Polis Case Study:
Nadeem Mazen for Cambridge City Council 2015
Underdog scores upset using Polis to turn out the vote
When a campaign for City Council was struggling to walk the line between using traditional campaign tactics and leveraging new technology, Polis provided the ideal solution. Nadeem Mazen’s 2015 re-election strategy centered on executing an ambitious voter outreach operation. This proved to be a significant challenge for such a small campaign. With the help of Polis, the campaign was able to expand its outreach efforts and turn out 96% of Nadeem Mazen’s supporters on election day.
Mazen was an underdog for this campaign. In the prior election Mazen won by only 6 votes out of 17,846 cast. In the 2015 race Mazen faced the following problems:
- A crowded field of competitive first-time candidates that threatened to split Mazen’s block of support. Many of these candidates enjoyed better funding than Mazen did.
- All but one of the eight other incumbents joined in a unity slate, further increasing the chances that Mazen would be shut out of the election. The Unity Slate combined all aspects of their campaigns, including a coordinated voter list which would share their supporters’ votes in the Standard Transferable Vote System.
- Mazen’s support skewed younger than average. Cambridge has a high turnover of its younger population, causing many of Mazen’s 2013 supporters to no longer be in Cambridge.
Mazen’s campaign team decided to focus their resources on a door-knocking campaign to make face-to-face contact with both likely and unlikely voters to deliver the campaign’s message.
Cambridge Massachusetts has a population of 110,000 living in 7 square miles (200 million square feet). Mazen’s campaign recruited a large team of part-time canvassers and volunteers. Managing this team produced an overwhelming amount of work for the two person staff who were responsible for building walk lists, printing and distributing clipboards, training on scripts, entering data, and ensuring data quality.
“The office was regularly drowning in stacks of paper,” said Jason Potteiger, Mazen’s Campaign Manager. “We’d print several hundred pages a day, and entering the data once our canvassers returned each night was a nightmare—especially when the campaign really picked up and I’d be trying to focus on debate prep or coordinating our next event.”
Mazen’s team worked hard to improve the process, but the required work was more than the staff could handle.
“At a certain point we’d squeezed out every drop of efficiency we could manage, “said Shaun Kennedy, Deputy Campaign Manager. “The issue wasn’t our process, it was our tools.”
Improved Tools – The Polis App
Coming into the final weeks of the campaign, Mazen’s team decided to try Polis to manage a critical piece of their outreach strategy. Cambridge had 3,500 new voters – all of whom the campaign wanted to reach. The team decided to reach them using hangers designed specifically for new voters. The team considered and rejected direct mail for this, believing that the door hangers would have greater impact. However, the team’s experience with canvassing told them such a large outreach program in such a short amount of time was impossible using their current approach.
“Using traditional walk sheets to hand-deliver more than three thousand pieces of literature simply wasn’t going to work,” said Kennedy. “We felt very strongly that direct mail wasn’t the right answer, and so we needed an agile way to deploy our people across the city and track their progress. Luckily Polis was the ideal tool for this.”
Polis allowed Mazen’s team to easily load its list of 3,500 names and addresses onto the app. Polis then took over the arduous tasks of cutting turf and entering data. The app created walk routes on demand and updated which doors were being addressed in real time.
On using Polis for the first time, Potteiger observed, “One of our canvassers had recently hiked the Appalachian Trail, and in 5 minutes she downloaded the app, grabbed a huge stack of lit and headed out the door. She dropped lit for 5 hours straight! It was an incredible contrast to how we’d been operating up to that point.”
After just one day’s experience with Polis, the campaign immediately incorporated the app as a core element of its get-out-the-vote operation.
Election Day Strategy
On election day the campaign put Polis’ poll-checking functionality to work.
“We’d put an enormous effort into outreach and IDs. No other campaign had come close to knocking as many doors as we had. But we needed to double down on that investment if it was going to pay off,” noted Potteiger.
Mazen’s team designed an aggressive voter turnout operation, the centerpiece of which was placing poll checkers at all 34 precincts across the city.
On election day, Mazen’s poll checkers sat at the polls and listened for supporters to announce themselves as they come in to vote. As they did so, they recorded this information in Polis. This allowed the campaign to identify which supporters had yet to vote, coordinating who the campaign should contact in order to mobilize all their supporters. Using Polis, rather than traditional paper lists, allowed poll checkers to head directly to their polling locations in the morning, and it eliminated the need for the poll checkers to call in their information throughout the day. Both of these were big time savers for the headquarters staff.
“You only get 11 hours on election day. We placed a premium on anything that offered to give us more,” said Kennedy.
Election Day Last-Minute Pivot
Mazen’s team planned to use Polis on election day only for supporting their poll checking operation, but Polis delivered early, disconcerting data about the campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts. Amidst high turnout, supporters were not showing up at the polls as expected.
Shortly after lunchtime, Potteiger and Kennedy decided to shift all resources from tracking to a last-minute get-out-the-vote outreach. They recalled all of the team doing poll checking and sent them out to knock on doors. As the poll checkers arrived at Mazen’s headquarters they were quickly trained in how to use the Polis App for door knocking. Many of the poll checkers had had no prior door-knocking experience.
“We managed to pivot our entire organization in just over one hour,” recalled Kennedy. “We started sending people out the door. Our volunteer coordinator would literally run people up the stairs one at a time, spin them around and yell ‘go!’ It was incredible.”
Because Polis creates walk sheets on the fly and updates in real-time, the campaign easily moved staff from watching the polls to knocking on doors in just minutes. Mazen’s canvassers fanned out easily, without the need for planning walk routes or risking duplication of effort. Meanwhile, headquarters staff could monitor the canvassers’ progress live via Polis’ reporting functions.
From coming in ninth for 9 seats in 2013, Nadeem Mazen jumped to first place in 2015.
“While an incumbent winning re-election, or a strategy that focuses on voter outreach might not seem terribly innovative, an inside look at what we did and how we did it tells a different story,” Potteiger said. “We took some big risks by investing magnitudes more time into our door knocking than any other campaign and it really paid off.”