Determining Your Vote Goal | National Democratic Training Committee

The end goal of an election is to win. And to win, you must get more votes than your opponent. But how many? The importance of this question is obvious, but the route to get to the answer isn’t.

Determining Vote Goal

Yes, I used the word calculate, it means we’re going to do a little bit of math.

Please, don’t freak out. We will to guide you through all of it. We even made a workbook for you to fill out along the way—log in to access our resources. (You’ll be able to follow along completing Section A, Section B is for later on in the online course).

Technically, to win your election you only need 50 percent of the total vote plus one more vote to win. This is often referred to as 50 percent plus one. But, nobody wants to cut it that close. So, to allow you to breathe on election night, we suggest you aim for a comfortable margin of victory. We define that as 52-55 percent of the total expected turnout, rather than just 50 percent. Our method of determining this number is broken down into three easy steps.

Step One to Determine Your Vote Goal

First, we are going to go over how to get that critical turnout percentage estimate for your election! For this, we’ll need to gather data from past election years.

The first step is to figure out the projected turnout percentage for your election, based upon past results.

We recommend you look at at least three of the past elections and see how many people cast votes for the office you’re considering. This is a crucial distinction.

Turnout numbers for a presidential election are not going to help you calculate your vote goal, at least not accurately. People often vote for the big sexy races at the top of the ballot but leave the rest blank. This makes it critical you’re using numbers from your specific race, or a race of comparable size.

When you’re deciding what years to pull data from, think about the races that drove turnout in each of those past cycles. Do they apply to the year you’re running in? A great example is a presidential election. If you’re running for state legislature in 2022, 2016 numbers are not that helpful because presidential candidates were on the ballot and their campaign operations were pushing turnout up in every district. Those forces won’t be present in 2022.

Step Two to Determine Your Vote Goal

Now you can move on to the phase of actually gathering the data.

If we use 2020 as the election year you’re running in, we’re going to choose to gather data from 2008, 2012, and 2016 because those are also Presidential election years, where turnout will be higher. Note what proportion of registered voters cast a ballot for the office you’re running for (i.e., the turnout rate) in each of those years.

First, take the year with the highest turnout rate. This gives you your upper bound of how many voters are likely to turn out this election.

Then, average the turnout rates from 2008, 2012, and 2016. This gives you another reasonable, but less conservative, estimate of how many voters are likely to turn out for your election.

Now that you have your estimated turnout percentage range, you then have to multiply both numbers by the current number of registered voters. This provides you with the range of actual voters expected to turn out on Election Day.

You then have to make a judgment call and decide which side of the range to choose. If there was a particular reason turnout was so high one of those years, and you know that won’t repeat itself in your election year, you could use the lower end of your turnout projection and work from there. A reason to use the higher end could be that one of the candidates who ran in a year you are using was a candidate in name only and didn’t campaign at all — and we know that’s not your plan so things are going to look very different this year. In this situation, you will probably want to err on the side of using the higher end of your turnout projection and work from there.

Reminder: The data you’ll need to complete the workbook (log in to access our resources) can usually be found on your local election officials’ website. If you can’t find the information there, give them a call and they should be able to provide it.

Step Three:

Now that you have your turnout estimates, you have to figure out how many of those voters have to show up on election day for you for you to win your race.

Fifty percent plus one is all you truly need, but we suggest shooting for 55 percent to give yourself some buffer. Therefore, to get this number, you calculate 55 percent of the turnout estimate you decided on in the previous step.

Congrats, you just calculated your vote goal! Your whole campaign can now be strategically structured around targeting that many people.

A Word of Caution

It’s important to note there is no 100 percent accurate way to project turnout. There are lots of different methods various campaigns use. We use this one because it is a simple, data-driven approach that gives you a good foundation. If you’re in a less traditional situation, like if there are multiple candidates in your race, do your best to determine your vote goal based upon the history of similar elections. In the course, we include lessons that cover some of these situations, such as:

  • The incumbent is retiring
  • The opponent is despised
  • You have a particular reason to think your election year will be different
  • The seat you’re running for wasn’t always contested
  • If your district boundaries were different for some of the elections used to estimate your vote goal

While your vote goal is a helpful number to calculate and plan for, never forget that it’s an estimate that you’re using to try to predict the future. So it’s far from perfect. And at the end of the day you want as many votes as you can possibly earn, so don’t let up on the gas once you’ve reached the number of supporters your vote goal tells you you need.

Remember, at best, your vote goal is a bit of science and a bit of art. But, with these steps, you’ll do everything you can to make it an accurate and useful guess.

Pro Tip

When you’re in doubt, always plan conservatively, and I don’t mean that in an ideological sense!

What we’re saying is always plan to need more votes rather than less, because it’s much easier to reduce your vote goal than to suddenly realize you need more votes than you thought.

Take the Course!

This was a condensed version of how to calculate your vote goal, but if you want more step-by-step guidance, are a visual learner or would love to see this math in action with examples, we recommend taking our Calculating your Vote Goal course within our Online Academy.


Next Live Training

NDTC Virtual Live Training

October 26, 2020

8:00pm - 9:00pm (ET)

Online Academy

The training and tools you need, when you need them. Courses are available 24/7. Are you a candidate, campaign staffer or volunteer, at the beginning stages of your campaign or in the home stretch? We have the courses to address your specific needs and arm you with the knowledge to win.

View course catalog

Not sure where to start? Take a short quiz to help you determine the best place for you to get started.

Take the quiz

Jorian Lewke

Jorian was raised in Crystal Lake, IL, but now calls Chicago her home. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in political science and a minor in education reform and worked on local campaigns in the Bay Area throughout college. She has a background working for nonprofit organizations, and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Public Policy & Public Administration with a concentration in non-profit management from Northwestern University. She currently is on the Communications team at NDTC.