Persuading Voters in Red Districts - National Democratic Training Committee

I’ve spent a good part of my life — and cut my political teeth — in red districts.

The first doors I ever knocked on (back when you could do door-to-door canvassing) were heavily-leaning Republicans who I was persuading to vote for then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008.

And I learned a lot in these memorable conversations, not only about persuadable voters’ concerns, but also about myself and my values.

It can be an incredibly brave and powerful act to say “I am a Democrat” in some areas, and it’s especially powerful when we’re building Democratic infrastructure in these communities.

And guess what? There’s no big, secret strategy about finding supporters or persuading voters in a red district.

You’re having conversations with people.

You’re getting to know them as humans.

And…you’re sharing your values, actively listening, and persuading them to support your candidate.

More importantly, this work has long-term, lasting impact between election cycles as you continue to grow, build, and activate folks through building lasting Democratic infrastructure in your community.

What is a Red District?

A red district is a heavily Republican district. As opposed to a blue district that is heavily populated by voters who primarily vote for Democratic candidates.

A heavily Republican area can be in any area of the country, including more densely populated areas, although currently you’re more likely to find heavily Republican areas in more rural states.

It’s most important not to stereotype voters in a red district.

Even if folks live in a heavily Republican district, every voter has different values and cares about different political issues tied to these values.

For a refresher about calculating your vote goal and how to find data to calculate this effectively, check out this blog on “Running in a Red District: Vote Goal and Voter Targeting.”

The Importance of Building Relationships

Building and maintaining relationships is the core component of field strategy, whether talking with voters or volunteers.

You have a personal relationship already, and this warmth can quickly make folks feel more comfortable opening up. When people open up, they also will likely know others who you could connect with to grow support.

These networks are powerful, and folks are more receptive to talking with people they know or have been connected with, especially in a persuasion conversation.

Secondly, when you’re talking to voters as their neighbor, as someone in their district, you already know many of the issues they likely care about because they affect you, too!

Have elected officials gotten rid of parks and greenways, not fixed potholes, or not allocated funding into your local entrepreneurial community?

Do they see the effects on elected officials’ decisions on your community (either positively or negatively)?

You know the issues that folks care about, and you’re able to speak to that on a local level as someone who is also impacted or wants to see change happen in your community.

Finding New Supporters in a Red District

A lot of times, you may feel like you’re the only Democrat or that you know all the Democrats in your community when you’re living in a heavily Republican area.

You’re not!

People move into areas, shift their political views, and may also want to begin to become involved in Democratic politics at various points.

Additionally, some folks may just need a conversation with someone who is involved to know all the opportunities available for them.

In the recent past, going to various events, rallies, and community meetings brought you into contact with neighbors who have shared values. This can present opportunities for values-based conversations (connecting values to an issue or candidate). Now, during COVID-19 times, we are discovering different ways to find supporters as we build our virtual communities.

During COVID-19, we can’t go door-to-door canvassing. Additionally, sometimes you may not have the most reliable data on your targeted voters if you’re campaigning in a heavily-Republican area or there have not been increased direct voter contact efforts and data recorded in the past with persuadable voters.

In addition to any leads you have from Votebuilder or additional databases of likely supporters or voters you may need to persuade, think “scrappy organizing.” Scrappy tactics take more time, but are just as valuable as traditional methods.

Here’s what we can do

  • While yard signs don’t vote, they could be a signal for a future conversation or follow-up conversation with a neighbor you haven’t chatted with on the phone for awhile.
  • Engage with local organizations you already follow on social media, hashtags on Twitter, and any closed Facebook community groups already.
  • Initiate 1:1 conversations with folks and make sure those conversations include how to take action, for example, making that hard ask to support your campaign or candidate, and then asking them to volunteer.
  • While sometimes online local news comments and forums are not that helpful, you may find someone new to connect with who supports your viewpoint on a particular local issue. You can send a direct message to someone who shares a similar viewpoint and engage them in a conversation about your campaign.
  • Has someone expressed interest in an op-ed that your campaign wrote? Have you reached out?
  • A lot of people are part of a community group’s email lists or otherwise, but have you ever connected with these folks?

These are just a few examples. There are communities all around us that perhaps we haven’t taken the time to truly engage with.

Persuasion Conversation Flow Reminder

OK, we’ve talked about finding supporters in red districts in really organic ways.

As you get to know people in the community or connect with voters from a database’s list to call or text, you’ll want to persuade them to vote for you (or your campaign if you’re working on a campaign or volunteering for a local party).

As a reminder, persuadable voters are those who need to be persuaded/convinced to support a specific candidate or cause.

Find more information about this in our Field Tactics course.

Persuasion Conversation Flow

In a persuasion conversation, you:

  1. Introduce yourself.
  2. Assess support.
  3. Persuade and converse.
  4. Confirm support.

How to Increase Connection with Persuasion Conversations

Back when we were door-to-door canvassing, I would sometimes wear a shirt with my favorite basketball team on it because it was an instant conversation starter and made folks want to initiate a conversation a bit more quickly.

Now, during COVID-19, you can still start up conversations to help folks warm up a bit more informally, too!

Begin with a neutral, common topic (such as college football or hiking) that is regionally and community relevant. It can begin as a less formal conversation until they open up to you and share more information.

And while we just looked at the conversation flow for a persuasion conversation, know that having conversations in primarily red/Republican areas may look a bit different than calling or texting voters who are right in the middle of the road or who lean toward Democrat.

How do we adjust effectively?

You want folks to listen to you, and in order to be heard, you have to understand your audience and where they’re coming from.

You want to actively listen, engage, and share more of your story and values.

Because of this, it may take a bit longer to get into the actual core of the persuasion conversation.

Making Your Persuasion Conversation Local and Relatable

  1. Connect as a person in the community: You live in the community, and shop at the same local businesses and restaurants; you are a part of the social fabric you live in. If nothing else, you care about the community that you share and all that it offers.
  2. Find commonality: You may have a love for watching college football, have a big vegetable garden, or enjoy reading. How is someone passing time during this pandemic and how are they on a human level? The more you can connect through common interests, the more someone may open up and share more with you so that you can have an authentic conversation.
  3. Have a longer conversation and actively listen to shared values: With persuasion conversations, you may need to warm up a bit more with a voter through the topics we just mentioned. You also will need to really actively listen to what someone’s concerns are in the community. This means asking open-ended questions to gather more information, and truly listening instead of thinking of a response while they are talking.
  4. Share more of your personal story and values: If someone shares how much they love going on walks and having picnics in parks (especially during COVID-19), then share your passion for the preservation of green spaces or your love of kayaking. You can talk about how you’ve been working to protect the environment and support the state representative candidate who will be doing the same. It’s a pretty smooth conversation to draw the connections!

Quick Reminders to Add to Your Script to Increase Warmth

Here are three quick ways to add to your existing script as you’re making calls and sending texts to persuadable voters:

  1. Ask how someone is really doing, especially during COVID-19.
  2. Ask about a local issue someone cares about.
  3. Begin with a common topic or interest in the community to warm up the conversation.

At the end of the day, remember that you’re having conversations with folks in your community. Through active listening and sharing with voters, there’s a lot that you’ll learn about people in your community. You’ll also learn a lot about yourself and why you’re supporting issues or candidates. And you’ll work on reaching that vote goal to turn out your supporters on Election Day!

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Collyn Warner

Since 2008, Collyn Warner has spent most of her time working on political and issue-based campaigns, community organizing, and training. She started her work in these areas in red (and primarily rural) areas in the regional South. In addition to these efforts, Collyn previously worked on event coordination, communication efforts, and logistics at the International Monetary Fund, as well as membership development with Business Forward. She has worked in communications and outreach for the Campaign for Southern Equality, Neighbors for Equality (a grassroots LGBTQ rights group), Amnesty International, and higher education institutions.

Collyn completed her M.A. in English (Composition and Rhetoric) at The University of Alabama, where she was awarded funding to research the digital tools of community organizing across LGBTQ advocacy efforts in North Carolina, and she has presented on activist literacy, digital organizing, and grassroots initiatives at national conferences.