So you want to run for office? Good! Let’s talk about what you need to do.
I’ve worked on various campaigns over the years, including being a campaign manager for a state representative candidate running in Boston in 1986. A lot of this advice may be obvious, but hopefully there will be some bits in here useful.
TREAT RUNNING FOR OFFICE AS A JOB
This has to become your full time hobby. Unless you’re extremely lucky and don’t have any real opposition, you’re going to have to work. If you are not willing to do the work needed, don’t be disappointed when you lose. And there’s nothing worse than saying “If I had only worked a little harder, I might have won.”
One of the first things you need to do is get the voter lists. Hopefully your local political party is organized enough to have a good one and hopefully they will be willing to give it to you; if not, you’ll have to contact the county and get theirs. (The party may refuse to give you one until you have been endorsed by them.)
Voter lists are extremely important because they allow you to concentrate your efforts on the people who actually vote. You don’t want to go knocking on doors or sending flyers to people who aren’t even registered or, if registered, only vote during Presidential years. The “good voter” list will allow you to narrow down your efforts.
The really good lists (which should be held by the party based on previous campaigns) will also have information about each voter. A good voter database should list if that person ever contributed to the party, what their interests are, what issues are important to them, and so on. If the party does not have a database like that, start one of your own. Even if you lose, you will become the person they all come to when they want to use your database in the future. This will make you one of the more powerful people in the party, and then all the other candidates will owe you a favor (which can come in very handy when you run again).
You should also get a list of who contributed to similar races in the past, and compare the lists. Because raising money is very important…
SIGNS, BUMPER STICKERS, AND ADVERTISING
Many campaigns overemphasize these things. You will not win an election simply because you have more whistles and bells than your opponent. Pencils with your name on it don’t really make a difference.
The most important thing is to have a good logo that catches the eye and lets people read your name easily. There are too many “white letters on a blue background” political logos out there so you should try to come up with something different. At the same time, you don’t want to be too outlandish: Hot pink and tie-dyed background is probably not a good idea. Hiring a professional to design something for you may be worth the effort. (When I ran a campaign in Boston, we used a burgundy background with a light gold lettering, and it really stood out against all the red and blue signs.)
Lawn signs and bumper stickers are obviously the most important expense when considering promotional materials. Billboards are great if you can afford them, but that should be the last thing you buy after taking care of all the other expenses.
Promo cards are very important. These are small postcard sized things that have a picture of you along with what race you are running for, and how to contact your campaign (web page, email, phone number). Do not fill these cards with your platform and details. If they care about that, they can check your web page. These cards should be very simple and basic. Always carry these around with you to hand to people.
A web page is necessary, and fortunately, inexpensive. A web page is a good place for details that don’t belong on the flyers and promo cards: your biography and resume, pictures of you with prominent people in the area, details about your positions on the issues, and a link to contribute to the campaign. Your web page should also have a page of endorsements and supporters, and copies of letters on your behalf that have been published in the local papers. A long list of prominent people on your side is impressive, and people like to see their names associated with others like that. It’s a way to thank your supporters as well.
Registering your web page name is the first thing you should do. It’s cheap. If you can get your name, that’s the best instead of “Me4Mayor” or whatever. If it’s your name, you can use it forever in the future for whatever you may run for.
Find someone who knows how to design a web page so it doesn’t embarrass you. Simple and neat is important. Don’t get someone who fills the thing with bells and whistles and looks like an old MySpace page.
Along with a web page, get an email address that is separate from your personal email. People will want to leave you messages and have you respond to them, and this is even more important than knocking on doors. If people go out of their way to contact you, you need to respond! (Mind you, you may also get emails that will be very nasty – you have to have thick skin to run for office – and you will need to restrain yourself from answering these back.)
In a small race, office space is not really necessary. However, if someone wants to donate office space and a phone, go ahead and take advantage of it. It makes you look even more professional, and gives your supporters a place to hang out and have meetings. You’re going to need some place to store your signs and other promotional materials anyway.
Endorsements from other politicians is nice, but you should try to get them from everyone in your district. Getting people on your side committed early is important. People like to read lists of supporters, because if they see all their friends are on your side, they are more likely to be on your side too. And they will come in very handy later on when you need their support.
Get endorsements early, getting people committed, before someone else grabs them.
GETTING THE PARTY’S ENDORSEMENT
You really need to have a party behind you. Besides being able to grab voter lists, you will automatically get party loyalists to support you and work for you. Important: Do not let these people run your campaign for you. Thank them for their support, use them for what you can get from them, take their advice, but don’t delegate the authority of how to run a campaign to them. Feel free to delegate tasks to them, but don’t let them make the important decisions like what your campaign slogan should be or what your flyers should say and so on. You need to be the final word on everything because you’re the one who is going to take the blame if something goes wrong.
Unfortunately, this all costs money. Expect to put a lot of your own money into this. You will have to ask for contributions in order to do everything you want.
Sometimes people are more willing to contribute when they can see a direct result from their contribution. A popular way is to get someone to design a bunch of billboard signs and newspaper ads for you, and then ask for contributors to sponsor the ads. People were more willing to donate and then be able to say “See that ad in today’s paper? I paid for that!” They like to see where their money is going.
You can also ask for contributions in kind – office space and equipment, promotional materials, and the like are always welcome. If you find out that one of your supporters has a business that can help you, ask them to do so. A bakery can provide food for a fundraiser; a printer on your side is like a gift from heaven.
There are strict legal limits on what you can accept as a candidate. Make sure you know all that! They vary from location to location. Know the laws!
KNOCKING ON DOORS
This is the most important thing you have to do, and it is usually the least favorite thing to do. Strange how that works out.
A local race won’t gather the same amount of attention that a presidential race would get, so you need to inform your good voters that there is someone worth coming out and voting for.
Use your good voter list. You don’t want to waste time knocking on the door of someone who never votes. Concentrate your efforts on the good voters who vote in almost every election and who are registered in your party. After you have knocked on all those doors, then you can go to the independents and if you still have time before election day, then hit the other party.
The meeting should be concentrated on the voter, not you. “I am here to ask you what issues concern you in our area.” Let them do a lot of the talking, and then point out how having you in office will help them in those concerns. People like to know their views are important to you (even if they are not) and will be more likely to vote for you than if you merely give a standard campaign speech at every door.
After you meet with the voters and impress them, put notes next to their names on your good voter list (or better yet, use notecards). Comments like “voter willing to help on election day; voter has three children, all daughters; voter concerned about violence in schools” are important. You can use the notes later in case the voter contacts your office. The notes will allow you try and remember who it was when you call them back and will allow you to make important small talk. (“Hi! How are your three daughters doing?”) Be sure to enter all this information into your voter database when you get back to your campaign office.
Then rate the voter on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “definitely will vote for me” and 1 being “definitely will not vote for me.” You will use this in your Get Out The Vote effort on election day.
If no one is home, leave one of your promo cards and write a personal note on the back: “I am sorry to have missed you. I would love to ask you about what issues concern you; please contact me.”
There is an old story told by Tip O’Neill who said after he lost his first election, he spoke to his neighbor, with whom he had always been friendly, and was surprised to find that the neighbor had voted for his opponent. “Why?” asked Tip. “Because he asked me and you didn’t,” was the reply. Moral: Never take any voter for granted. Voters want to be asked to have you vote for them, and they remember that you came and met with them.
You can also make personal phone calls. This is not as good as door to door meetings, but once more, people like to be asked. Spend time at night calling people on that good voter list.
As it gets closer to the election, have some “phone bank” parties. Get your family and friends and supporters to show up at someone’s house with their phones. Tell them to call all their friends in the district to ask them to support you. When you get a response, be sure to enter it into your database/good voter list so that the person does not get contacted too often.
“Parties” are the best way to get work done. People are more likely to show up and make calls, address envelopes, and do other work if others are there too. Be sure to have pizza and/or snacks.
LETTERS FROM SUPPORTERS TO YOUR UNDECIDED VOTERS
Along these same lines, make a standard form letter that people can copy into their own handwriting to send to undecided voters in your district. “Dear Neighbor, my name is __________ and I live at __________, a few blocks from you. I am supporting _________ in the _________ race and I hope you will too.” (And so on). Once more, you want people to bring in their own address books and send these letters to their friends first (on your stationery) and then to undecided voters. This can and should be going on all the time. Whenever a volunteer asks for something to do, set them down at a table and have them write letters. They’re much more personal than emails, which most people will treat like spam.
Remember: it’s the personal touch that wins local elections.
Obviously, when attending public functions such as breakfasts, community meetings, and parades, it is imperative that you look and act like people expect a politician to look and act. Ironically, at the same time, you also want to appear to be just an average guy. (Go figure.) This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to wear a suit everywhere (in fact, that would probably be a bad thing) but at the same time, you don’t want to look like a complete slob either. Wear your button so people can identify you, and keep your promo cards handy to give to people who seem interested. Have blank notecards so that if someone says they want to help, you can get their name and address and other pertinent information and not forget about it.
Be sure to attend whatever major things are going on in your district, and take pictures of you with your supporters. You can use those later in flyers and on your web page.
Direct mail is important. Flyers and brochures should be sent out as the election draws near. I don’t think I need to go into too much detail about what they should say and look like, but I will once again emphasize the use of your lists: Unless you have a huge budget, sending flyers to every single voter in the district is a waste of money. Prioritize based on what you can afford. It is better to send two pieces of mail a week apart to the same person than one to someone who votes only in Presidential races, and isn’t even of your own party.
These things should be as simple as possible, with just a few bullet points and words about yourself. Do not use this as an opportunity to write a speech and include it in your flyer; no one reads that. Short and simple – it’s an ad, not a transcript. Include a link to your web page where people can go for more information.
The goal of all of this stuff is to identify your voters, and I mean that most literally. By election day, you should have a list with names, addresses, and phone numbers of the people who have indicated that they will probably vote for you, and if you’ve done your job, it’s a big enough list that if they all vote, you can be sure of winning. Then it is just a matter of Getting Out The Vote (GOTV).
I cannot overemphasize this. Ask anyone who has ever worked on a winning campaign: This makes all the difference.
On election day, you need to have people calling every one of your identified voters to remind them to vote and to see if they need a ride to the polls. If you are limited in the amount of volunteers you have, phone callers and drivers are more important than someone standing outside of a poll handing out literature.
The person handing out literature at the polls is important too, of course; especially for those running for the lesser seats who may have flown under the radar otherwise. The voter may be showing up to vote for Senator or Governor and not even realize there are other races to be decided.
You need to remind voters as they go in who they need to vote for, as there really are people who make up their minds at the last minute. Someone smiling nice at them and handing them a little flyer as they go in may make a very small difference, but elections have been won and lost on small differences.
Edit: Please note that this article was originally written many years ago and apparently only applies to Democrats. Based on recent events, it appears that Republicans can do whatever they want — insult everyone, be convicted criminals, pay off prostitutes, promote racism — and none of that matters.