“What’s Our Win Number?”

From the Campaign Manager’s Perspective

Win Number - Part 1 Top 3 Reasons to Know Your Win Number

“What’s our win number?” is one of the first questions that your candidate is likely to ask. At the most basic level, a win number is the estimated number of votes you’ll need to win your election; for a 2 person contest, 50% of the votes plus 1.

Easy, right? Well, not really, as you’ll need to predict the number of votes that will be cast at a future time under uncertain conditions. Before delving into some methods for estimating this number, it makes sense to consider why this is an important benchmark for your campaign.

1) A win number gives you an idea of the size of your election. Are you expecting 10,000, 2,000 or 75 people to vote in your contest? The size affects many aspects of your campaign plan including:

  • How you will reach out to voters

  • What type of budget is necessary

  • What media choices will you make

  • How will you manage the candidate’s time

2) A win number can also direct your overall campaign strategy. In Local Elections 101, we discuss the need to know your voters and discern 1) how likely a voter is to vote in an election and 2) how likely they are to vote for you. A win number can help you identify hurdles early on and inspire you to make a plan to combat them. For example, you may discover that in order to meet your win number, you will have to persuade several hundred voters in the opposing party to vote for you.

3) Finally, going through the process of determining a win number has value in and of itself. As you will see in Part 2, calculating a win number requires you to look at past results and the circumstances surrounding them and to look at the current election and consider the factors that will be influencing your voters.

Win Number - Part 2

Calculating your win number – 3 Methods

1) Via turnout – look at the past several elections of your contest. What were the turnout percentages? Ideally, you’ll want to know the total number of registered voters who were eligible to vote and the number of voters who actually voted in each election. Depending on your contest, you’ll have different degrees of accuracy in determining this. In many jurisdictions, the turnout percentages listed may reflect the entire county and not just a specific commissioner, school board district, or primary contest. Voter history files may give better information if they are accessible. With the data you have available, make the best estimates of turnout for your contest for the last couple of elections.

After you’ve determined the past turnouts, look at the circumstances surrounding the elections – were any of the candidates unopposed? What were the other races on the ballot – did they increase/decrease turnout? How do these elections compare to yours? While it is often recommended to use the average of the turnouts, I believe it makes more sense to evaluate the elections and make an educated guess for the expected turnout. I also favor a turnout range, say 30 -35%, instead of a specific number.

Once you’ve settled on a turnout percent or range, multiply the number of registered voters by this percentage. From the total number of votes in the election, figure out how many you’ll need to win – at least 50% +1. This is often calculated at 52 or 53% to include a margin of safety. Easy as pie!

2) Via results – here you’ll look at the results of the past several elections of your contest. How many people voted? As with the turnout calculation, you’ll want to consider the circumstances of each election to figure out which results you think will be most predictive of your election.

Look at these results in the context of the turnout-based numbers from method #1. Do they match each other? If so, great! If not, why not? What does this say about your election/electorate?

3) Via a win number calculator – there are a number of calculators for win numbers on the internet – they’ll ask you to input numbers such as turnout, total voters and past results, and then show you the results!

While a win number (or win number range) can offer guidance in terms of strategy and planning, there is a potential pitfall in over-reliance on a win number. Working solely toward a specific number can be misleading if that number is wrong, especially in a small contest.

In general, we look at a win number as a useful tool for planning, budgeting and creating a winning strategy. The value is as much in the process of determining the win number, as it is in the number itself; however, since this is a question that tends to come up often – you’ll want an answer too!

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