Last Tuesday’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey were heartening for Democrats thinking about running for office in 2018. Perhaps a strong ground game, like that executed by Virginia’s first openly transgender elected official, coupled with anti-Trump sentiment, can be game changers in next year’s congressional and state legislative elections.
In some districts it’s hard to run as a Democrat. I know this firsthand. I sold my business to challenge a six-term Republican congressman in 2016. I fell short, as had every Democratic challenger in my district since 1969.
My loss was not for lack of trying. I ran hard. By Election Day, I was a pretty good candidate. But it took me 18 months of trial-and-error campaigning to get there.
Why trial-and-error? Because the district is so red that the national party considered it a lost cause. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) concentrated its money and resources on targeted candidates in 28 swing districts; other candidates were ignored.
With the exception of local party activists and volunteers, I was on my own. Yet I was not alone. Across the country hundreds of candidates were in similar circumstances – running in districts considered unwinnable.
We need a different approach in 2018. Democrats are declaring for office in record numbers; most are first-time candidates. To date my team has identified some 850 Democrats challenging the 239 sitting Republicans in the U.S. House. That’s more than 3.5 Democrats for every Republican incumbent. After Tuesday’s results, look for that number to grow even larger.
Most of these Democrats are running in one of the 180 districts considered “Solid Republican” by the Cook Political Report. Most were not recruited by the national or state parties. They know the odds, yet they’ve stepped up on their own.
One is Dr. Kyle Horton, an internist who has interrupted her medical career to run for a solidly Republican seat in eastern North Carolina. Another is Richard Ojeda, a retired U.S. Army officer running in a West Virginia district that Trump won by 73 points. . Anthony Flaccavento, a Virginia farmer and entrepreneur, is making his second run against a GOP incumbent who received nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2016. The list goes on and on—and on.
These candidates deserve our respect and support. But what kind of support? The DCCC has stepped up its game since last year, but their resources are limited. And donors will have to pick and choose from among hundreds of deserving candidates.
Several organizations offer candidate training programs, notably Wellstone Action, the National Democratic Training Committee, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Others target specific candidate groups, such as women or candidates of color.
But traditional top-down training programs don’t always meet the needs of underdog candidates. They need low-cost, high-impact ways to garner attention and change voters’ minds.
I started the Democratic Candidates Conference to fill this void. DemCanCon is an open-source three-day event built on the professional conference model: keynote speakers, a selection of breakout training sessions, sponsor/exhibitors, and one-on-one networking. The idea is to flatten the learning curve so that each candidate and his/her team can build their own unique campaign quickly and at a modest cost.
The timing is right for our first year. The business of campaigning is transforming into a highly competitive marketplace. A host of low-cost technology-based tools are emerging in the areas of fundraising, organizing, voter tracking and targeting, direct mail, and digital advertising.
Those tools are needed desperately. Last year, 97 percent of U.S. House members who sought reelection won. 2018 could well be different. We want to help Democratic challengers capitalize on the shifting political winds by working as smart as possible.
Most of the 850-plus candidates seeking to oust Republican House incumbents should not expect much help from the Democratic Party. The DCCC limits its support to a relatively small field of targeted races, and the DNC is dealing with a rash of internal issues. Candidates have nothing to lose by going their own way.
Candidates who run against entrenched incumbents are vital to our system of government. At the very least they raise issues, hold office-holders accountable, and give voters a choice. And, you know what? Some of these longshots – maybe a lot of them – are going to win.
Call time. The very words bring cold beads of sweat to the foreheads of many self-respecting candidates. Yet unless you can self-fund or draw upon a financial sugar daddy, candidate call time will be a major part of your campaign. Ask any experienced campaigner: a candidate who doesn’t make the calls doesn’t stand a chance.
There are lots of methods for raising campaign cash: parties, emails, direct mail, a Donate button on your website. But none comes close to the power of a personal appeal from the candidate. That being the case, you need to make the most of call time.
How much call time is required? The answer varies depending on your skill in getting to yes and how quickly you complete each call. But it also depends on (a) the quality of the list you’re calling from and (b) the efficiency of your dialing system.
The All-Important List
During my 2016 congressional campaign, I raised more than half our war chest from friends and family. I hated the thought of asking buddies and business contacts for money, but you know what? Calling strangers is a lot harder. Your friends already know and trust you; they want you to succeed, and they’ll usually jump at the chance to help make it happen.
(Side note: There’s a whole technique for conducting the actual call — the right mindset, the perfect combination of script and conversation, the art of drawing the other person into a meaningful exchange while keeping the call brief — but it deserves a fuller discussion so we’ll save it for its own post.)
The point here is that your best list is probably your own list. But once you blow through those folks, what’s next? Chances are you’re going to need to pay for the next group of targets.
There’s any number of fundraising firms — just Google “Democratic fundraising firms” and see what you get. Their quality and pricing varies greatly depending on the firm, research methods, specific people doing the research, and any additional services offered by the firm.
All Lists are Not Created Equal
Early in my campaign, one of our consultants eagerly worked out a deal to obtain a huge list from a local activist with a blog presence. What a mess! The list was massive — over 60,000 contacts — but many records contained bad our outdated info, many people were uninterested in politics, were staunch Republicans, or were dead — and virtually none wanted to be on any kind of list. The result was that we wasted a lot of time and alienated a lot of people.
Moral: A list of 250 quality prospects is infinitely more valuable than a list of 60,000 poorly-researched unknowns.
A Good List at a Reasonable Cost
Say you hire a firm for $5,000 per month. You’ll start each subsequent month knowing that the first $5,000 you raise will go straight to the consultant. That’s fine if the consultant is top-notch and your cash flow keeps up. But what if you bust your butt each month and still raise only $6,000? You’ll soon feel like you’re working for the consultant rather than them working for you. You might say to yourself: “Y’know, if I fired the consultant, did less call time and raised just $2,000 a month, I’d be way ahead.”
Don’t kid yourself. Modern campaigns run on money; you can’t settle for the cheap solution just because it’s easy. You need a list — a good one. Just don’t overpay for it.
Where to Find a List
I don’t know many people in the fundraising business, but one I do know and respect is Jonas Courey of Donor Connection. Donor Connection provides candidates with a targeted donor list, refreshes it every month, and combines it with an efficient calling system. He offers four tiers of service to fit campaigns of all sizes, starting at $999 per month. Jonas did an excellent job for my campaign and is now a sponsor of the Democratic Candidates Conference. He’s offering attendees 25% off their first month’s service, which is a fantastic deal considering it completely offsets the cost of conference registration.
Dialing the phone is slow and leaves too much room for procrastination. The following tools can greatly improve your call time efficiency. Each consists of a web-based platform that controls your phone and displays the contact’s information during calls.
The Preview Dialer
A preview dialer is one step ahead of regular phone calling. The dialer application displays the target’s record in your web browser, but it doesn’t dial the phone until you tell it to by clicking the appropriate button. Immediately following the call, the next record pops up allowing you take a quick look before initiating the next call.
I’m not a fan of this system. Yes, it allows you to read about your target before calling, but the information may be of little use considering that most calls go unanswered. And you have to initiate each call, which leaves too many opportunities to slow the process down.
The Power Dialer
With a power dialer, the system dials for you. And it does it fast: as soon as one call ends, the next one starts ringing and the target’s record appears on your screen. This is the kind of system I used. I found that I usually had time to do a quick read of my target before they picked up — that is, if they picked up, which again is less than half the time. If you reach voicemail, just click another button to leave a pre-recorded message in the background while the system immediately initiates the next call.
A predictive dialer makes the most of your time — but at a cost. The system dials, say, three calls — all at the same time. If one gets answered, the dialer drops the other attempts, connects you with the target and displays that person’s record. What’s more, it doesn’t even wait for you to hang up before it calls the next batch of three. That’s the predictive part: over time the system learns how long you’re likely to stay on a call. It then times its next set of dials to get you talking to another person as quickly as possible.
Some experienced campaigners swear by the predictive dialer because of its efficiency. The drawback is that it can be impersonal. We’ve all been on the receiving end of telemarketer calls: those few seconds of silence before getting connected to a breathless, slightly confused agent on the other end who’s probably trying to read your name while attempting to be as natural as possible. It can make the target feel irritable and disrespected. The way I look at it, if I’m going to ask someone to give money to me — a perfect stranger — the least I can do is be waiting for them when they answer the phone.
Try All Three
If you’re not sure which kind of dialer you’d prefer, maybe you should try them all. CallHub, another DemCanCon sponsor, has an impressive system that includes a preview dialer, power dialer and predictive dialer. CallHub has no minimum fee: you pay only for the time you’re actually connected on a call. The rate is 1.4¢ for every 30 seconds of calling, which translates to about $50 for 29 hours of actual phone time. There’s no charge for no-answers or voicemail pickups.
Like Donor Connection, CallHub also has a special offer for DemCanCon registrants: when you register for the conference you’ll receive 1,700 minutes of free calling on the system using any or all of the dialer systems discussed above.
The Bottom Line
For more information, check out these two episodes of the Democratic Candidates Podcast:
Episode 7 - Powerful Phone Calling Tool for Campaigns on a Budget - With Augustus Franklin of CallHub.io
Episode 9 - Call Time Tips with Jonas Courey of MyDonorConnect.com
You can listen to the podcast and register for the Democratic Candidates Conference at DemCanCon.org. The sponsor-related offers above will be presented to you when you register through the site.
Every new campaign needs software systems to manage its website, voter analysis and outreach, email, phone banking, fundraising, advertising, canvassing, financial reporting and compliance. Decision makers quickly run up against a thorny question: should we stick with vendors that serve only our own party, or consider companies that work with both sides of the aisle?
The issue provokes strong opinions from campaign professionals, and there’s no clear consensus.
The poster child for the debate is NationBuilder, the widely-used CRM/website/emailing/recruiting/event management system that has become a major player in politics. NationBuilder is by no means the only vendor to work both sides but they are the most hotly debated, primarily because of their large footprint and starkly contrasting client list: both the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns used NationBuilder. So did the Republican Party of Florida and the New Jersey State Democratic Committee. The NRA and NORML. Rob Portman and Jerry Brown. The Republican State Leadership Committee and Democratic Municipal Officials.
But while some campaigns are comfortable coloring outside the lines in this way, others struggle with the question. Those opposed to the practice cite three major objections:
1 - The other side will benefit from your campaign’s experience
The argument can be compelling. The two political parties derive lessons from the most recent election cycle, then strategize and apply those learnings to the next campaign. Political vendors do the same with their products. The improvements in the offerings of party-centric firms benefit that party’s campaigns exclusively, but improvements made by nonpartisan firms assist the other side as well. You don’t want to help the bad guys, do you?
This argument crumbles somewhat if the nonpartisan product is demonstrably stronger than the one offered by your side. Using an inferior product could put your campaign at a strategic disadvantage.
2 - The other side will benefit from your campaign’s money
In a Campaigns & Elections post from 2014, Republican Erik Nilsson of CMDI summarized this argument in words that could easily have been written by a Democrat: “Do you want the fees you pay to a bipartisan software vendor being used to improve the product for your competitor in the next cycle?”
There is of course an equally compelling counterargument: Would you like to see the fees of your competitor improve the product you use, thereby benefitting your campaign? Your answer might be yes, especially if you’re not too proud to learn from an adversary.
3 - Using nonpartisan vendors is disloyal
Many of my fellow Democrats, particularly those who have been in the trenches for years, consider nonpartisan providers to be the political equivalent of mercenaries: just out to make a buck regardless of the outcome. This is completely understandable: these partisan operatives have been fighting the good fight for decades, battling alongside vendors like NGP VAN and ActBlue, working to build and improve systems that give their candidates an edge. Turning your back on all that to hire a free agent feels nothing short of traitorous.
Democratic digital trainer Beth Becker (who is also my friend and DemCanCon colleague) bluntly expresses her dislike of NationBuilder: “Frankly I didn't have a problem with them until they proved how utterly they don't actually care about their clients when they sent out an email to their clients—a huge percentage of which are progressive organizations—bragging that NB helped to elect the very candidate (Trump) who is going to hurt their clients the most.” As a former candidate who used NationBuilder in my own campaign, I too am disturbed by the association with The Donald.
I comfort myself somewhat with the words of Michael Corleone: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” Campaigning is a merciless all-or-nothing endeavor. The simple up-or-down verdict is delivered with stark finality on Election Night. Your campaign doesn’t have the luxury of using second-best-in-class technology, regardless of the source.
And while NationBuilder swirls in controversy, there seems to be little concern over the biggest double-dip vendor of them all: Facebook, which is used by virtually every candidate from president to dog catcher. Indeed, a campaign with no Facebook presence could scarcely be considered credible. Similarly, Twitter and other social media platforms accommodate all comers, as do virtually all advertising outlets. Campaigns have no qualms with any of them. Beth says that’s because—unlike NationBuilder and other campaign software systems—social media outlets were never designed as organizing tools.
Ultimately, each candidate and campaign team has a duty to themselves, their supporters and their donors to capture every advantage and squeeze every dollar. Features, usability, support and cost are all important considerations in selecting a software solution. If after careful consideration the optimum solution comes from a vendor whose sympathies lie in the same direction as yours, your decision is easy. But what if your best chance for victory includes a nonpartisan software system—maybe even one that gloats over its relationship with Donald Trump? What do you do then?
(Full disclosure: My 2016 congressional campaign utilized both NGP VAN and NationBuilder. We used NGP VAN for phonebanking, canvassing and compliance and NationBuilder for our CRM, website, and email client.)
Your campaign needs a CRM. This is not negotiable. If you don’t have one already, you’re behind the competition. Make your best selection and get started now.
(Note: For more information on CRMs and website best practices, listen to my podcast interview with Beth Becker. Find it on the home page of DemCanCon.org or on the Democratic Candidates Podcast website.)
“CRM” stands for customer relationship management. It is the central tool for any business — including a political campaign — that works with substantial numbers of clients and prospects.
At its core, a CRM is a database of customers and prospects, sort of like the contacts app on your phone but much, much more powerful. A good political CRM helps you keep up with prospective voters, tracks your communications with them, and works with other tools to manage call time and canvassing.
I’ve worked with a variety of CRMs over the years; choosing the right-fit CRM is my first task whenever I start a business or campaign. But selecting the right CRM isn’t easy. Each system has different feature sets, with differing strengths and weaknesses. Costs can vary greatly depending on the system, selected features and the size of your operation, and all CRMs are constantly evolving. Let’s take a quick look at four good choices.
1 - NGP VAN
Many Democrats are familiar with NGP VAN. It’s been around a long time; the CRM component falls on the NGP side of the operation (it was created 20 years ago by Nathaniel G. Pearlman, hence the initials).
The good: NGP VAN has a longstanding semi-exclusive relationship with the Democratic Party, and many longtime operatives are very practiced in its many idiosyncrasies. If you can afford to hire professional staff, most of them will have experience with this platform. It is a complete tried-and-true solution, by far the most-utilized system for Democrats across the country.
The bad: The long and cozy relationship with the national party is also NGP’s greatest weakness. It has hindered the emergence of competing CRMs and lead to complacency and stale technology at NGP. Remember “Berniegate,” when a gap in network security allowed the Sanders campaign to access information belonging to the Hillary side? That was NGP VAN. And I’ll tell you a secret: the breach was so egregious that my own congressional campaign was able to see the same information for a while.
My campaign’s experience with the system wasn’t great. It was sprawling and complex, requiring lots of clicks to accomplish simple tasks. Features didn’t always sync easily with other features. It was expensive: $1,650 per quarter for our campaign. (The only way to learn how much it will cost you is to go through their sales process, which in my opinion is a poor way to do business.) Our sole access point for support was a single staffer in the state party headquarters; he was slow to respond and not always helpful.
The unknown: NGP recently announced NGP 8, which they say simplifies the user experience and adds new and better features, especially in the area of fundraising. My issues occurred during the 2016 cycle, so don’t let that stop you from giving the system an honest look.
One more thing: NGP VAN has a policy of withholding some features from candidates who are challenging a Democratic incumbent. If that applies to you, you still have options within the NGP VAN universe, but you may not get the full suite.
2 - Blue Utopia
Democratic digital expert Beth Becker is a big fan of Blue Utopia. It’s been helping California Democrats for years, and now it’s spreading east
The good: Blue Utopia has a robust feature set comparable to that of NGP. It is powerful and easy to use. The pricing is scaled to fit the size of your campaign, and unlike NGP VAN, Blue Utopia’s pricing is transparent: they display it on their website for the world to see.
The bad: The user experience is slightly dated, requiring multiple clicks on multiple screens to see and accomplish what you want. This is just a CRM: whereas the VAN side of NGP VAN contains voter data from your state elections board, Blue Utopia is missing this piece (as are the other two CRMs in this review). This means you’ll need to get that data elsewhere. Luckily there are plenty of sources for robust voter data, which we’ll cover in a future post. Another challenge: Blue Utopia has a relatively small user base largely concentrated in California, so may have a harder time finding staff with experience on the platform.
The unknown: I haven’t used this system so I can’t offer an assessment based on experience. But the recommendation of people like Beth Becker carries a lot of weight. And like NGP VAN, Blue Utopia works exclusively with Democrats, so at least you know you’re both on the same side.
3 - NationBuilder
Now we get into the nonpartisan solutions. NationBuilder was designed as an all-in-one platform for businesses and organizations, and they expanded into politics.
The good: My campaign used NationBuilder — even though we had already purchased NGP — because NGP was just too darn complicated. NationBuilder is a comprehensive system; along with the CRM you get a template-based website that syncs seamlessly with the CRM; when supporters sign up on the site, they get routed directly into the database. The whole system is pretty intuitive and user-friendly. Pricing is reasonable and transparent, and the phone-based support is prompt, friendly and excellent.
The bad: The fact that NationBuilder works with both parties is a deal breaker for some. To be clear: I don’t buy the argument put forth by some Dems that your NationBuilder data might be used to help the other side. Your data belongs to you; it’s at least as safe on NationBuilder as it is on NGP. We used NationBuilder because we thought it gave our campaign the best chance for success — but we were unaware that there was a good Dems-only option in the form of Blue Utopia. Knowing what I know now — including the fact that the Trump campaign used NationBuilder — my decision might be different.
The unknown: NationBuilder is a lead participant in an initiative called Unlock the VAN which advocates for the Democratic Party to open up their voter data so that it can be used in systems beyond NGP VAN. The argument is that expanding the field of competition would encourage innovations that could help more Dems win. It’s hard to argue with the logic.
4 - Crowdskout
Promoting itself as “the campaign-winning data management and marketing platform,” Crowdskout is new and sleek. It’s designed specifically for campaigns, nonprofits and advocacy groups regardless of party or ideology.
The good: If I were starting from scratch and didn’t mind that my CRM was nonpartisan, I’d give Crowdskout a good look. It offers an extensive suite of features on a clean, modern interface. There’s a widget that allows you to capture whenever a contact interacts with your website: if they watch your embedded video for example, and even how long they watch it. You can make phone calls right from within Crowdskout for an extra fee. And Crowdskout assigns you a “concierge” support person to assist with any service issues.
The bad: In order to see firsthand how the system works, you’ll have to request an online demo. Like NationBuilder, Crowdskout plays in both Republican and Democratic sandboxes — but at least they’re is open about that fact. The same can’t be said for pricing, which is conspicuously absent on the website. And pricing can vary widely, from $75 per month for a campaign with up to 5,000 records to $1,250 for a congressional-sized campaign with up to 250,000 records.
The unknown: In my conversations with the company, I was told that they have a new CTO whose first priority is to make the website more transparent with regard to user features and pricing. When asked for a comment about their policy of serving both parties, a Crowdskout rep said simply, “We’re just trying to sell software.” You can read a fairly thorough review here.
Each of these four options deserves a close look, and each has its pluses and minuses. You may lean toward the companies that share your Democratic ideals. You may favor the solutions that are the most open and transparent. You may prefer a system that will save you time, or that’s relatively inexpensive.
But one overriding consideration eclipses the rest: which system will give you the best chance to win your race? None of the available options will be a perfect fit for your campaign; you’ll need to compromise somewhere. Just don’t compromise so much that it lessens your chances of beating the socks off the GOP on Election Day. The rest of us are counting on you.
You can learn a lot about a candidate from their presence on the web—and what you learn isn’t always good.
Motivated Democrats all over the country are stepping up to challenge GOP incumbents. Part of our mission here at the Democratic Candidates Conference is to uncover new candidates and help them to get off on the right foot. So we’ve been scouring the internet getting to know the early crop of candidates.
Sometimes you run across a candidate with an impressive internet presence that immediately makes you sit up and take notice.
Kyle Horton, challenging David Rouzer in North Carolina’s 7th congressional district, is one such candidate. She has a terrific website where you can get to know the candidate and her story. There’s a clear statement of why she’s running and where she stands on issues. Her Facebook and Twitter pages are consistent with the website and are updated frequently with fresh and relevant content. In fact the streams from both social media sites appear right on the campaign website.
Screenshot from Dr. Kyle Horton's congressional campaign website.
Clearly this is a a candidate to be reckoned with. She has obviously put a lot of thought, time and effort into her candidacy. She means business.
Unfortunately, Kyle Horton is the exception rather than the rule. More often we see some variation a one-page website featuring a heroic photo of the candidate, a huge DONATE button, and an invitation join the candidate’s “movement.” And that’s it. Essentially, the message to the visitor is, “I’m a person you don’t know who’s running for office and you should love me.”
This is not a knock on those candidates. If you’re a Democrat up against a Republican, you’re our kind of people. We’re all in this together and we want you to be successful. So now is the time—now, while your campaign is in its infancy, when prospective supporters are getting to know you primarily through your online presence—right now is the time for you to look for problems and fix them.
Here are eight of the most glaring issues we have found. Some are easier to deal with than others. But they are all non-negotiable. If any of them applies to you, don’t expect to be taken seriously as a candidate until they’re addressed:
1 - No campaign URL or official email address
I’m sorry, but firstname.lastname@example.org is not an official campaign email address. Go to Godaddy.com and spend fifteen bucks on your own URL. Use it for your website, for your email address, and eventually for the addresses of your staff.
2 - No campaign website
Believe it or not, we occasionally run across candidates whose only online presence is through Facebook. You should not pretend to call yourself a candidate until you have a campaign website.
3 - No contact info on website
Virtually every candidate website features prominent buttons for making donations and signing up to volunteer, but precious few make it easy for visitors comment, email or call. In our research of Democratic congressional campaigns, we have found fewer than 1 in 4 offer both an email address and phone number. In fact an amazing 28% of sites offered neither an email address nor phone number.
Campaigns are about communication. What does it say to your prospective constituents when you want them to give you money but don’t want them to talk to you? (And in case you’re wondering, an impersonal “contact” form is better than nothing, but it’s a poor substitute for a phone number and email address.)
4 - Missing social streams
In 21st Century politics, every campaign must have an active Facebook page and Twitter account. LinkedIn and Instagram, if well executed, will boost your credibility. But you’ve got to have Facebook and Twitter.
5 - Broken links on website
If a visitor clicks a link on your site and gets an error message or is sent to a dead end, you the candidate look bad. Check every link on your website and make sure they work.
6 - Not mentioning the district you’re running for
I estimate that in 2018 there will be 300 or more Democratic candidates for U.S. House of Representatives alone, and that’s not counting incumbents. Don’t leave your visitors wondering what seat you’re seeking. Tell them clearly on your website and social pages.
7 - No favicon (or worse, one belonging to someone else)
This is a little thing, but little things are important. A favicon is a tiny icon that appears on the tab of your web browser. It identifies the site you’re on. When I ran for congress, my favicon was a simple red “A” for my first name. Every website provider allows you to upload a favicon; it’s easy and free.
Here’s why it’s important: If you don’t upload your own favicon, your website host (Wordpress, Weebly, NationBuilder, etc.) will use theirs in its place, which makes you look like an amateur.
8 - No website footer
Every professional campaign website should have a footer at the bottom of each page. It should include: phone number, an email address, mailing address, and “Paid for by [name of campaign committee].” (A good footer to emulate is at MartyWalters.com.) If you don’t use your own footer, your website host is likely to use their own, and it will say “Powered by Wordpress” or “Powered by Weebly,” etc., which means you’re using your precious web real estate to advertise for them.
Visit us at www.DemCanCon.com for more helpful advice, and register now to attend the Democratic Candidates Conference January 11 - 13, 2018 at the Tommy Douglas Conference Center in Silver Spring, MD.
Andy Millard is the conference organizer for the Democratic candidates conference. His eclectic background includes roles as an educator, small business owner, financial planner, author, event planner and congressional candidate.