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Winning School-Levy Campaigns

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Public school officials offer a variety of reasons for why school-levy campaigns are so often defeated. Perhaps the two heard most frequently are that the pool of voters sympathetic to school levies has grown smaller as school-age populations have grown smaller, and that voters can most easily express their frustration over growing taxes by rejecting school levies. Such explanations suggest that societal forces predispose levy campaigns to defeat, but they do not really stand up under close inspection. More important, they do not provide schools with a way to win.

Rather than lament having a small core constituency (families with students or prospective students), levy-campaign leaders should rejoice that they start the election with a core constituency that exceeds that of virtually every elected official in the country. There are about 43.5 million students in the public schools, according to the latest U.S. Education Department count. That provides a base constituency of approximately 65 million voter/parents. In addition, there are approximately five million preschoolers with voter/parents, and 4.7 million individuals directly connected to the public schools as teachers, administrators, and support staff.

If we assume that these voters, who make up about 33 percent to 38 percent of the electorate, are strongly predisposed to vote for the levy, a school levy starts out with a bigger base vote than most successful political candidates. Statistics from the University of Michigan National Election Studies Data Center indicate that only 20 percent of voters identify themselves as "strong" Democratic voters, and only 10 percent identify themselves as "strong" Republican voters. Even if we add the 19 percent of the electorate who identify themselves as "weak" Democratic voters and the 15 percent who identify themselves as "weak" Republican voters, the figures clearly indicate that the natural constituency for a school levy is almost invariably equal to or larger than the natural constituency most elected officials can claim at the outset of their campaigns.

The comparison would look something like this: natural constituency for school-levy campaigns--33 percent to 38 percent; natural constitutency for Democratic candidates--20 percent to 39 percent; natural constituency for Republican candidates--10 percent to 25 percent.

Moreover, though voters may on occasion take out their frustrations about taxes on school levies, the fact of the matter is that many tax issues pass. For example, in the most recent elections held in Ohio, those of May 1994, over 50 percent of all tax appropriations on the ballot passed. What are successful candidates and successful tax-appropriation campaigns doing that many school-levy campaigns fail to do?

They develop well-crafted messages precisely targeted to audiences beyond their core constituencies. They motivate individuals above and beyond their core constituencies to vote for their candidate or issue. Here is a four-step procedure to successfully craft a message and target that message to key audiences.

  1. The first step in developing the message is to gain a clear understanding of the demographic makeup of the district. Keep in mind the differences between actual voting-age population, registered voters, and voter turnout. Aim to persuade 50 percent plus one of those who will vote on election day to approve the levy. Draw a statistical profile of your district's habitual voters by collecting data on partisanship, race, gender, age, homeownership, occupation, educational level, economic level, religious affiliation, and other characteristics that you deem important.
  2. Second, use focus groups to do an attitudinal profile of the major voter groups. What do they like and dislike about the schools? What changes would they like to see in the schools? What school issues matter to them? How do they relate to the schools? What kind of contact have they had with the schools in the last three years? What are some of the most important issues in their lives and how do the schools impact on those issues? What public or private figures do they hold in high esteem?
  3. Third, based on your demographic knowledge and your attitudinal profile, target your audience and craft specific messages for your targeted audience. Put together a victory coalition of groups that can provide you that 50-percent-plus-one vote on election day. Then, develop messages that should appeal to each of these groups.

    For example, let us assume that your district is typical of the nation, and that approximately 35 percent of the voters have children in your public school system. Targeting this group as part of your victory coalition, your message to this audience will focus on the need to continue providing high-quality education. Typically, levy campaigns do an effective job with this naturally sympathetic audience. Consequently, they get large numbers of parents to vote for the schools--and lose.

    What additional groups, if they voted heavily for the levy, would bring you to that magic 50 percent plus one on election day? Imagine that your demographic profile indicates that older voters constitute a significant percentage of voters in your district. Or, perhaps your district has traditionally voted heavily Democratic, or Republican, repeatedly electing members of one party to most local offices, and 41 percent of the registered voters identify themselves as members of that party. Clearly, one of the two major parties might be an important group for your victory coalition.

    Political strategists suggest targeting about 70 percent of the constituency. In doing so, there will be overlapping targets, and of course not everyone will vote. But, if you target about 70 percent and can motivate these people to vote in high numbers, you are likely to secure your 50 percent plus one on election day.

    You cannot base your targeting simply on numbers. You must have a strong and unique message for each group. You must develop strong and unique reasons for members of every targeted group to vote for the levy. If the only reasons you can think of in urging a group to vote for the levy are the same reasons you would use with your core constituency of voter/parents, then don't bother targeting this additional group. You must find arguments to replace or at least supplement these arguments when you reach out beyond your core constituency. You must have a strong and specifically tailored message for each targeted group.

    The strong message is one that gives the voter a clear and compelling reason to vote for the levy. The strongest messages are those that clearly appeal to the voter's self-interest. Unique messages are those that capitalize on characteristics of specific voters that distinguish them from most other voters: their age, their occupation, their party affiliation, their ethnic background, their religion, their economic status, and the like. Your focus-group interviews should help you determine how to appeal to each group you target.

    Two examples serve to illustrate strong and unique messages. It is often assumed that property owners who do not have children in the schools will be unlikely to vote for a levy. However, homes located within an excellent school system are in great demand. Location within an excellent school system not only creates demand for a home, but helps that home maintain its value against inflation. Hence, the school levy might be presented to older "empty nest" homeowners as an insurance policy on their most valuable possession. For an additional premium of $50 or $75 or $150 a year, they are insuring the continued high value of their most valuable possession. Statements from local realtors, price comparisons of similar homes in districts where levies have both passed and failed, and a host of other techniques can be used to develop a strong message appealing directly to the self-interest of the homeowner. Moreover, this is a unique message. It is aimed at a unique group of individuals, those who own their homes.

    Similarly, party affiliation is frequently presumed to have little impact on nonpartisan campaigns such as school levies. But if one party is clearly predominant in your district, perhaps you can effectively link the levy campaign to that party in the minds of registered voters of that party. For example, you might illustrate that, if a voter considers him- or herself a (choose one: Republican/Democrat), he or she is in the great tradition of (choose one: Abraham Lincoln/Theodore Roosevelt/Dwight D. Eisenhower/Ronald Reagan/George Bush, or, Thomas Jefferson/Woodrow Wilson/Franklin D. Roosevelt/John F. Kennedy/Bill Clinton) and then use quotations from each of these leaders to illustrate the importance they attached to public education.

    You could secure statements from the most popular officeholders of the dominant party in your district supporting the levy. You might include explanations of the political philosophies of each party indicating why Republicans and Democrats support public education. Such messages are strong. They appeal directly to the self-interest of the voter by allowing the voter to perceive a favorable vote on the levy as consistent with past political behavior. Moreover, they can be tailored to fit the unique political affiliation of the voter.

  4. The fourth step is to deliver the message to the specific group of voters to whom it is targeted. Improvements in campaign technology currently allow for much more precise targeting of voters than was possible even a few years ago. Technology has reduced the costs of many forms of communication dramatically in recent years. Political campaigns are making greater use of direct mail than ever before, largely because of the services of firms which can provide specialized mailing lists, broken down into geographic areas, at exceedingly reasonable rates. Similarly, technology is making the price of videocassettes competitive with other forms of advertising. These can be used as the centerpieces of evening meetings and coffees among groups of the targeted audience, as well as being distributed to targeted members of the community. "Narrowcasting," the use of highly targeted cable channels to reach small but homogeneous audiences, is yet another new means of targeting which is becoming cost effective for many smaller campaigns.

All of these suggestions are meant to supplement and enhance traditional forms of levy campaigning, such as door-to-door canvassing, literature drops, phoning, and advertising. School superintendents and school board members typically do not go to the voters asking for money unless they sincerely perceive the schools to be in need. But a simple explanation of that need is, unfortunately, often not sufficient to convince the majority of voters on election day.

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