Have you watched Stranger Things on Netflix?

If you haven’t, the Upside Down is an alternate reality that looks like our world, but it’s dark, dreary, and scary.  Things don’t make sense (and btw – there are monsters there).

For for Stranger Thing’s characters, the upside-down world is a scary place .place.

Campaigns can have their own upside-down worlds too, and it’s a scary place where resources are wasted and many campaigns are lost. Upside-down campaigns start by planning tactics before they understand their problem, set goals, or identify targets (influencers and deciders). A lot of campaigns rush to plan a launch too quickly and plan their tactics before laying the foundation for their campaign.

Defining the problem, setting goals, and identifying targets are the foundations for a campaign.
Tactics are “what” a campaign does. And too many campaigns start with the tactics before taking the time to define the problem or opportunity, set goals, and understand their targets.

“Let’s do an event.” 

“Let’s order yard signs and open an office.” 

“Let’s hire Sally or Johnny — they work on campaigns in our area.”

All of those things could be important to your campaign. But if they don’t persuade the people you need to reach, all of these efforts could be a waste of time or money (and in some cases, even counterproductive. When it comes to planning for your campaign, skipping the work of identifying problems or opportunities, setting goals, and understanding your targets, you’ll end up with an upside campaign. The order in which you use that process is important.

One Example of an Upside Down Campaign: Stopping Legislation by Hiring a Republican Consultant and Getting the Local Paper Onboard. I’ve been following an issue campaign that’s trying to stop a policy considered by the local city council. The client hired a local consultant, got the local paper to editorialize, and held a handful of press releases and rallies.

Those are all tactics that we see in campaigns. And none of them are fundamentally good, or fundamentally bad.

The problem? The left-leaning city council isn’t a fan of the local paper and an editorial likely made things worse. The council that really values grassroots organizing saw astroturf rallies with suburban voters, all while they’re not hearing from constituents. And they saw this effort led by Republican consultant.

If the campaign had narrowed the targets to the undecided council members and taken the time to understand them, they would have found that the people deciding or influencing this policy don’t respond well to these tactics. The deciders and influencers want to hear from constituents, not people from the suburbs.

The deciders are the members of the city council. Who are the influencers? Each of the council members may have their own influencers. Some may fear a Democratic primary challenge and care most about Democratic primary voters or areas with the higher primary turnout.  Donors may have influence with some council members, and others may care most about a specific constituency. Setting goals and then understanding targets should come before planning tactics.

How does an upside-down campaign look in Democratic politics?
Many state and local parties run field operations that benefit multiple Democratic candidates. These coordinated campaigns are a great tool to help make field and GOTV more efficient.

It’s easy for staff to get excited about running a large operation with scores of field organizers. Some coordinated campaigns start by planning that they’ll have a large field team without defining who these organizers will talk to (targets) and what they’ll be saying (message).

In many cases, field programs with large staffs aren’t the right answer. Digital ads, SMS programs, better data, or part-time voter contact operations may have more impact. Often coordinated campaigns hire far too many staff to coordinate a limited amount of volunteers, and an organizer’s time (and the campaign’s budget) isn’t used effectively. 

How do you know if you have an upside-down field campaign? If a field program drafts a 40-page campaign without answering who the staff are talking to (targets) and how they’re doing that (tactics), or if they begin with a goal of how many staff to hire without basing that on the number of targets you need to reach, you have an upside-down coordinated campaign. 

Democratic leaders and campaign operatives should make sure they’re defining success for a coordinated campaign not only by the size of their field staff.

An upside-down campaigns plans tactics before defining the problem or opportunity, they want to solve, setting goals, and picking their targets. The result? Campaigns may spend money and effort on tactics that don’t help them win.

Have you ever seen an upside-down campaign? 


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