Preparing for your primary election

March 24, 2023 | Brandon Blumenherst
Political candidate in a suit and tie with family at a campaign launch

In most states, the general election in November pits members of different political parties against one another, and those candidates are chosen in primary elections and caucuses that occur earlier in the year. Primaries can be incredibly competitive, so we want to share some steps to help you prepare for your primary election. 

Preparing for your primary election. 

There are two common types of primaries in the United States: open and closed. Open primaries allow voters to vote in any party’s primary election, while closed primaries only allow voters registered with a political party to vote in that party’s primary election. While some state elections abide by those definitions explicitly, many others vary. Ensure you understand who can vote for you before developing your strategy to win your election. If someone cannot vote for you in the primary election, it’s probably best to spend time talking to likely primary voters instead.  

While some primaries are contested (have more than one candidate running for the same office), others are not. Even though you may not be running against someone in a primary, you should use this valuable time to shore up support among likely supporters or begin building toward your general election win number. Regardless of if you’re running in a contested primary, the steps described below will help you prepare for the election cycle ahead. 

1. Define your message.

Your message is the central component of your campaign that should answer the question, “Why are you running?” When developing your answer, think about what drove you to run for office in the first place. Were you upset about the conservative policies in your area? Was there a personal experience that prompted you to run? Whatever your reasoning, developing a clear and concise message will help make your case to voters and donors about why they should support you. 

You will also want to develop your stances on the issues. Typically, it’s best to center your campaign around three to five main issues. These ideas will be used frequently on your website, social media, mailers, and more, so take time to define these central issues and how you would address them if elected. 

2. Do your research.

To prepare for your primary election, there are a few things you will want to research before you launch your campaign. 

  • Past election results. 
    • Past election results will help you understand how many voters you can expect to turn out for the primary election. Typically, primaries have lower voter turnout than general elections, so you’re usually working with a smaller universe of likely primary voters. These results break down further into precinct results, which can help you determine how to conduct your voter outreach geographically. 
  • Past campaign finance reports. 
    • Campaign finance reports can offer several valuable insights to your campaign. They can share how much candidates raised, who donated to your opponent (if they’ve run in the past), and more.
  • Your opponent. 
    • You will also want to research your opponent and where they stand on the issues. Conducting this research early allows you to develop messaging to address differences between you and your opponent.  

3. Highlight differences where needed with your opponent but stay positive. 

If you’re running in a contested primary, you need to highlight differences between you and your opponent for voters to understand why they should support you. However, there are ways to do this positively and respectfully to focus on your stances on the issues. After the primary, you will want to consolidate as much support behind your campaign as possible; staying positive during the primary can make it easier to unite supporters heading into the general election. 

4. Create your voter universe and start your primary election outreach. 

Targeted voter contact is the key to winning campaigns, especially in contested primaries. While campaigns may choose to employ different methods of targeted voter outreach, you will want to make sure you talk to likely primary voters. These voters are probably either registered with the Democratic Party, have a past voting history in primaries, or are likely to support Democrats or vote in the primary based on scores available in VAN or SmartVAN. Once you define your likely voter turnout and the voter universe you want to target, you’ll want to start reaching out to them through canvassing, phone banking, texting, and other methods of communication.   

While conducting outreach in a primary election, you’ll identify supporters who plan to vote for you. If they indicate that they will support your campaign, ask if they’d be willing to volunteer or if you can put a campaign sign in their yard. These questions are easy to ask when you’re already talking to voters, and they can help supporters take the next step in supporting your campaign. Plus, you can easily record responses to Survey Questions and tag Activist Codes in VAN or SmartVAN to act on later in the campaign cycle. When voters can start voting, you will have an identified list of supporters to contact to get out and vote based on the responses you recorded in VAN or SmartVAN. 

5. Raise the money you need to win your primary election. 

Especially if you’re in a contested primary, you must raise money to pay for campaign software, mailers, and other necessities to help convince voters to support your campaign. While you can use your campaign launch as a great starting point for your fundraising efforts, you will want to raise money as early as possible to ensure you have the resources you need to win. Campaigns are expensive, and primary campaigns require you to raise money early to invest in campaign operations. In addition to fundraising, you must track donations for compliance purposes, create donor profiles to ensure optimized outreach, and build your donor list to ensure you have the resources to win. 

By investing in trusted fundraising and compliance software like NGP, your campaign can raise more money efficiently and effectively. You can boost your fundraising efforts through innovative features (like Donor Target Scores and Reports), create 360-degree donor profiles that track interactions with your campaign, and file complete and accurate campaign finance reports. Campaign finance violations can incur significant penalties, so ensure you understand and comply with campaign finance laws. 

By preparing for your primary election, you will build a solid foundation for your campaign to win your primary and capitalize on the momentum heading into November. Investing early in your message, research, outreach, and technology will allow your campaign to focus on other priorities throughout the election cycle, expanding your opportunities to scale your operations heading into the general election. 

Additional Resources 

Want to learn more about how NGP VAN software can support your campaign? Here are a few additional resources to help you build your email lists, engage supporters and donors, and win your race!