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How to surprise everyone and beat the odds on election day

Susannah Whipps Lee, who lost in 2012, ran a focused and effective campaign for her state's House of Representatives in 2014 — and won. Using NationBuilder, her staff was able to find and speak with the most likely voters and follow up with them as the election neared.

How to surprise everyone and beat the odds on election day
  • 72%
  • More votes than primary opponent
  • 20%
  • More votes than general election incumbent
  • 150%
  • More voters at the poll than forecast

When Susannah Whipps Lee’s campaign staff was watching the votes come in on election night 2014, it was almost night and day compared with their experience running in 2012.

The previous election cycle, they’d knocked on all the doors, handed out all the flyers, and communicated their message to the media. But when it came down to the votes, they fell short by about 200 ballots and the seat for the Massachusetts House of Representatives went to the incumbent.

In 2014, Susannah had to get through a primary and a general election. And this time, she crushed her opponent in the Republican primary, surpassing even her own staff's expectations. She went on to win the general election, beating the incumbent who had held office since 2011.

Not that it was that surprising in retrospect, staffers say. The staff campaigned totally differently. Through NationBuilder, they planned better canvassing efforts, communicated more thoroughly, and overall approached the election more strategically.

“You learn from losing, but you also learn from winning,” says Chip Jones, general consultant. “You can have all the people who believe in you who don’t show up at the polls, and then it’s not worth it.”

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One widely accepted rule of thumb in local elections is that because they’re smaller, candidates and campaign staffers have the time to visit every potential voter and converse with each of them. And in some ways, that’s true.

But that method didn’t work for Susannah in 2012. The staffers did knock on all the doors, they did all the traditional things you’re supposed to do when running for office, but they still didn’t win.

“There was a lot of interactions with social media, but no follow-up phone calling, no Get Out The Vote on election day,” says Jason Edson, technology director. “We had the people to craft and deliver that message on the high-level media but nothing on the ground level.”

Research shows that voters are more likely to get to the polls after having just one in-person conversation, increasing turnout by 20 percent. But read that again. It’s not just that you made contact face-to-face. It’s that you had a conversation.

Conversations take time, and if you’re trying to knock on every door, you don’t have time to have real conversations. Or you might be wasting time talking to someone who’s already definitely going to vote in your favor or someone whose ideals don’t align with your candidate.

So when Lee ran again, her staffers had to start by targeting the right doors


Susannah Whipps Lee used NationBuilder to find out which voters to talk to and how.

Before the staff even started their campaigning and before they even made a plan, they looked at the raw voter data they had. It was coming from their last election, the district, prior races, and they had some in the form of NationBuilder surveys as well.

Edson imported everything into NationBuilder, so it was all in one place that was easy to access, but more importantly, easy to update.

From there, he could plan smart canvassing for the primary. He looked for certain criteria in the database — who leaned Republican in previous elections, who had donated when, who usually votes in primaries — and turned the list into a map. Then he created a plan for his volunteers that saved them the time of having to go to every house and gave them the necessary information to have more heart-to-heart conversations with voters.

Smartly planned canvassing is especially important in rural areas, where it takes longer to get from one house to another and sidewalks don’t always exist in between.

When the volunteers came back, Edson could easily update every voter’s profile to show they’d had a one-on-one conversation. That gave Susannah’s campaign something to go on when they called a few weeks later to confirm their voters were still planning to go to the polls.

In the primary, they sent an email reminding people to get to the polls a few hours before they closed. For the general, they sent that same email but planned and scheduled it two days earlier, saving hours of work for Edson. 

“We did all the same things, but we did it in a planned fashion,” Jones says. “The beauty of NationBuilder is it gives you the ability to do all of the campaign functions well.  It’s not that we’re so smart, but we have a tool that lets us look smart.”

A more effective campaign

2014 was all about what Jones calls a "balanced campaign," where staffers reached out to their supporters on multiple mediums — email, social media, print, etc. — to ensure that their messages had every chance of being received.

Every election has numerous aspects to point to as reasons why one candidate won or the other. Susannah Whipps Lee's staff point to NationBuilder not as the sole reason she won, but as the system that enabled them to implement a more effective campaign. And the numbers show their method worked. In 2014, they won by a wider margin than the one their opponent beat them by in 2012. They also won her hometown.

Of more than 50 contested elections in Massachusetts in 2014, Susannah was one of only two candidates to defeat an incumbent. She was sworn into office in January 2015.


  • Challenges
  • Communicate with voters efficiently and effectively.
  • Get voters to the polls.
  • Beat the incumbent.
  • Solutions
  • Use filters to segment voters and target potential supporters.
  • Create plan for canvassing based on map and tags.
  • Craft email blasts ahead of time as reminders to vote.
  • Results
  • 150% more primary voters at the poll than the state forecast.
  • 10-point victory margin.
  • One of only two district candidates to unseat an incumbent in 58 contested elections.
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