It's time to consider the American non-voter

Getting just 1% of the non-voting public to the polls could translate into a million ballots, writes AOL's account director in change of political and advocacy advertising

Let’s be honest. As advertisers working in the political space, we avoid thinking about the eligible American voters who don’t vote. The American non-voter does not get any of our attention, targeting efforts, budget dollars or empathy. We assume we cannot change their minds—and we give up on them before we even start our campaigns.

We’re in this business because we know advertising is a powerful tool capable of motivating a person to take action. That’s why we endlessly analyze, test copy, and constantly refine our targeting strategies. We know that we can make a tremendous difference. It’s time to look at the American non-voter as an opportunity for significant change—by leaning on data and learning what makes them tick, the right creative could make this already historic election even bigger.

Converting just 1% of non-voters means a million ballots. Measuring the number of Americans who do and do not vote is not so simple. There are countless nuances surrounding who is eligible to vote, who is actually registered to vote and who ultimately turns out to vote. Regardless of how we measure, the fact remains that millions of Americans are not voting. And millions of teenagers reach the legal voting age this year, and most will turn into non-voters if we don’t do the work of educating them on how, when, where, and why they should be active voters.

Rather than remaining apathetic to these populations, we should be looking at non-voters and new voters as untapped potential and a welcome challenge for our creative teams. In the 2012 election, it’s estimated that of the 251 million eligible voters, around 112 million did not vote. If we took just 1% of those non-voters (allow me this estimate), that’s more than a million additional ballots this November. Considering that this election cycle has already proven to be highly mobilizing in unexpected ways, ignoring millions of potential voters over the next two months seems like an opportunity unseized.

Classic campaign creative isn’t effective. If you’re going to take up the challenge of targeting the new and/or non-voter, then you’re going to have to get savvy with your strategy. Politically active citizens understand that the personal and the political cannot be separated. The creative that motivates the politically active person, therefore, will likely not influence the non-voter. Largely this is because most political ads lean too heavily on making one presidential candidate look good or their opponent look bad.

According to Census data, however, 13% of non-voters avoid the polls because they don’t like any of the candidates and are not interested in the issues on their platforms. 16% of non-voters cited they just weren’t interested in voting, and 19% said they were just too busy. If we’re dealing with disinterested, politically uninspired people who don’t see value in giving their time to voting, mud-slinging and big-ticket issues aren’t going to be effective in earning their votes.

Lean on data to make creative that makes a difference. The non-voter has to be educated. They have to be convinced that their vote matters. Most of all, they must be aware of the election issues which can and will affect their day-to-day lives regardless of their background, income level, ethnicity, or job. The biggest challenge is getting to know the non-voters and finding out what makes them tick. Luckily for us, we have the technology and data to do that.  

Using data, we can zoom-in and learn the issues that are going to inspire the non-voter to get to the polls. We need to get above the fray of the big, polarizing issues and get local. What are the issues in the non-voter’s backyard? What issues are so close to their hearts and minds that they cannot be ignored? Digital is the perfect medium, being much cheaper than the traditional television spot, and giving us the ability to hit the non-voter more often, thereby increasing the likelihood of piquing their interest. We can measure the effectiveness of the creative and be nimble enough to make changes as we go along. If this challenge doesn’t excite you at least a little bit, maybe it’s time to get out of the business of political advertising.

It won’t be easy to get the non-voter to the polls, but it’s not any more challenging than getting a Republican to vote Democrat and vice-versa. We have the data that can help us identify the issues that matter to the American non-voter. This is one of the most polarizing elections in history, and with just a few months to go before election day, we are at a pivotal moment for politics and for political campaigns. Elections have been won and lost by much less than a million votes, so turning a blind eye to the millions of potential voters could be a destructive oversight. A creative, data-informed approach could be the difference in making this election into a triumph of high voter turnout and inspired campaigning, rather than one remembered for histrionics and American apathy. 

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