How to Score a Political Upset

It’s great to be the frontrunner in a political campaign.  Media attention, contributions and volunteers flowing in, plans being drawn for your transition team – it’s a good feeling.  Falling behind, on the other hand, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: your poll numbers are bad, so the media starts reporting on your imminent demise, which only fuels your fall, donors don’t want to give, so you can’t spend money on efforts to come back – it’s a bad, bad feeling.

It is possible to come back from behind to win, however.  Just because your campaign falls behind in the polls, even close to the election, doesn’t mean you have to lose.  Of course, it’s better to be ahead, and if you’re behind, it’s better to have plenty of time to catch up.  There are strategies you can use in a pinch, however, to come back and make things interesting on Election Day.

One of the most difficult of these strategies to pull off is the Get Out the Vote (GOTV) surprise.  The GOTV surprise basically means that your campaign doesn’t think it can persuade lots of new voters to come over into its camp.  Instead, the campaign plans to use get out the vote tactics to make sure that so many of its supporters come to the polls and vote on Election Day that they overwhelm their opponent’s supporters, who are more plentiful but hopefully less likely to actually show up at the polls to vote.

For example, let’s say that candidate A is polling 40% of the vote while candidate B is polling 60%.  Candidate A’s team believes that the poll numbers are unlikely to change, no matter what they do.  So they concentrate on identifying who their supporters are and getting them to the polls on Election Day. 

If there are 100,000 voters, that means that 40,000 support candidate A while 60,000 support candidate B.  If candidate A, however, can get 50% of his supporters to go to the polls (for 20,000 votes) while candidate B only gets 33% (for 19,800 votes) candidate A will win, even though he has fewer overall supporters.  This is what we mean by “The GOTV Surprise.”

Good News and Bad News

The good news for campaigns who want to pull off this strategy is that your opponent, well ahead in the polls, will probably not be planning much more than a cursory get out the vote program, and thus you’ll be able to beat him or her in this regard.  The bad news, though, is that many Americans simply don’t go vote.  Every percentage point you push up your turnout will require hard work.  Getting to the 50% we used in our example above is doable, but would be hard.

Contact and Re-Contact

The key to GOTV programs is persistence – contacting the voters again and again to find out who they support, and then contacting your supporters again and again to make sure they go to the polls. 

Be Active!

Coming from behind to win, even late in the game, can be done.  The key is planning and activity – don’t just stay the course.  Plan a new course of action, then work hard to implement your plan.  With a little elbow grease and a bit of luck, you can pull it off.


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