Inside A Modern Campaign Ground Game – Jon Seaton (Camelback Strategy Group)

Eric Wilson
April 3, 2024
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Inside A Modern Campaign Ground Game – Jon Seaton (Camelback Strategy Group)
April 3, 2024

Inside A Modern Campaign Ground Game – Jon Seaton (Camelback Strategy Group)

"Oftentimes our canvassers are as close to a candidate as any voter will ever get."

Today, we’re talking with Jon Seaton, Managing Partner of Camelback Strategy Group, a full-service political consulting and public affairs firm. Jon was Associate Director of Political Affairs for President George W. Bush and served as Regional Campaign Manager for Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign. Jon and I dig into the changing nature of the campaign ground game, how data and technology have transformed door knocking, and the rise of paid canvassing.


  • Technology has revolutionized the campaign ground game, allowing for more effective measurement and targeting of door knocking operations.
  • Building a modern, effective ground game involves identifying persuadable voters, creating scripts that resonate with them, and maintaining ongoing contact to reinforce messaging.
  • Canvassing remains a highly effective and personal way to communicate with voters, providing an opportunity for face-to-face conversations and influencing voter decisions.
  • Paid canvassing has become increasingly popular as it allows campaigns to recruit well-trained canvassers and ensure consistent standards and productivity.
  • The risks of paid canvassing include potential negative interactions captured on doorbell cameras and the need for careful training and management to maintain a positive campaign image.
  • The future of campaign ground games involves further advancements in targeting, personalized messaging, and coordination across multiple communication channels.

Episode Transcript

Eric Wilson (00:01.766)

I'm Eric Wilson, Managing Partner of Startup Caucus, the home of campaign tech innovation on the right. Welcome to the Business of Politics show. On this podcast, you're joining in on a conversation with entrepreneurs, operatives, and experts who make professional politics happen. Today, we're talking with John Seton, Managing Partner of Camelback Strategy Group, a full service public, a full service political consulting and public affairs firm.

John was associate director of political affairs for President George W. Bush and served as regional campaign manager for Senator John McCain's presidential campaign. John and I dig into the changing nature of the campaign ground game, how data and technology have transformed door knocking and the rise of paid canvassing. John, you've been running the ground game for campaigns for more than 20 years now. Surely you've seen a lot of change. What has changed over that time span?

Jon Seaton (00:59.759)

You know, I think the biggest thing that's changed is the kind of genius of just like you can measure how many gross rating points are being put on TV, how many pieces of direct mail are going out, how much money you've raised. Now you can also not just measure but really kind of judge and test the effectiveness.

of a door knocking operation. You know, 20, 25 years ago it was a volunteer would show up at the campaign office, grab a stack of literature. If we were lucky, we would have a list of registered voters in their precinct and off they'd go. We may never see them again or if we did, it was to maybe pick up another yard sign or something along those lines. Now, everything is really systematized to the point that we can know who we're talking to, with what message, what their response was and all of that can get sent back to the campaign and analyzed.

Eric Wilson (01:52.138)

So the fundamentals still haven't changed. It's just our ability to measure it and target it and things like that, right?

Jon Seaton (01:59.246)

Well, I think at the end of the day, the most effective way to communicate with the voter is person to person with someone they know and hopefully know and trust. And to deliver that message in person, it's far more effective than a 30-second television ad, although those are effective. It's more effective than just about any other piece of voter contact. So yeah, I think the fundamentals are still the same, having a conversation with the voter at their home, trying to convince them to come to your side. But yeah, the...

Technology has changed dramatically. Our ability to target and get actionable results is ever-changing and it's certainly something that's changed over the last 20 years.

Eric Wilson (02:39.842)

And there's certainly no disputing how effective canvassing and door to door conversations are. I mean, the academic literature on this is pretty clear that is the most effective toolbox in our campaign arsenal. So what goes into building a modern, effective ground game for a campaign? You touched on a few of those things, but map it all out for us.

Jon Seaton (03:05.955)

I'm sorry, ask the question one more time, I lost you.

Eric Wilson (03:08.722)

Yeah, so what goes into building a modern, effective ground game for a campaign? Give us a little roadmap of how you would set that up today.

Jon Seaton (03:17.25)

Well, absolutely. You want to, first of all, identify those voters who are the most persuadable, the voters who are most likely to turn out and vote, or if it's later in the campaign, we might be talking to voters who are maybe a little less likely to vote, but we want to make sure that with that extra door knock, that extra conversation with the canvasser, they do actually mail in their ballots or vote on election day. And then we want to build scripts and a roadmap.

so that our canvassers are speaking to voters about issues that really do matter to them, really are most likely to move them from an undecided or lean one way strongly into our camp. And then of course we wanna continue to be in contact with that voter if we can visit them more than one time, continue the conversation, make sure that if maybe they were leaning the first time, we can get them over the edge the second time, and then finally that last push that get out the vote opportunity.

to have the last conversation. Hey, make sure that ballot gets from your kitchen table into your mailbox or make sure on election day you do show up and cast a ballot for our candidate.

Eric Wilson (04:25.01)

Yeah, it is interesting how with the rise in early voting, vote by mail, door knocking and canvassing has become more of a, almost like a poll worker, um, type job, if you think about it, because you're, you're the polling place for that voter is their kitchen table. If they've got the ballot.

Jon Seaton (04:46.058)

Yes, exactly. And again, it's something that they can do right at that moment. We don't participate in ballot harvesting per se, but we are very aggressive in saying, hey, you've received your ballot. Records indicate you haven't yet voted. It's probably, again, sitting right there at your table. Would love for you to commit today to fill in that ballot, vote for our candidate, and pop it in the mail so we know that the vote will come in.

well before election day. The added incentive of course is we'll stop calling you, we'll stop knocking on your door, we'll stop sending you mail because you've already voted and your vote's in the bank.

Eric Wilson (05:14.655)


Eric Wilson (05:20.238)

I think that the first campaign that can make that promise really clear is probably going to win in a landslide. We'll stop bothering you as soon as you vote.

Jon Seaton (05:30.794)

It's very motivating.

Eric Wilson (05:33.138)

So John, how has technology changed the door knocking experience? You mentioned, you know, when you were started out, there might not be any data. And of course that data was paper. Where are we today?

Jon Seaton (05:46.894)

So there are a number of very effective apps and we always encourage, not encourage, but really require our team to be conversant and well-trained on any app that the campaign wants to use. But those apps are able to kind of ingest the voter file. We can create a target walk list within that app. Every voter's walkbook is no longer a thick sheaf of papers where they're filling things out by hand. Everyone's walkbook is literally right there on their phone.

and you can use it to map where you want to go next. It tells you which home to hit, which homes to avoid. And then again, in real time, they can enter in the result of each individual interaction with the voter and that can get right back to the campaign so the campaign can make decisions again far more quickly than waiting until their next, you know, survey or poll.

Eric Wilson (06:37.87)

And I think people don't appreciate just how many leaps have been achieved with the rise of, or the ubiquity of the smartphone. So you go back to 2007, the first iPhone comes out. Before that, we were walking around with sheaves of paper, as you say, and we were filling in bubbles. And, you know, those bubbles would...

Jon Seaton (06:56.727)


Eric Wilson (07:02.17)

you might have a Scantron or some other way of coding those back into your database. Now that loop is closed, you also had, you know, I remember having to print off maps for myself before I had an iPhone and now that's just sort of taken for granted. I think one of the other underappreciated values about this is that you...

you know that it's getting done, right? So just because a walkbook got assigned in the old days didn't mean that actually happened.

Jon Seaton (07:38.084)

I'll never forget is the something stuck with me and I will not of course say which campaign it was. I was in late October of an election year and I walked into a campaign office and just

Jon Seaton (07:51.854)

quite had the opportunity to run through the Scantron machine yet and you're just thinking, my goodness. I mean, there's some benefit for the canvasser to have had a conversation with the voter, that's great, but all of this data is just sitting stacked up in a campaign office that will never actually get to be used and make our targeting more effective or give us an idea of what issues we need to be dealing with more at the door because it just, there wasn't the manpower, the bandwidth to actually get.

all of that information ingested back into the campaign. So it really is just a revolutionary difference in terms of what we're able to do now with the technology that's available to us.

Eric Wilson (08:31.11)

So John, I also have this other, this other question come up. Sometimes when I'm talking with people, they're saying, you know, why in 2024, we've got all this digital marketing. We've got this data. We've got technology. Why are campaigns still spending so much time and money on door knocking?

Jon Seaton (08:51.086)

Well, I think, again, it is an incredibly effective and personal way to speak to a voter. There's a lot of TV ads up, a lot of that noise can almost kind of be overwhelming, especially as you get closer and closer to the election and every single ad you see on television is supporting or opposing a certain candidate. There are mailboxes full of direct mail by the end, and again, I think that can be very, very effective. But...

There's nothing quite as personal as someone showing up at your door, again, who is well-trained so they know the issues that are important to that voter. They're a great ambassador to the campaign. They're speaking on behalf of the candidate, and they're able to deliver a strong message in support of that candidate. It stuck with me for years and years that the vast, vast majority of voters never ever actually meet a candidate. You might see them on television. You might...

you know, see them walking in a parade. But we, oftentimes, our canvassers are as close to a candidate as any voter will ever get. And so that interaction is incredibly important and it can be incredibly influential when voters are making up their minds.

Eric Wilson (10:05.514)

You're listening to the Business of Politics show. I'm speaking with John Seton from Camelback Strategy Group about the role of canvassing in political campaigns. Now, we've seen in recent cycles an increase in firms like yours that are offering what we call paid canvassing. Talk to us about that business model, how it came about.

Jon Seaton (10:28.066)

Well, for us, it started in 2015, 2016 in Arizona. We were supporting Senator McCain's re-elect, and we were made aware of just dozens and dozens of young people who supported the senator and wanted to do something to get involved and wanted to make a little bit of money on as well. And so we put them to work. And again, we didn't, at the time, have a great app. It hadn't been developed nearly as well as it would be in future cycles, but we sent them out.

thousands and thousands of doors for the senator. We saw a real difference in the precincts where they knocked versus the precincts where we weren't able to get anybody. And we saw that it really did make a difference. And so that was kind of the aha moment in our business model. Hey, we can get to voters. We can have great ambassadors for at the time, Senator McCain or whichever candidate we're supporting and really help push voters to support.

our candidate and also again, remember to vote on election day. And since then, we've had proof of concept, we've kept that same training mechanism, that same recruitment where we try to find passionate and intelligent, oftentimes young people, but not always young people, who are interested in politics, want to help make a difference in their community and have those individual conversations with voters. And again, we've seen that it's gone from something that campaigns.

So it's kind of a luxury, yeah, we'll do it if we can. To now more and more, it really is becoming a part of a campaign's budget as they're making spending decisions throughout the summer and fall.

Eric Wilson (12:03.418)

Yeah, it is interesting and you hit on a few key words that I think a lot of people overlook when they think about paid canvassing. It's got to be well-trained. You've got to be an ambassador. It's not just getting a warm body and having them enter data in an app, right? There's got to be more to it than that. Otherwise it may even backfire.

Jon Seaton (12:28.91)

That's right. And

Eric Wilson (12:41.247)


Jon Seaton (12:55.394)

they do go through a rigorous training to the point that they have to actually do a shift with a manager and kind of get signed off that, okay, they're actually ready to go out on their own. And so, yeah, we take it seriously. We also put a heavy emphasis and premium on referrals. So if there's someone from a young Republicans group or a faith organization or a community group, oftentimes their friends will have similar interests.

similar passions and so we can get a lot of great new canvassers through that referral program and it's worked out very well for us.

Eric Wilson (13:31.398)

So here's kind of the big question. Why do campaigns turn to paid canvassing when they could recruit volunteers for free?

Jon Seaton (13:39.542)

Well, it's very, very difficult to recruit volunteers, especially in this day and age when it's gotten more known that there are paid opportunities out there. This just wasn't a thing 20 years ago. There wasn't an opportunity to get paid on behalf of a campaign. And volunteers are great and they still remain the lifeblood of campaigns, but it's much more difficult to hold them to a specific standard. It's much more difficult to say, you have to knock on this many doors. We need you out there from this time to this time.

Eric Wilson (14:06.953)


Jon Seaton (14:07.062)

Whereas if you're paying somebody, you can say, yeah, you got to show up to the group meet at 4 o'clock and you're going to be on the door till 8. And as an added bonus, we can kind of track their progress to make sure that someone who says they're voting or they're working, talking to voters for four hours really was. So I don't see it as an either or thing. You should certainly recruit volunteers if people are passionate about a candidate and want to help out. Absolutely put them to work as a volunteer. But having that paid component really can make a difference to make sure that you're hitting as many doors as possible.

Eric Wilson (14:37.198)

Yeah, I think that that's the key here, John, that a lot of people overlook is it's a both and strategy, right? This is not, oh, I don't have to worry about volunteers anymore. You absolutely do need volunteers. Right.

Jon Seaton (14:43.935)


Jon Seaton (14:48.762)

No, not at all. You should never ever turn out someone who wants to come work for free. Absolutely, and these are the folks who are absolutely probably the most passionate about a candidate. They're willing to give them their time and their energy to go out and support somebody to walk their precinct, etc. So absolutely, they should be incorporated into the field program. Just understand that their production may not be quite as robust as someone who you're paying to be out there.

Eric Wilson (15:13.131)


Yeah, and I think there's the, you know, you have the sort of historical perspective to look back on this, but you know, there, we have, we are in fully in the gig economy era, where you could monetize yourself down to the minute by doing DoorDash or other things like that. So that's kind of the landscape that campaigns are competing in for this kind of talent. And then also,

Making sure that we have that accurate data, that we are going to the people that we say we're going to is more important than ever because, as everyone knows, TV is getting viewed less and less. It's getting harder and harder to reach voters. So those interactions that we do get at the door are becoming more and more critical. I think the investment in that certainly...

Eric Wilson (16:11.99)

speaks to that. What are the, you know, so say we've got someone listening who has never tried doing a paid canvassing effort before, John, what are the biggest risks to a campaign when they're starting out, they're relying on paid canvassing efforts?

Jon Seaton (16:29.791)

Well, sure. And I think for us, it starts with our training and our recruitment and our, frankly, our background. So you never want to...

Someone who's out there working on behalf of a candidate, a cause, or a campaign to have a criminal record. That is a really, really bad story for a campaign and it's completely and totally avoidable. Knock wood has not been something that we've had to deal with, but you hear these stories and look... Exactly. Never a good thing. And we have had, unfortunately, very few but one situation that comes to mind with a ring doorbell. You know, all of these interactions are now on tape, or not all of them, but many of them are.

Eric Wilson (16:47.412)

Ha ha.

Eric Wilson (16:52.874)

they're like recruiting their community notice at the same time as they're knocking on doors, yeah.

Jon Seaton (17:09.818)

And if a canvasser either acts disrespectfully, if a canvasser drops a bunch of literature at someone's door and just leaves it there, if someone is in any way, shape, or form not professional, it used to be maybe a candidate would get an angry call from a voter saying, hey, your representative came and wasn't very nice to me. Now it's on tape, and now it's on Twitter or X, and it's on Facebook, and people are aware of it, and it becomes a very, very...

potentially embarrassing situation. Best thing to do if you're in that situation is running a canvassing firm, is to immediately take care of that employee. That employee probably won't work for you anymore. Ensure the campaign that it was a very isolated incident, and then reiterate to the entire team, look, everything you do when you're at the door, you should assume you're being taped. You should assume that it's being, potentially could end up on social media.

And really urge everyone to take that very seriously because it's a very real risk that you take when you're sending people out, hundreds and hundreds of people out to knock on tens or hundreds of thousands of doors all across the congressional district or state. Yeah.

Eric Wilson (18:18.278)

Yeah, it only it only takes one. And I think that yes, that doorbell camera is a is a risk. I think it's a huge benefit. We've seen some examples in the past where it's a really positive interaction, and I'm thinking about, I guess, 2020. Pete Buttigieg volunteer is canvassing, or maybe they're a paid staffer canvassing in Iowa, and a kid comes to the door, and it's like, what are you doing? Don't open the door to strangers.

Jon Seaton (18:47.359)


Eric Wilson (18:48.258)

And the parent is watching on the camera and said, no, it's okay, it's okay. And then they posted it and shared that. And it adds some levity to that. You have interactions like that, but also it's an added impression in terms of advertising and messaging. I imagine it's very awkward, but you hit that ring doorbell, for example, you know that you've got 30 seconds on someone's mobile phone. So maybe record a message there saying,

Hey, I'm sorry I missed you. I'm out canvassing for so-and-so. Yeah, this technology always cuts both ways.

Jon Seaton (19:25.362)

It does, it does. And again, it can be a risk or a reward. If you have a very wholesome, as you mentioned, or a great interaction at the door, and that's something that can go viral, certainly it'll help the campaign. So again, what we emphasize to everyone who worked for us is that you're under the microscope, and your actions, again, are representative, not just of our firm, but much more importantly, the representative of the campaign and the candidate that we're working for. You are the...

closest that this voter is going to come to that candidate. And then again, you also have the opportunity to have a cameo on social media if you act a certain way. So again, just be very, very cognizant of that and make sure that you're representing yourself and the campaign in a way that would make you proud.

Eric Wilson (19:57.738)


Eric Wilson (20:11.946)

All right, John, before we wrap up, what do the next 20 years of campaign ground games look like?

Jon Seaton (20:17.994)

Yeah, it's a great question and I think that we're just going to continue to see maybe some really big modifications, but certainly the opportunity to target even more effectively, to have every single door get a script that really resonates with that individual voter. We've done some work where we can show a short video or play a short message from a campaign or a candidate. That can be a little bit clunky, so I can see some advances being made there. And then one thing that we've kind of beta tested and...

Eric Wilson (20:37.941)


Jon Seaton (20:47.238)

seen good results from is coordinating our texting, our phone calling, our direct mail and our canvassing all into kind of one under one umbrella. So we know that the same precinct that's getting a text message, being served digital advertising is also being visited by one of our canvassers in a certain week. When we've done it, and it is very labor intensive and not all campaigns have the capability to do it, but you really saw a difference in both click rate on the digital as well as

interaction rate, response rate at the door. So I think that that's something that we're not quite there yet, but I think that it's a real opportunity and it will make all aspects of the campaign not much more effective.

Eric Wilson (21:27.806)

Well, I love to hear it coordination and data integration. Thanks to John Seton for a great conversation. You can learn more about him and his work at Camelback at the link in our show notes. If this episode made you a little bit smarter or gave you something to think about, maybe you're considering building out a paid canvassing effort for your campaign. All we ask is that you share it with a friend or colleague. You look smarter in the process. More people learn about the show. It's a win-win all around.

Remember to subscribe to the Business of Politics show wherever you listen to podcasts so you never miss an episode. You can also sign up for email updates and see previous episodes at busi With that, thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.

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Eric Wilson
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