With the polls showing that the election could swing any way, the key to winning or losing the national election will lie at the heart of politics – the constituency. We asked a former local councillor, council candidate, and election agent for insight into the numbers that make a difference. How do you go about winning an election from the ground up and how much effort does it take?

Every constituency has a different character depending on its geography, demographics and history, so we’re going to make some assumptions and simplifications. Our constituency is urban, has 70,000 voters, of which 60% (42,000) will actually vote. We are one of the major parties in a two horse race and we have a reasonable chance of winning. The number of votes received by the winning candidate at the last election was 20,000, so let’s make that our target. So what do we need to do to get 20,000 votes, and how much effort will it take?
Fortunately we have a 15,000 strong base of support – voters who usually vote for us. Unfortunately our opponent has the same, leaving 12,000 votes up for grabs. How will we ensure we get 5,000 of these swing voters to vote for us?
1. Get our message out – 600 votes for 1,200 hours of effort
Leaflets are the staple diet of election campaigns. The taxpayer pays for one leaflet to be delivered to every home in the constituency in a general election campaign. The rest have to be done by us.
We decide to deliver 3 leaflets in addition to the free one – one to introduce our candidate, one to set out our party’s policies, and one focussed on our local issues. The impact is likely to be small – how many of those leaflets did you read? If our beautifully crafted fliers sway as much as 5% of the 12,000 swing voters, that’s 600 votes.
To secure those votes, we need to deliver the leaflets to the 40,000 houses in our constituency. Delivering at a rate of 100 houses per hour requires 1,200 hours of effort. Phew! We could pay for the delivery, of course, though we might not want to use our meagre £11,000 election spend if we have willing volunteers ready to support the cause.
2. Get out and about – 1,800 votes for 120 hours of effort
Leaflets are good, but face to face contact is better (assuming your microphone is off). Every campaign will see candidates wading through town centres, often with a famous party member or celebrity to bring in the extra crowds. Getting this right could influence another 15% of the swing – 1,800 votes
Street stalls in town centres are accessible and engage more voters (and other passers-by). Our eight-person street stall for two hours on the four Saturdays of the campaign – 64 hours of effort.
Hustings can also be very good – the people who attend are very likely to vote and could well be undecided. You need to prepare well, but if you do your research this can be a great opportunity to show your local knowledge. Four hustings over the campaign, two hours each plus eight hours prep – 16 hours of effort.
Visiting schools and work-places at closing time, accompanied by your posse, can also be effective in meeting the voters. Assume we do 10 of these, with 4 people at each – 40 hours of effort.
3. Canvass – 3,000 votes for 2,100 hours of effort
The best known method of gaining support is on the doorstep. It’s only when you knock on someone’s door, away from shopping and work, that you really get to hear what they have to say. And of course you also have the chance to get your message across. The personal touch could net you 25% of the swing voters – that’s 3,000 votes.
Canvassing comes in two forms – door-to-door or by telephone. Door-to-door is long work for confident people. With an electronic copy of the electoral role and an organised team of four people (probably with their route optimised by some OR software), 100 houses an hour is achievable. That’s 1,600 hours to canvass the constituency, and a fair few teams to cope with the restricted canvassing hours. (We can drop a leaflet during the day or late at night, but we can’t knock on the door and expect to get an answer.)
One way to cover the potentially 50% of people who aren’t in when you call is to phone them up. Telephone lists matched to the electoral role are available and this is much more efficient canvassing, albeit potentially less effective. One person can call 40 people in an hour, so that’s 500 hours of effort to reduce the 50% of no-answers.
4. Get the voters to vote – ? votes for 780 hours of effort
Canvassing may seem to be terribly inefficient, but it has one major advantage – we know where our voters live. We have identified the 15,000 voters who said would always vote for us, and we have convinced another 5,400 to support us as well. That gives us 20,400 – a slim winning margin, though only if they actually vote. Just because someone says they will vote for us doesn’t mean that they actually will. Whether it’s bad weather or something on TV, its amazing how many excuses people can find for not completing their civic duty. What we need to do is to go around and remind them.
Fortunately we have a list of people who said they would vote for us – and it’s time to use it. Everyone has a polling number allocated to them. Workers stationed at every polling station can obtain these numbers and mark them down. Other workers at our campaign offices can then cross off the people who said they would vote for us and already have, leaving us to target those recalcitrant voters who are refusing to come out. Tsk. Teams of workers will be ready to knock on their door and politely request that they stop watching Graham Norton and go out and vote.
This can mean a lot of effort. 25 polling stations need to be manned from 7am to around 9pm. Three committee rooms need manning and you also need a team of four ‘knockers’ for each ward – working from 10am-10pm. This adds another 780 hours of effort.
Did we win? – 20,400 votes for 4,200 hours of effort and …
Our static model above gave us a basis for understanding the planning and effort required to win our seat. Yet even with all that effort, we haven’t swayed half the swing vote. On election night we can only hope that our opponent didn’t use a dynamic or game-based approach to run their campaign, or our dreams of four more years of expense-laden power will be over.