Politics 101

President Obama shaking hands in a crowd

Introduction to political campaigning

Professional political campaigning is an industry like any other, with its own jargon, battle-tested strategies, and complex internal dynamics. Campaigns are like startups: they are created from scratch and must fundraise, hire strong teams, and drive towards an important and time-sensitive goal. Instead of being experts in technology, though, they are experts in politics. As a TFC volunteer, you’ll be jumping into this time-honored industry and lending your digital skills to help these campaigns and their candidates win elections.

To orient you to this new industry, this document walks through a campaign’s distinct phases and the different activities that take place within them. The document is primarily written from the perspective of state-level political campaigns, with some nods to larger campaigns, as this is TFC’s focus.

Why does TFC focus on state races?

They are hugely impactful. A myriad of important policies are decided at the state level, like education, voting rights and democracy, gun control, civil rights, and healthcare.

In addition, in most states, state legislatures are responsible for redistricting. Control of redistricting is vitally important. Republicans currently hold majorities in many of our states and redistricting is happening under their watch *right now*. From 2021-2022, states will undergo map drawing. Each state has a slightly different procedure on public comments and deadlines but each new line will affect the state legislative makeup.

Republican gerrymandering  — the practice of redrawing district boundaries to give an advantage to a particular political party — in state legislatures leads to redistricting that establishes long-term Republican control of seats in both state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives.

In order to reverse gerrymandering, implement and strengthen progressive policies, we must start with the states. Democrats are slow to make gains in the states and we've seen the cost in the hundreds of voter suppression bills introduced across the country. In the face of redistricting, now is an absolutely critical time to break Republican strongholds in our states and return power to the people.

Despite their importance, state races raise relatively little money and struggle to get attention from campaign professionals. Larger races, like federal offices (U.S. House/Senate) and major statewide offices (Governor) have many more resources to hire digital staff and invest in their tech infrastructure. While small races are making moves to digital, they still lack the resources to run with traditional firms who markup every cost. There’s an amazing opportunity for TFC volunteers to step in, lend digital expertise, and make a huge impact on statewide policies.

Where there is a need or opportunity, TFC will help out on some federal races, but the majority of our teams focus on the state level for these reasons.

Campaign planning (~52-32 weeks prior to election)

Consideration, exploration, and announcement

Time is a campaign’s most important resource. Given more time, a campaign can always raise more money, do more outreach, and speak with more voters, but we're working with a non-negotiable deadline: Election Day.

A considerable amount of planning goes into any prospective campaign well before any announcement is made. For incumbents, this is easier, as there is political history and some pre-existing infrastructure. Generally, the candidate will assess, plan, and begin the implementation of:

  • Assessing the candidate’s qualifications: What are the specific traits and qualifications that this office-holder must have in order to do a good job? Why is this candidate qualified? What makes this candidate a good alternative to the incumbent?
  • Constructing vote targets: Historically, how many votes have been required to win this office? In Presidential and non-Presidential years? This is often referred to as a "win number". This is further complicated with new district lines being drawn in all the states.
  • Fundraising: Does the candidate have a core network to rely on for moral support and fundraising? How much money is required? When are the fundraising deadlines? Is the candidate a good fundraiser?
  • Building a political brand: Determining core messages and issues and cataloging any personal history that may serve as election-time fodder for an opponent.
  • Staffing: Planning and hiring of full-time campaign staff
  • Planning an announcement: When and how? For down ballot races, this is less sensational than a Biden or Warren announcement.

Campaigning (~16 weeks prior to election)

Campaigns typically begin with an announcement, whether in-person or digital.

Once officially launched, most campaigns will focus on:

  • Fundraising: continually raising money to fund the campaign’s operations
  • Awareness: increasing "name ID" (how many voters have heard of the candidate?)
  • Persuasion: convincing voters to vote for the candidate

During the planning phase, candidates will think about what attributes from their political brand can they bring to the table. During the campaign, the candidate and campaign will bring this brand to life and incorporate it in every ad, voter interaction, and media hit.

Attributes of a strong political brand

  1. Authenticity -- In the social media age, inauthentic candidates run into serious trouble. A candidate’s natural behavior must be coherent with their campaign performance, and they must truly embrace the positions they are offering as a candidate. Announcement day is not the time to become a different person; any ‘front’ will often fade away over a grueling campaign.
  2. Relevance -- The candidate must understand what’s going on in the community, be relatable to voters and their families, and respond to their needs.
  3. Differentiation – What makes the candidate a better proposition for the voter versus his/her opponent, and why is the candidate running now?

Staff roles

Most races will have staff to help the candidate run a successful race. In local races, there may be 1-3 full-time staff on the campaign. In federal races, there are often 6+ people, with increasing specialization of roles.

Typical campaign staff roles

  1. Campaign Manager – On small races, the Campaign Manager may be the only hire, and will at least be performing multiple roles at once. On larger races, the Campaign Manager has control over budget, hiring and firing decisions, tries to coordinate the effort of multiple advisors, and serves as the final authority — other than the candidate — for decisions.
  2. Finance Director – Finance Directors help the campaign raise money. They help the candidate identify potential donors and draw up a plan predicting fundraising. They assist the candidate with “Call Time” to help meet  fundraising goals, and organize groups of donors who are willing to solicit others for donations on the candidate’s behalf.
  3. Field Director - In charge of getting the candidate’s message out in the real-world and running GOTV (get out the vote): coordinating canvassing (knocking on doors), phone banking (calling voters), and SMSing (texting voters). They are likely the first or second point of contact for an on-the-ground volunteer.

On state legislative races, TFC volunteers will likely work directly with the Campaign Manager.

Campaign structure for larger races

On campaigns for federal and statewide races, the staff roles are extensive. In addition to the roles listed above, there will be a Communications Director, a Political Director, a Research Director, a Digital Director, and junior-level or regional staffers reporting to these senior staff members.

With larger campaign budgets come extensive teams of consultants who report to the campaign manager and other senior staff. These include paid television media experts, direct mail marketers, niche fundraisers, pollsters, data and targeting experts, election attorneys, compliance experts, and digital marketers. As the senior strategic experts involved, these consultants often enjoy wide latitude to set the strategy for the campaign. On larger races, TFC volunteers will likely work alongside and report to the Digital Director.


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All campaigns should start with a solid early base of funds.

(The need for this initial nest egg is so universal that a very prominent political organization is named after it! EMILY in EMILY’s List isn’t a person , but instead stands for "Early Money Is Like Yeast", which in this analogy leads to rising “dough” (your winning campaign).)

Fundraising will draw on a mix of sources: small-dollar grassroots donations, large interest groups like EMILY’s List or The Sierra Club, wealthy donors in the district, or the candidate’s own personal funds. Small-dollar grassroots donations typically come online: today, 80%+ of online money is raised via email. ActBlue "shared donation" pages have become so successful in Democratic politics that Republican lawmakers are trying to ban them. (shared donation pages are when one donation is split among two or more candidates)

Campaign Managers and Finance Directors spend a lot of time managing candidate schedules to allow for "call time", where the candidate sits for hours calling donors and soliciting funds. All donations are tracked in NGP (or other donor tracking tools), the Democratic fundraising CRM; every campaign must make some type of public disclosure about their fundraising but rules vary across jurisdictions.

Where does the money go?

Campaigns spend their money on a variety of items:

  • Operations – Salaries, voter files and databases, websites, gas, office space, fees, polling, consultants, software, water bottles, clipboards
  • Voter contact – Direct mail, radio ads, digital ads, phone calls, yard signs, road signs, door-to-door canvassing, text messages
  • Fundraising – Events, printing and mailing letters, donation cards

Advertising and media strategy

To raise name ID and persuade voters, the candidate’s profile and messages must reach their target audiences. In tech parlance, this can be done organically -- called "earned media" in politics -- or inorganically via “paid media”. Earned media includes newspaper coverage, editorial endorsements, tweets, posts, viral content, and other coverage. The bulk of paid media is typically shared between direct mail, radio/TV ads, digital advertising, and print media.

Since 2016, the adoption of digital advertising in campaigns continues to grow. Our 2020 Digital Ads Report details some of this growth, though campaigns still lag behind commercial paid media standards. Direct mail and TV are still often effective and have been practiced over decades of election cycles. As a TFC volunteer, you should continue to advocate for digital ads to stand on equal or greater footing with those channels, but you must respect the value of these classic strategies.

Campaign marketing strategists develop a compelling and diverse set of "asks" to engage target audiences. These asks aid the campaign’s core goals, such as fundraising or building name ID. Whenever possible, they should also mimic the actions the campaign knows it will be asking voters to take during the close of the campaign - to “train” them for the later date. Smart campaign operatives work in unique ask / actions to keep engagement fresh. Here are some common asks:

  • Sign a petition
  • Donate money to the campaign
  • Attend an event
  • Volunteer for the campaign
  • Share digital content

Events like campaign deadlines and timely news can be powerful motivators for political supporters. Common events include:

  • End-of-quarter fundraising deadlines
  • Voter registration deadlines
  • Important decisions being made in government relevant to the core message of the campaign, such as Congressional or state action on voting rights or taxes.

Going negative in ads

A campaign may also choose to run contrast or negative messaging. Contrast messaging is of the type: "Republican X doesn’t support a woman’s right to choose; Democrat Z has passed new legislation enshrining that right" while negative messaging will focus purely on an opposing candidate’s negative attributes. Negative messaging often relies on opposition research (“oppo”), which is the collection of biological, legal, criminal, medical, educational, or political information that may be used to discredit the opponent. Opposition research often involves the use of trackers, who follow the opponent and record speeches and public activities, hoping to catch gaffes and other inopportune moments.

Polling is infrequent in state races

In local and state races, polls do not occur frequently like they do for national elections -- they can cost ~$20k to conduct and so will be undertaken with more care or not at all.

Get Out The Vote (GOTV) and Election Day

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Field operations, GOTV, and turnout

Every campaign must not only persuade voters to want to vote for their candidate, they must convince voters to actually vote. This is called turnout or field operations, and the efforts to generate it are called Get Out The Vote (GOTV).

While all turnout numbers jumped in the Trump years, we should not expect that trend to hold. As a rule of thumb, just 60% of eligible voters turn out during presidential election years and 40% turn out during midterm federal elections. For off-cycle local elections, turnout is even lower: below 20%. Low turnout combined with smaller voting populations means that winning local elections often comes down to a fight for persuading and turning out each individual vote. (Literally: in December 2017, control of the Virginia House of Delegates was determined by one vote in TFC candidate Shelly Simonds’s race.)

How GOTV works

GOTV operations are a coordinated effort to use phone calls, text messages, and in-person home visits (canvassing) to remind voters to vote and reinforce the location of their assigned polling place. Most campaigns will even directly transport voters to the polls. These field operations often provide some of the best data for digital operations -- since social content and paid media digital ads are often geared toward persuading and turning out the same voters as phone calls and in-person visits, the efforts build on each other.

On Election Day, GOTV efforts intensify and do not end until polls close that night —each remaining minute is an opportunity to persuade someone to go vote. Many campaigns will also position volunteer poll watchers at each polling place. These volunteers do not try to persuade voters, but instead keep an eye out for any problems that may arise at the polling location.

Volunteers will often begin calling, texting, or canvassing door-to-door to remind people to vote, and offer them transportation if needed. Personal connections can help provide social proof and motivation to voters.

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Early voting

Early voting permits citizens to cast ballots in person at a polling place prior to an election. Campaigns drive voters towards early voting to add certainty and lower the Election Day burden. In many places, over 50 percent of the vote will be cast before Election Day.

In states that permit no-excuse early voting, a voter does not have to provide an excuse for being unable to vote on Election Day. States that do not permit no-excuse early voting may still permit some citizens to vote early, provided they prove that they have valid reasons for doing so. This practice is known as in-person absentee voting, and in states where rules allow, driving committed voters to the polls early is common practice.

As of April 2021, 39 states and the District of Columbia permitted no-excuse early voting. Another five states utilized all-mail voting systems, eliminating the need for early voting. For information about early voting in your jurisdiction, you can look up the date of your general election by visiting Ballotpedia, or by googling "secretary of state" and your state’s name.

Vote By Mail

It was hard to miss the phrase "vote by mail" in the 2020 Election cycle. With an incredibly contentious election year set alongside a pandemic, states turned to the mail to deliver ballots across the country. Ballots cast by mail doubled from 2016 to 2020, where nearly half the population cast their vote by mail.

This also means in person Election Day voting was at its lowest point in decades.

We expect vote by mail numbers to remain high, as it's a very attractive option to vote in the comfort of your home. It should also be expected that Republicans will continue to work to dismantle this system of voting.

Voter registration

Voter registration is open year-round, but in many states, registration closes a few weeks before an election is held — both primary and general. There are often different deadlines for registration online, by mail, and in-person. If registering new voters is a big part of your campaign strategy — for example, if your candidate has special appeal to college students — you need to build this deadline into your plans. Voter registration deadlines are opportunities to introduce urgency to your messaging and drive more action before Election Day.

You can look up the date of your voter registration deadlines by visiting

Campaign tech stack

There are multiple software components playing roles in a typical Democratic campaign. The products and their integrations with each other range wildly in scope and quality.

Typical software components in a campaign

  • Website - Featuring candidate information as well as hopefully email capture and donation forms. There is no dominant provider, so implementations vary.
  • Analytics - On local races, voter analytics are often limited to looking up voters in VAN and establishing targeted voters for the campaign to talk to. On large races, voter analytics can be quite sophisticated, up and to including the creation of custom machine learning models for various voter attributes.
  • Email - NGP may manage sending emails to supporters and asking for funds, or the campaign may use other options like NationBuilder or Mailchimp. Email is frequently the most effective fundraising channel online; SMS is gaining momentum as well.
  • NGP - Part of the NGPVAN/EveryAction group, NGP is the dominant fundraising CRM for the Democratic Party.
  • VoteBuilder/VAN - Part of the NGPVAN/EveryAction group, VoteBuilder is the dominant voter CRM for the Democratic Party. It provides campaigns with lists of voters and lets them record reach out and reactions to them. It can answer questions like, "who in VA-05 voted in the 2017 House of Delegates election?"
  • ActBlue - Fundraising platform to capture and optimize grassroots online donations. They have implemented thousands of split tests over many election cycles to optimize the landing page UX. Their extensive database of donor credit card information has allowed email marketers to remove the landing page step entirely for many donors, allowing donations directly in email body, or logged-in users to make donations in one click with their existing credit card information.

NGPVAN is one company but often referred to as NGP (where emails are sent and fundraising information is housed for your campaign) and VAN (where voter data and canvassing lists are built). Be sure you know which one you need access to and which one you're using.

Common acronyms and glossary

  • DNC: The Democratic National Committee, the central hub of the national Democratic Party, supporting the 50 state party organizations and directly responsible for electing a Democrat to the presidency.
  • DCCC: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official arm of the Democratic Party responsible for electing Democrats to the House of Representatives.
  • DSCC: The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the official arm of the Democratic Party responsible for electing Democrats to the U.S. Senate.
  • DLCC: The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the official arm of the Democratic Party responsible for electing Democrats in state legislative races across the country.
  • DGA: The Democratic Governors Association, the official arm of the Democratic Party responsible for electing Democrats as governors in states across the country.
  • State caucus organizations: These committees, formed at the state level and run by Democratic leaders in state legislatures across the country, are charged with electing Democratic state legislators.
  • Democratic state parties: These organizations serve as the official arm of the Democratic Party in states across the country. They are responsible for electing Democrats at all levels of government in their states, and together they report to -- and hold responsibility over -- the Democratic National Committee (DNC -- see above).

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