Running a Successful Rural Field Operation
by Nolan Drea, Illinois Senate Democratic Victory Fund, @ISDVF
No matter what office you are running for, a strong field operation can be the difference between tears of joy and tears of sadness on election night. Running a successful field operation is difficult in any environment, but there are even more challenges in rural counties. Below, I’ll review the challenges of running a field campaign in a rural area and some ways to overcome them.
What is field?
A field operation is the best part of any campaign – getting out and talking to voters about your candidate and their stances on the issues. It’s knocking on doors and making phone calls to explain why you are supporting your candidate, and later reminding your supporters when and where they need to vote.
Use your time wisely
It can be tempting to want to knock on every door or call every voter, but it’s important to develop a targeted universe of voters to contact. Especially in rural areas where houses are more likely to be farther apart, this can take up a lot of unnecessary time.
Using past election data from the County Clerk or Votebuilder, build a universe of people that are likely to vote and are likely undecided voters. I could write an entire column on building a universe, but choosing voters that have voted in 2 of the last 3 general elections is a good place to start.
Writing a field plan
After you’ve created your universe, it’s time to write your field plan. Ideally, someone from your campaign will be able to attempt to contact every voter in the universe at least twice before the election. Calculate the number of doors and phone calls your campaign will need to hit each week to reach this goal and do your best to stick to it.
Typically, you can knock about 50 doors in two-three hours. If you have 1,000 doors in your universe and 12 weeks until the election, you know your campaign will have to spend about ten hours a week knocking doors to complete the entire universe twice.
Especially in rural areas with older populations, it can be hard to find volunteers to help you knock on doors. When writing your field plan, I would suggest the campaign staff and candidate focus on hitting the more rural areas themselves during the week, and encourage volunteers to help with the more populated areas on the weekend.
A sample field plan would like something like this, with the precincts, door counts and phones counts listed each week below. As you can see in Week 1, Taylorville would be suggested weekend walk with volunteers, with Pana being the suggested coordinated walk in Week 2.
Week of June 1:
Taylorville 5-150 doors
Taylorville 3-100 doors
Assumption 1-80 doors
Bear Creek-100 phones
Week of June 8:
Pana 1-120 doors
Pana 3-140 doors
South Fork 1-50 doors
Note: In rural areas especially, phone banking is extremely important to getting your message out. Instead of taking hours and using up gas driving around the country to talk to voters, it’s a much better use of time to call them instead. If a community isn’t large enough to have 50 households in your targeted universe all together, I would suggest calling the whole community.
Now that you have a targeted universe and a field plan, you need to develop a messaging plan for people to use when talking to voters, but also in local media.
The message when talking to voters should take no more than 45 seconds to a minute to say. A quick background about the candidate and 2-3 points about why they are running is sufficient. Something like:
“Hi, my name is John Smith and I’m running for County Board. As a lifelong resident of our community, I know the issues we face. I’m running for County Board to work with local businesses to create jobs, support the senior center and repair our roads.”
This should be the same general messaging you use at the doors, on social media and in the press.
Other ways to communicate
In addition to knocking on doors and making phone calls, there are a few other easy ways to communicate with your voters.
- Letters to the editor – Work with supporters to have them write letters to the editor on your behalf. This is especially effective in towns with smaller newspapers that are looking for material to print. Plan out a weekly schedule with authors and subjects for letters in advance.
- Friends and family letters – Work with supporters to send pre-written letters to their friends and family on your candidate’s behalf. This can be especially effective with older people that may not be on social media.
- Social media – Debatably the easiest, cheapest way to get your message out and recruit volunteers.
Plan it out
In the end, while running a field operation in a rural area does have a specific set of challenges, with a little extra work and planning you can be successful.
Nolan Drea has been a member of the Illinois Senate Democrats Communications staff since 2011.
He worked on State Senator Andy Manar’s (D-Bunker Hill) campaigns in 2012 and 2014, and was Sheila Simon’s (D-Carbondale) campaign manager for the 58th state senate district in 2016.