The keys to a successful write-in campaign

Well known candidates with lots of money to spend and a game plan for getting their voters to the polls have won high-profile races despite being denied a line on the ballot.

Successful write-in campaigns for elected office are few and far between. But candidates occasionally find a way to win, and election experts say there is a formula for success.

The keys include name recognition, fundraising capability, concerted voter education campaigns, and strong turn-out-the-vote efforts.

Lisa Murkowski used these strategies to retain her U.S. Senate seat in Alaska in 2010. Mike Duggan did likewise when he won the race for mayor of Detroit in 2013.

Here in Buffalo, Mayor Byron Brown, waging a write-in campaign against Democratic nominee India Walton, has at least some of those advantages going for him. As a four-term incumbent, he enjoys name recognition and has raised $851,000 in campaign funds since losing the June 22 primary to India Walton. It remains to be seen, however, how effective his campaign will be in educating his supporters on how to write in and getting them to the polls.


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Murkowski was prepared to quit after she lost a primary for her Senate seat to Tea Party upstart Joe Miller in 2010. She hadn’t just lost the vote. She’d lost the support of the local and national Republican machines. She decided to continue as a write in after being encouraged by supporters, discussions with her family, and a coin flip, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Cathy Allen, a strategist who has worked on campaigns around the country for politicians from both major parties, was part of Murkowski’s 2010 effort. She said that Murkowski’s name recognition — her family has been in Alaska politics for decades — and ability to raise money quickly were keys to her victory.

Murkowski spent nearly $4.7 million in the election cycle, outspending Miller and Democratic opponent Scott McAdams by more than $3 million, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit that tracks money in Congress. Murkowski won the general election with 39 percent of the vote in the three-way race, becoming the first U.S. Senator to win as a write-in candidate since Strom Thurmond’s 1954 victory in South Carolina. 

In Detroit, Duggan captured 52 percent of the vote in 2013 as a write-in candidate whose closest competitor garnered 30 percent. He went on to win the general election and is presently running for a third term.

Duggan raised more than $5.4 million during his first run for office, counting his campaign committee and independent expenditure committees — often referred to as super PACs — that supported him. That was far more than his primary opponent Benny Napoleon, according to a database compiled by a consortium of Michigan news outlets.

Allen said Brown will need to have a similar spending advantage if he hopes to win in November. Brown has raised more money than Walton since the primary, but not by an overwhelming margin — $851,000 to $617,000.

“It costs money to run a write-in campaign,” Allen said. “It probably costs twice what he would have paid if [Brown] … had been the successor in the primary and he had a decent Republican nominee.”


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Another key to victory is voter education.

Murkowski sent a series of mailers detailing where to mark down her name and how to spell it. So did Charlie Wilson, who won a congressional seat in Ohio in 2006 in a write-in campaign that saw him capture 66 percent of the vote.

Jacob Neiheisel, a professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, recalled doing work on the Wilson write-in campaign. He said former Gov. Ted Strickland, a Wilson ally who was elected to that post in the same election cycle, appeared on a mailer urging voters to write in Wilson’s name, with an illustration showing them how to do so. 

Neiheisel and Allen both stressed how important that type of educational material will be if Brown hopes to win.

“It’s a weird thing we are asking people to do,” Neiheisel said. “It’s a multiple choice exam for democracy in some ways, and that’s not how we are used to leveling our preferences. That is an additional hurdle that I think is an equalizer in the race.”

The Brown campaign says it has already bought thousands of rubber stamps to distribute to voters. 

Another important element is the smart use of data for targeted advertising, a science that becomes more precise through each election cycle, especially in social media.

Brown will also likely be targeting voters who were ineligible to vote in the primary, said Trey Hood, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

“I would be definitely targeting Republicans and independents in this campaign,” he said.


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Perhaps most important still is making plenty of campaign appearances and generating media coverage. During her campaign, Murkowski did any interview she was offered on local and national television, regardless of the time zone difference. She also traveled around the state tirelessly, sometimes barely sleeping, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Brown and Walton both have been out getting in front of voters, holding rallies, staging press conferences and knocking on doors. Both have campaign websites and are active on Twitter and Facebook.

Neiheisel said in-person appearances are the most effective way for the candidates to connect with voters, which is especially important for Brown as his campaign works to educate voters on the write-in process.

The write-in factor adds an element of uncertainty to the race, Neiheisel said, with potential court challenges from both campaigns likely to play out long after election night.

“He has all these big macro factors moving in his direction, and I would be totally fine saying that he’s advantaged, except that he’s waging a write-in campaign,” he said.