Advice to a first time candidate

March 2, 2015

Having been in and around campaigns for more than 12 years, I often get the opportunity to talk to candidates who are ready to test the waters and put their name on the ballot for the first time. It’s an exciting time in their lives, and I love getting to be a part of it. Here’s the advice I would give to any new candidate:

This is a big, big step in your life. Whether you are 20 or 80, running for office will define you for the rest of your life. If you win, it will open new doors and opportunities to make an impact. If you don’t, it will leave a deep scar. You should know that going in.

Why do you want to run? Is it a commitment to help make your community better? Frustration with the incumbent? The lack of outcomes from the current city council, commission, or Congress? You should know — honestly, in your heart — why you are running. You’ll need that determination down the road.

Is your spouse on board? If not, stop there. Do not pass go. Even if your spouse works and is unable to put 100% of their time behind your run for office, you do need 100% of their support.

Who can help? If you’re running for local office, you won’t be able to afford full-time staff, so it will come down to family and friends. Can your kids help? Friends?

You’ll need a basic organization, even if it’s all volunteers:

  • Campaign manager
  • Field organizer(s)
  • Finance director, or campaign chairman
  • Treasurer, if required by law

A local campaign is mostly about knocking on doors. Meeting people. The more people who can help knock on doors, the better you are able to touch the voters in your district.

Getting Started

Have you taken care of the basics? Have you filed for office yet? Do you know the requirements? Have you opened a separate bank account for the campaign (no mixing campaign and personal funds)? Before you get close to announcing, be sure you know the legal process for filing as a candidate and what other steps you should take. Generally, the pre-announcement activities include:

  1. Pick a name for your committee.
    Generally, it’s {your name} for {the office you’re seeking}. Some people go with “Friends of Joe Smith” or something like that. That’s fine, but keep it simple. Also make sure it’s available as a domain name and on social media.
  2. Purchase a domain name through GoDaddy or another registrar.
    Don’t buy your domain name through a web host. It will make it almost impossible to move your domain if you want to point it elsewhere later.
  3. Signup for Twitter.
    A note about Twitter: If at all possible, signup for Twitter using your name, not the office. You may run and not win, but run for another office in a couple of years. If so, you want to be able to re-use your account. Or, you may run and win, and then run for higher office in a few years. Again, you don’t want to start from scratch when you run for Congress because your Twitter handle is @commissionerjane or @JoeSmithSD23.
  4. File paperwork & open a checking account
    This process differs from place to place, but typically you’ll have to go in steps: 1) file to create a legal entity with the state (a campaign committee is a legal business entity in most states), 2) setup a checking account for that entity, 3) file the paperwork to run for office, typically a form called “Intent to run for office.”
  5. Build a list of supporters.
    Create a list of your personal contacts who could be likely supporters. Cast the net wide, you never know, but avoid adding coworkers. Your non-political colleagues may not care for your political exploits. But if they ask “how can I help?” by all means put them on the list.
  6. Write a biography
    People hate doing this, but when you run for office, you’re going to be talking about yourself. So you might as well get your story right. 200 – 400 words. Short, three paragraphs. Who you are, your record of accomplishments, and why you are running. This will be the basis of your website, your palm card, and your stump speech.
  7. Get a professional photo.
    Preferably outdoors. Business casual, or a suit if you actually are comfortable in a suit. Get some pictures with your immediate family, and some by yourself.
  8. Write a stump speech.
    Why are you running? What’s your vision? How are you different from your opponent? Why do you deserve someone’s time, money and vote? Most of your speeches as a local candidate will be one to three minutes, so keep this stump speech short. If you have the chance to speak longer, you can always fill in extra details, but the basic speech should be really tight.

Do you know the campaign finance laws for this election? Federal, state and local office all have different legal requirements for how much money an individual can give and when you have to report how much money you’ve raised. For instance, in some jurisdictions, a candidate can accept contributions from an LLC. In others they can’t. Some states allow unlimited contributions, others have very tight limits. Knowing the rules around finance will prevent a potentially ugly and costly situation down the road.

Do you know the district? How many voters are in it? How many voted in the last election for your seat? How many votes did the winner receive? Having that data in hand will change your world when it comes to using your time most efficiently. Tools like Voter Gravity give you access to the voter file so you can not only look at raw numbers but also see specific households who voted in the last election for your seat. Those are your priority houses to knock on doors.

What will your opponent say about you? Think about how your opponent will talk about you to voters. Will they say you don’t care about the little guy? Will they say you’re out of touch? Not prepared? Too young? Too old? Too rich? Too inexperienced? Too extreme?

You and your opponent(s) are trying to create a contrast for the voters. You are each trying to stake out turf as the candidate who will best represent the needs of the voters. Think about how your opponent(s) will try to position you, so you can preempt their attacks and claim that position first.

Is there anything in your past that could be used against you? A failure to pay taxes? A nasty divorce? An arrest, even at a young age? No matter how secret your secret, be prepared that it could come up during the campaign. How would you handle it?

As a rule of thumb: If the allegation is true, admit it and apologize. Don’t deny it, that will only fuel the fire. If a negative story from your past surfaces during a campaign, your best bet at surviving the story is to tell the truth from the beginning and then move on. Your version of what happened will always be better than your opponent’s version, or the media’s version.

If you have something that you don’t want to be in the public eye and don’t feel like you could defend, you should strongly reconsider running for office.

What is your position on major issues? What are important issues within the district? Are there school issues, transportation issues, companies hiring or laying off? What’s in the newspaper? A large campaign would run a poll to get a quantitative analysis of which issues voters feel are important and what they think about those issues. You’re likely not running a large campaign, so use secondary sources. What’s in the newspaper or on the news at night? What are people talking about on Twitter in your area (tools like TrendsMap can help you search for local tweets).

Have friends over for coffee or dinner to talk about local issues. Try to invite people who aren’t your fellow conservative activists. Talk to people who aren’t active in politics and ask their opinion.

Do you have a budget? Are old campaign finance reports available? Do you know what the winning candidates have spent on a similar race in the past? You’ll need to know how much money it will take to win early on — because you will need to go raise that money.

Moving Ahead

If you have all of these pieces in place, you will be better prepared than 90% of the candidates in the race. You’ll be positioned to win.

Once you enter the race, it’s all about hard work. Go to every meeting you can where they’ll offer you the chance to speak. If there’s a big crowd, go just to network.

Knock on doors every evening after work and all weekend long. Don’t knock on doors before 9am or after 8pm.

Follow-up with people you’ve met. After you’ve knocked on a door or met someone at an event, write that person two thank you notes: One to mail immediately, saying it was nice to meet them and one to mail just before the election, reminding them that you spoke and asking for their vote.

Invite all of your friends to knock on doors with you. This is the number one thing people can do to help. Again, using a tool like Voter Gravity, you can easily create walklists and surveys, so your volunteers can pull out their phone or print a list and start knocking on targeted houses.

A Note About Consultants

When you announce you’re running for office, you’ll immediately hear from friends who want to wish you good luck and offer to help. You’ll also hear from dozens of vendors and political consultants who want to help spend the money you’ll be raising. Here’s my take on the role of consultants in local races:

To run for local office, even state legislature, you need to meet a lot of people, earn their vote, and make sure they turnout to vote. It is good, old-fashioned retail politics.

With such a straightforward objective, a local campaign almost never needs a general consultant. Any good consultant will be working with much bigger races and, even though they charge a premium, won’t have much time to put into your race.

If you do feel that you need the advice and counsel of a seasoned political operative, a great resource to turn to is a political direct mail or digital firm. Typically these firms have staff on board who are seasoned political operatives and are providing services that your campaign will need. A lot of times, these firms will offer consulting for free since you are buying services from them already.

Whoever you hire for your campaign team, check their references! Just because you read their name in the newspaper does not mean they are a great consultant or a great fit for your campaign. Know who you’re signing up. Down the stretch when the race is tight, you’ll need to know you can trust their advice because they will probably offer advice that is counter-intuitive.

In the end, if you know your objectives, you know your district and you are willing to put in the hard work to earn votes, you will be successful.

I wish you well, and look forward to hearing good news on election night!

One last thing:


Five Ways to Get Trained in Conservative Politics

Five Ways to Get Trained in Conservative Politics

Maybe you’ve wanted to get involved in politics for years. Maybe you just saw something outrageous on Instagram and finally want to do something about it. RootsHQ is here to help you find the best way to take those first steps to turning your passion into action.

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