If you’ve never volunteered for a political campaign before, then you probably won’t win your first race for local office . . . plain and simple. There are many benefits to “paying your dues” by volunteering before you become a candidate, but the most important are experience and networking.
By helping other candidates in their efforts, you’ll learn important lessons to apply in your own race someday. You’ll find out what tactics are effective, what tactics aren’t, and discover the essential elements of a winning campaign.
Even more importantly, you’ll make close political acquaintances who will be there to assist and advise you when it’s your turn to run for office. And beyond politics, many of the people who you volunteer with on political campaigns will become trusted, lifelong friends.
I’ve worked on dozens of political campaigns: local, statewide and even presidential races. In almost every campaign, there was one thing that inevitably wasted more time and energy than anything else: yard signs.
The myth that yard signs win elections is often perpetuated by the tactics of incumbent candidates who win in spite of, not because of, all the yard signs their volunteers put out. First-time candidates see the many signs that are erected by well-known incumbents, and they understandably think it’s the keystone of a successful campaign. In reality, though, the number of yard signs you have out doesn’t predict your chances of winning.
Every campaign needs to have some yard signs, if only for the fact that the absence of them can create a bad perception among supporters. Just remember: yard signs don’t vote. Don’t devote too much time and money to them at the expense of other important aspects of your campaign, like door-to-door efforts and direct mail.
It’s difficult to win your first local election if you don’t self-finance — or use your own money — to some degree. For some candidates, that means spending twenty bucks on postcard stamps; for others, it means investing a few thousand dollars from savings.
It’s up to you how much of your own money gets spent on your campaign; I’m not here to be your financial advisor. Lord knows I’ve spent lots of my own personal funds on campaigns over the years. I will give you one piece of important advice, though: don’t go into debt to finance your campaign. If the money isn’t already in your bank account, don’t use it.
Negative campaigning works well in large campaigns, because candidates in these races are often widely unknown by the people whose votes they are asking for. In a local race, though, candidates are often already well known by many people in the community. In some cases, they’ve spent years among the voters; graduating from the local school, working professionally with the residents, shopping at the same grocery stores and attending the same local events.
If you must go negative in your campaign, then make it “comparative.” Concentrate on comparing relevant records and policy positions. Is your opponent an office holder who has a record of official actions as an elected official? Then explain to the voters why certain official actions he took weren’t good for his constituents. Do you and your opponent differ on policy? Then compare your plans with the plans your opponent has advocated, and explain why yours are better for constituents. Do you have more applicable experience than your opponent? Then outline how your experiences make you a better for the job.
Remember: the more you write, the less they’ll read. Just as with personal introductions, first impressions in campaign literature are important. When a voter is presented with a mailer stuffed with paragraph after paragraph of rambling text, they’re likely to just give up on it before they’ve even read a word. The opposite happens, though, when they see a mailer that consists of a few easily-understood bullet points, brief exposition, and compelling images.
There’s nothing wrong with procuring a handful of shirts with your campaign logo on them, but buying any more than a few is serious mismanagement of your funds. If your most important campaign strategy consists of having people wear your t-shirts at parades and festivals, then you’ll end up with two things: a loss on election day, and a bunch of lousy leftover shirts.
It’s a fact that your political career will likely be much more successful and lengthy if you take a more analytical approach to what races you enter. Starting with smaller, easier-to-win political campaigns and gradually moving up to larger offices is a great way to advance your political career and have more opportunities to affect positive results for people in your district.
Starting off with the lowest, easiest elected office is a decision that many successful politicians made early in their careers. Most people who are new to political campaigns are better off starting with a less ambitious local run. School board, city council and other local races are all perfectly winnable for new candidates if you run your campaign intelligently.
And there’s another important reason why an aspiring politician might want to think about getting elected to local office first: learning how government works from the ground up simply makes you a better and more effective elected official.
When you run for office is just as important as how you run for office.
Here’s the problem: not everyone who wants to run for local office is willing to wait years to kick off a political campaign, and many eager candidates jump into a race without doing any research at all about historic election cycles. Most of these shoot-from-the-hip local candidates go on to lose their political campaign on Election Day, and are too demoralized to ever run again.
With a little bit of research, you should be able to quickly identify which election cycle will be the best year for you to run. You usually won’t have to wait much more than a year or two in order to put your name on the ballot and make your eventual Election Day victory more likely.
If you’re a first-time candidate and you don’t start campaigning until a two or three months before the election, then you’ve probably already lost the race.
My advice to new candidates who are unknown in their community is to start campaigning a year in advance of Election Day. That sounds extreme to most political newcomers, because they’re used to seeing lazy local candidates who don’t start campaigning until the month before their election. And in truth, this works for many candidates . . . especially if their opponents are equally lazy.
As a first-time candidate, though, starting to campaign a year before your competition is the best way to blow them out of the water and overcome the odds.
When your opponents are still thinking about whether or not they’re going to run, you should already have knocked on hundreds of doors in your district.
When they start collecting signatures, you should already have announced your candidacy, sent out press releases, and had your first meet-and-greet event.
And when they start telling people that they’re going to be on the ballot, you should already have contacted every likely voter. Twice.
Does this mean that you can’t win unless you start campaigning a year in advance? No, of course not. It’s just good solid advice.
These two are tied as far as importance, in my opinion.
There’s a reason why established politicians have the ability to raise such a large amount of money for their campaign war chests: after years of holding office and shaking hands, they’ve amassed a giant list of people and organizations they can count on to donate money for their next run. And unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, the candidate who raises the most money usually wins their race.
Your potential donor list should be one of the first things you compile when you decide to run for office. It’s an accounting of every person or organization you think might donate money to your campaign (whether you know them personally or not). Make a conscious effort to contact every person on your list for a donation over the course of your campaign, and don’t be shy to ask other experienced candidates for a copy of their donor list. People who donate to one political campaign are much more likely to donate to another, and the list can also give you an idea of how much money they might have the ability to donate.
The increasing importance of absentee votes means that political campaigns need to get their literature out to every voter who orders a ballot in the mail . . . this is called “chasing” early voters. Many political candidates don’t start buckling down and promoting themselves until the last month of the election, after early voting has already begun. Don’t make that mistake!