Over the last eight years, I've worked for close to a hundred public figures in various roles. These range from volunteering and intern gigs, to being a legislative analyst in the state capital, to a campaign manager, fundraiser, "operative", and social media consultant. From Republicans, to Democrats, to a slew of third party candidates, I've been around the best of the best, the very worst, and the ones who are so bad that I questioned the meaning of life, repeatedly, while downing shots of Wild Turkey...repeatedly.
This one goes out to the Hydes, not the Jekylls - every bad candidate I ever worked for, or ran into at an event, whose ideas were so bad that I was left mute, jaw clenched, eyes wide and stupefied by unfiltered stupid. Sounds harsh, right? Well I'm about to re-emphasize all the wonderful fundamentals about running for public office that you glossed over while daydreaming about your debate talking points, victory speech, future staff appointments, and 10-point plan to fix the economy. You need to understand right here and now, that solving the world's problems is THE EASY PART. Winning elected office? That's where it gets tricky.
So here are 12 THINGS YOU ABSOLUTELY NEED TO KNOW BEFORE RUNNING FOR OFFICE:
1. Run For The Right Reasons
Tell me you want to make a difference in the community. Tell me it's your dream. Tell me you want money, power, and women. Those are powerful motivations that can carry you through this. But PLEASE don't tell me you're running because you hate the other guy.
There are more productive ways to settle the score with your neighbor or arch-enemy. These include: using your connections on the zoning board to mess with his property, stealing his newspaper, spreading rumors, and/or challenging him to a duel. But don't waste everybody else's time on a vendetta. And don't start grinding the axe because of some attacks or allegations made during the campaign. You lost the luxury to take politics personally when you announced your candidacy - be a man (or a woman) and DEAL WITH IT. Michael Corleone didn't take personal offense when they shot his father, and he went on to a very successful career. Learn from him!
2. People Need To Know You
"You know, people really like me and love what I have to say." This is what a candidate for local office once told me. The reality is, the only people who liked him were the ones he saw in the mirror when he imagined his stump speech. Know this: running for office isn't political fantasy camp. If you're interested in holding elected office and aren't a multi-millionaire (and even if you are), start by joining a civic association, getting involved and running for school board, volunteering/donating to local non-profits, or attending public hearings. People mocked President Obama for being a community organizer, but that's probably what got him elected to the Illinois State Senate. Clearly it launched him into bigger things.
Participation in the community is how people get to know and like you. Organizing is how you gain their trust. Say for example you oppose the building of a development on a parcel of historic land. Go to the public hearings, talk to like-minded people, meet and organize a petition drive, write letters to the editor, and create an e-mail list. When that seat you're eyeing comes up for election, people will see your name and say, "Oh yeah! That's the person who helped defeat that bogus development plan!" You can't buy that kind of credibility.
3. You Need To Have a Fundraising Plan
If any of these points are "least optional", it's this one by far. It goes without saying: you can't run a campaign without money. So how do you develop a fundraising plan? You need monthly goals, reliable venues, and most importantly, a list of people you know. It sounds so basic, but it's the one thing untrained candidates always miss. Instead, they go around to staff and volunteers saying, "If anybody can bring in money, they get a cut!" On multiple occasions, people who hired me and a partner to fundraise for them asked us, "So who do you guys know?" Let's get something straight: it's not about who your fundraiser knows, it's about who you know. You're the one running for office! A good fundraiser can show you how to take your contacts, and create a fundraising web out of them.
You may even think you don't know anybody, but that's not true. Write down the names of friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances. List them in categories from richest to poorest. Start at the top, and ask the most well-connected of your contacts who their richest friends are. For your first fundraiser, make it a small, intimate event where you can build confidence among your strongest contacts. Get them excited and energized to help you, whether it's event-planning, volunteering, or fundraising. Most people can get 50-100 to attend a wedding, and all those people have friends that would probably come with them if invited, and those people have friends, and so on. That's how you need to approach fundraising.
Don't mistake a fundraiser for a bundler. A bundler is a rich, enthusiastic supporter who can put on events for you and has a cadre of rich buddies who love a good cause. Having good bundlers is a luxury; developing a coherent fundraising plan is not.
4. Start Early
We live in a perpetual campaign cycle, so the earlier you can start, the better. You know the election is in November - I would suggest having your first fundraiser by the end of the previous year. Don't roll out of bed three months before the election and expect to win. Tony Montana might sum it up something like, "First you get the money, then you get the people, then you do your petitions, then you run your ads, then you slime your opponent, then you get out the vote, and THEN you get the power!"
5. You Need 10 Super-Volunteers
Well, 10 is a nice number. I guess it could be 9, or 8, but shoot for 10. If you don't know 10 people who like you enough to walk districts regularly, you have no business being on the ballot. I'm not talking about the people who find you via newspaper ads, television, or the internet. Those will come later. But you need to start off with a group of enthusiastic people who will be with you until the very end. They are probably family or good friends, and maybe one or two are rabid supporters who heard about or met you. Lean on them to help with events and get you through the petition drive. The organization will build over time, and more will come aboard. Again, this all goes back to the previous three steps. If you're broke, started late, and nobody knows you, the campaign is all in your head.
6. Platforms Are a Three-Course Meal, Not a Smorgasbord
If you took a person from the community, explained to them that if elected you will "lower taxes, balance the budget, get more state funding for schools, get labor concessions on union contracts, protect land from overdevelopment, put more cops on the street, penalize companies that pollute, institute a recycling program, push for the decriminalization of marijuana, cut down on medicaid fraud, and promote green energy", then said, "Now quick, tell me what I'm going to do if elected!"...how much do you think they'll remember?
Probably next to nothing. The whole point of developing a platform is so that people remember it when they go to vote. Don't overload them with your 25-point plan to save the universe. Hell, don't overload yourself. Having a bold vision is great, put keep it to a few main points that are easy to remember. Think of it like a meal, or a dinner plate. You have your steak (big, bold proposal!), your baked potato (slightly less bold, but very much needed proposal), and your sweet corn (very cool, exciting idea). Overload the plate and by the time they're halfway finished, the rest looks disgusting. If people want more info, they can go to your website. Of course you need a vision for the thousand-and-one problems affecting the community, but people will ask you about that in good time.
Your main platform is the two, three, or four talking points you drill into people's heads over, and over, and over again until it becomes synonymous with your name. Facing a tough question you can't answer? Bring it back to the platform. You can't be all things to all people, so develop a brief, consistent platform based on your larger vision for the community.
7. You Have To Walk (Seriously)
Stop sitting around the campaign office acting like a big shot. Get off your fat, lazy ass, and go meet some people. YOU, candidate, person asking for votes - jump in a car with a team of walkers, and bang out an election district by dawn. If the election is in 150 days, and there are 50 election districts (EDs) in the wider legislative district you're running in, and you walk one ED per day (or 7 per week), you will have walked the entire district three whole times before the vote. And guess what? It didn't cost you a dime. No amount of mailers, phone calls, or commercials, all of which together cost thousands of dollars, are as valuable as the free time you spend meeting people. Sounds simple in theory, but it takes an incredible amount of willpower to keep that up over an entire campaign cycle.
I've worked for candidates who started their day early, made phone calls to ask for money, attended a public event, shook hands at a bus stop or supermarket, did a phone interview or wrote something for the local paper, and finished out the day by walking one or two election districts, stopping at around 7 or 8 o'clock. Any hours not spent meeting people or asking for money were dedicated to event planning. They met virtually everyone in the district many times over, and held a fundraiser 1-2 times per month. None of this cost them anything but time, and even a mediocre fundraiser should break even. Needless to say, they were always competitive on election day if they didn't outright win. If you already hold office, pray to Zeus you never run into a challenger like this, because they will force it to the final drive and make you beat them.
Lazy, out of shape, weak-willed candidates do not survive the cycle. By October they already look beaten and worn (and they didn't even do anything!). I volunteered for one guy who did nothing but sit in his office cracking jokes. He had a 3 to 1 money advantage over his opponent, actually held this seat once before, said he was too old to walk districts, and that everybody knew him already. He went on to lose in embarrassing fashion to a woman who ran like her life depended on it. Come to think of it, she looked a lot like Legislator Sarah Anker.
Don't send other people out to walk for you if the district is small enough that one person can cover it over the course of the election. People don't want to talk to volunteers, or have garbage hung on their door knob with your big dumb face on it. They want to meet you. Walk, meet people, and when they're not home, personally sign the garbage you leave on their door. They'll remember it! If you're too old to walk, then you're too old to run.
8. Be a Gentleman (or a Woman)
You would be amazed at how many candidates have a problem with hygiene. Comb your hair, smell nice, and for god's sake, try to get through a meal without spilling it on yourself. What are you, five years old? People don't vote for nutjobs with maple syrup all over their shirt. In fact, if you're my candidate, I don't want you eating at events at all. I'm serious - don't even sit down. If it's a suit and tie affair with a buffet, stay away from the food, have a drink in hand (pretend to sip it for all I care), and work the entire room.
Pancake breakfast? Same deal. Grab a coffee, lightly sip it, have ONE PANCAKE just to show them you're human, and that pancake better be cut up nicely with nothing on it that drips. Walk around, sit with people, and shake everyone's hand before you leave.
Don't find yourself in a corner, stuffing your face, locked in deep conversation with the only person crazier than you. Congratulations, you and your soulmate solved the universe in three hours. If only there were 875 hours in a day, you'd have time to bond with everybody like that. Too bad there's 24 and you just wasted an entire event on one person. "I'm shy; not really a people person." That sucks - NEVER RUN FOR OFFICE.
9. Don't Bitch About The Media - Use Them
Most of the town reads a local newspaper. It helps to be cordial with the people who write it! This seems to be a problem for Republicans, who get their rocks off dismissing all the local news as "liberal rags" that are out to get them. Even if that is the case, be cordial anyway, and always be highly accessible. It's hard to slime a candidate who is friendly and likable, and all it takes is one bad experience with your opponent for them to decide, "You know what? Screw that guy, I'm endorsing the campaign who treats me well."
Beyond this, you should be submitting columns to them, having your most fervent supporters write letters to be published, and getting volunteers to share your campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and message boards. Conspiracy theories about the media never won anybody votes. Sometimes, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
10. For Third Party Candidates: Have a Goal Other Than Winning
This is a hard sell, but third party candidates have to realize what they're up against. First off, the previous 9 points? That goes double for the third parties. You need to work twice as hard, twice as much as the other two, because there is no larger organization to piggy-back off of. The chances of you winning on a third party line are so low, so absolutely remote, that you would be doing a serious disservice to yourself and your supporters by not having a plan B.
I am a big supporter of third parties gaining traction, but they need to be smart. Getting one of the major parties to co-opt your platform (i.e. realize it's working and steal it) is a good thing. That means in spite of losing, your issue won the day. But the only way that's going to happen is if you can grab a decent portion of the vote.
Maybe your campaign operation scares enough people that they offer you a position which would allow you to impact the district in other ways, or provides a greater voice to your loyal following. Or maybe you're just after whatever percentage of the vote that will gain your party "major party" status. There are plenty of reasons to stay in the race beyond winning, but you'll still need to work hard enough to get something like 10, 15, or 20 percent of the vote.
11. If You're Going To Primary a Party Favorite, You Must Divide & Conquer The Committee
Here's the thing about primaries: regular people don't vote in them. It's all legislative staffers, organization hacks, and the friends and family of those people. If you're going to shove a rocket up the party chairman's backside, make sure you a) have a real list of the committee members and b) have a shot at dividing them. People need to be really upset with the "endorsed candidate" for them to consider an alternative. They have to believe their jobs or future with the party won't be jeopardized by supporting you.
Remember that a party chairman typically hates democracy. Despises it, in fact. Their attitude is basically, "Shut up and support who I give you, dummy". If it was up to them, society would be governed by an Aristotelian cadre of hand-picked loyalists. Essentially, this is the party process. When the committee is unanimously behind a candidate, chances are a primary is futile.
12. Keep Your 'Crazy' To Yourself
This is for the third partiers more than anyone else, but it applies across the board. Do not talk about conspiracy theories in public, do not tell people you watch Ancient Aliens on the History Channel, do not talk about fluoride in the water, and do not waste people's time with revisionist history about "who really killed JFK" and other wacky nonsense concerning what you think you know about what goes on behind the scenes. Hell, you might even be right about one of your theories. But there is no point in polarizing people over something that never needed to be brought up. Stick to the issues they care about.
Also, give your staff a break and don't repeatedly bother them with paranoid bullcrap like "They're tapping my phone!" and "My opponent put a tail on me!" This is not a Tom Clancy novel, it's real life, and you need to stop treating your campaign like the ultimate adventure. Don't be wacky-fun guy with the catch-phrase and the odd getup either. Nobody needs that in their life.
On the contrary, don't overcompensate so much that you're showing up on people's doorsteps wearing a suit and tie like a proselytizer from the freaking Church of Latter Day Saints. Take it from me: people won't answer the door if they think you're trying to convert them.