Calculating your win number
How many votes do you need to win?
A political candidate’s win number is simple: it’s the number of votes needed to win their race. If you’re a candidate, this is useful for giving you a realistic target for what your voter outreach needs to achieve. Let’s look at two ways to calculate your win number: the easy way and the better way.
Win Number: The Easy Way
Simply look up the total number of ballots cast in the previous cycle for the office you are now running for. Calculate 50% of that number and add 1. That’s it. That’s the number of votes you need to win. Put as a formula, it looks like this:
Easy way example: 2022 Florida gubernatorial race
Let’s go to the Florida Division of Elections results site: results.elections.myflorida.com
In the election results archive, we’ll use the dropdown menus to choose “2018 General Election” and “Governor and Cabinet.” That will give us the data we’re looking for.
Now we’ll add up all the votes for Governor, giving a total of 8,220,561 ballots cast in 2018. Half of that is 4,110,280.5, so we round up the final digit to get our easy win number of 4,110,281. Simply put, we need to get ~4.1 million votes to win the Florida governorship in 2022.
Of course, the easy way leaves us with a number of inaccuracies. For one, the winning candidate in 2018 actually earned fewer votes than our win number and still came out victorious — this is a marginal problem and not worth addressing here. A much bigger problem is changes in turnout over time. To fix that problem, let’s take a look at a better way to calculate your win number.
Win Number: The Better Way
Now let’s account for the likely turnout change. I’m writing this in 2020, so we’ll want to project the likely number of voters two years from now in 2022 when the actual election takes place. You can make that projection based on a few different data sources. For example, you can use past turnout numbers directly, you can use population numbers, or you can use the number of registered voters. Here we’ll use registered voters, which should be fairly straightforward to apply to the other datasets if you choose to go a different way. This time, our method can be described by this formula:
Better way example: 2022 Florida gubernatorial race
First, let’s plug in the data we already have from finding our easy win number. We know the number of ballots cast in 2018 was 8,220,561, so let’s put that into our formula, giving us:
Now we find the number of 2018 registered voters on the Division of Elections website. That gives us 13,396,622 registered voters in 2018.
While we’re there, we can copy the other registration data, because estimating the number of registered voters in 2022 will take a little bit of work. We can go ahead and plug our 2018 registered voters into the formula, giving us:
Now let’s find our number of registered voters in 2022. We can’t know this for sure, so we’re going to make a simple projection. We’ll plug the registered voter totals into a spreadsheet to whip up a chart with a trendline. I’m using the linear forecast in Excel, but the same basic process works in Google Sheets or Libre Calc.
This tells us we can expect about 14,774,000 registered voters in 2022. We can now plug this number into our formula:
If the linear trendline is a little too complicated for you, just take the two points in election years and calculate the percent increase. Then you can apply that to the next election year. For example, [2020 reg. voters] times 100, divided by [2018 reg. voters] = 105, meaning that registered voters increased 5%. Now we apply that 5% increase to the 2020 registered voters: [2020 reg. voters] times 105, divided by 100 =14,768,908 registered voters in 2022. As you can see, this method gives us a very similar estimate to the linear trendline method.
Our formula now has all the variables filled in. If we do the arithmetic, we end up with a win number of 4,532,881. This is a bit higher than our easy win number because we’ve accounted for the likely higher turnout of the next election.
If you’re reading this, you’re not running for Florida Governor in 2022. So you’re going to have to tweak this example to fit your race. Here are a few things to bear in mind:
- You may need to account for variable turnout between presidential cycles and midterm cycles when calculating your win number
- Double-check that the number you get is realistic. It shouldn’t be too far off from half the total ballots cast last cycle (probably a bit higher than that number).
- Don’t get too caught up in a precise win number. You don’t know for sure how many voters will turn out and you have limited influence on the final numbers. Focus on what you can control.
- Your win number is a calibration tool. It gives you a sense of the size your voter outreach program will need to be in order to create a realistic chance of victory.
- Keep a sense of your win number handy. Some organizations fixate on it as a sign of whether a candidate knows what they’re doing — be ready to pass that initial test when they ask.
- Trust your team. Their input means a lot more for the success of the campaign than a number you can calculate on your own before you even file for office.
Finally, I’ve created a spreadsheet you can use to calculate your win number simply by plugging in inputs. You can find that in the downloads below.
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