6 Essentials of NationBuilder - 1) Setting Up Your Election


NationBuilder describes itself as “Software for Leaders.” Since its public release in 2010, it has become a dominant player in the political campaign and issue advocacy space. The primary reason NationBuilder has been so successful is that it provides an organization with virtually every tool needed to run a campaign. There are more than 30 pre-built page types. The platform allows you to take online donations, recruit volunteers, manage events, create walk and call lists, send blast emails and texts, manage your voter file, identify voters, organize your GOTV efforts and much more. It also enables your campaign to organize and utilize data using tags, filters, goals and paths.

Why is this so important? The one finite quantity in every campaign is time. And while not necessarily finite, another element that is too often in short supply is money. Why risk wasting either? You don’t want to waste time calling or door-knocking voters who aren’t going to vote for you or, even worse, who have already told you they will. Imagine the cost of sending of voter persuasion mailer to 10,000 voters you have already identified as yes votes. Yes, big-data and voter modeling is becoming increasingly accessible to down ballot races but it’s money wasted if you don’t do small-data and voter data management well.

NationBuilder is, in essence, a “campaign in a box”...and that’s very powerful because it means all of your data is located in one place. It can also be a problem because it’s a big box with a lot of stuff inside. In this series of articles, we will try to unpack that box. We’ll explain what we believe are the essential capabilities of NationBuilder and demonstrate how you can use them to give you an advantage over your opponent.

Let’s get started.

While the first two tasks aren’t NationBuilder, they inform everything a campaign is going to do between now and Election Day. You have to determine your “Votes-To-Win” (VTW) number which will give you a good estimate on your “Dollars-To-Win.” I will address Dollars to Win first as it is really just a multiple of Votes to Win. You should figure you’re going to need between $10 and $15 per vote. Have candidates won with less? Sure, but while I enjoy working with “grassroots” campaigns, I much prefer working with grassroots campaigns that also have adequate funding. (Note: A campaign budget is based on what you need to spend, not on what you think you can raise.)  

To get your VTW, you are going have to look at past election results. While there are too many variables to analyze here, three important things to consider are:

1. The number of candidates (particularly in primaries)
2. The participation of an incumbent (currently or in comparable past elections) and
3. The presence of elections or ballot initiatives that might affect turnout.

As a note on whether or not there is an incumbent in the race, years ago I was the Comms Director in a mayoral race in a small city. I was chatting with the two front runners before a debate and mentioned that I thought it would take 4,000 votes to make the general election. They thought I was crazy saying that there hadn’t been more than 5,200 votes cast in the last five primaries. I pointed out those races all involved a sitting incumbent. On primary night, they both moved on to the general, one with 4,300 votes and the other with 4,022.

I won’t go deep in the weeds about How to set up your election in NationBuilder as there is very good documentation over at NationBuilder.com/Support. It is very important that you go to Dashboard>Settings>Enable Voters to unlock all the capabilities built into NationBuilder for political campaigns.

The next thing you want to do is have NationBuilder import your voter file into your Nation. The import and information is free but it will increase the cost of your Nation under NationBuilder’s pay as you grow pricing. I will get further into How to use Filters and Filters vs Lists vs Tags in the 3rd article of this series but you will want to use filters to identify your high-propensity/likely voters and then export and delete the rest. That way you’re not paying for database records of voters you are not targeting. Every race is different and state election laws differ as well so how you choose your voter universe will too. As an example, if you are running in a party primary in a state where voting is restricted to party members and undeclared voters, you probably don’t need voters who are outside that universe.

Now that you have narrowed your voters universe, I recommend you enhance that data with commercial and demographic data that syncs with your voter file. This is important because it helps you better identify your likely voters and more precisely target your efforts, especially if you have a large percentage of unenrolled voters. Also, as your campaign successfully identifies both supporters and non-supporters, you are going to create clear pictures or profiles of those groups allowing you to focus relatively more resources on prospective voters who look like your known supporters.

So you have your Votes to Win and Dollars to Win numbers. You also have your pool of targeted voters. In the next article, I will discuss using Point Persons, Permission Sets, Goals and Paths to organize not only to create workflows for your campaign but also to identify the voters you need to win your election.


FourTier Strategies is a national, political digital agency. Brad Marston, is Co-Founder and Partner and is a NationBuilder Certified Expert and Achitect. 

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