louise, interest groups have become savvier about leveraging their membership and their issues for public consumption.  Instead of solely lobbying those in power, interest groups are succeeding in shaping debates.

Strong interest groups know how to organize, communicate, and influence the powerful and there are many more now than ten years ago.  And they don’t forget.  Whether it is the Washington fixture of AARP or an ad-hoc group like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, interest groups can have a significant impact on electoral fortunes.

But a strong group is not enough.  The financial commitment of the organization to the issue campaign is the next most important thing to recognize.  In government, budget is commitment.  The same holds true for politics.  A group that is willing to put the money needed to win a debate – or join a coalition to do the same – is one to watch closely.

The one thing most candidates will notice will be the ads.  Targeted media buying by groups on issues is the surest sign that something is not only up but might come down on you.  All campaigns are not equally potent so candidates should not react in knee-jerk fashion.  But seeing an ad means that the issue is something to take seriously.

Finally, the thing that the issue campaign really wants to achieve is talk.  Issue campaigns are most successful when voters begin communicating about it amongst themselves rather than tuning it out.  Polling on “most important issues” is one method to find out if the campaign is making progress and it is likely that you would have to poll multiple times to see if the issue is gaining or losing traction.

For those with limited budgets, do it the old-fashioned way: Listen to constituents.  Knocking on doors for candidates is an underestimated way of communicating.  Don’t just drop off literature of introduce the candidate, find out what they are thinking and which issues are important to them.  Especially in local races, this type of “research” can go a long way.

How to React

The worst thing candidates can do is to say what the people want them to hear without believing it themselves.  If an issue is gaining traction, and you see the issue campaign working, it is far better to argue the other side in a respectful way or shift the debate elsewhere than to pander.  Campaigns are not won and lost on one issue and chances are that your side will engage at some point as well.

The important thing to remember is that issue campaigns are a window out to the political landscape but they do not represent the complete picture.  Sometimes you will be able to take advantage of an opportunity provided by a friendly interest group and other times you will need to run for cover or hope it blows over.  In all cases that fit our criteria, however, you should keep engaged as issue campaigns today can become campaign issues next year.

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