Free Advice To Candidates

Last weekend I led a candidate training program run by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. I’ve been doing this for a while now. At the end of it, I was reminded of a post I wrote for Rockville Central some time ago, which I have spruced up a bit and am reprinting here:

Free Advice

By Brad Rourke

In the spirit of public service, I wanted to offer some free campaign advice to all candidates. This advice is worth exactly what you are paying for it.

Since the late 1990’s, I have been involved with a nonpartisan candidate training program at UVA’s Sorensen Institute geared towards first-time candidates. I was just a small part of it. The program brings in campaign experts in a variety of areas (mail, polling, communications, GOTV, etc.) who offer their wisdom to a group of mixed Democrat and Republican (and some Indepenendent) candidates. Over the course of a great number of training sessions, I have gleaned a few lessons from listening to the presenters and also from talking with the many, many candidates in the rooms. (Especially the ones who had already lost a race and were trying again.)

In my experience, many people who run for local office seem a little bit daunted by the process. Others go the opposite direction and act as if they are running for President. Neither approach results in a very successful campaign.

Local campaigns should be fun. These are our neighbors, telling us about what they think is important for our communities, and arguing over the best way forward. What could be more of a hoot?

I am offering these tips in the spirit of helpfulness to all candidates. They are not hard-and-fast rules. I am not a campaign consultant; these are just things I have picked up by osmosis along the way. Take them or leave them. Tell me I’m all wet (or think it to yourself).

In no particular order:

  1. Most incumbents win re-election. Sorry, it’s true. Challengers have the deck stacked against them. Okay, now you know this. Move on.
  2. Most first-time candidates lose. Sorry, it’s true. Persevere anyway.
  3. You must know how many votes you need to win. If you do not have a written plan for how you will get that number of votes, you are planning to lose.
  4. Know who and where your voters are. Get the voter list. Work it. The person who knocks on the most doors of voters will usually win.
  5. If you cannot bring yourself to ask friends and family to make a financial investment in your candidacy, you should seriously rethink whether being a candidate is for you.
  6. You cannot be your own campaign manager. Find someone to do it for you. It can be for free. Then, let them do their job.
  7. Mailings are worthwhile. Don’t do them too early.
  8. Many companies make a lot of money selling unnecessary goods and services to small campaigns. Watch your spending.
  9. Lawn signs do not help you get elected. Put up only enough to seem credible. Don’t be a jerk: Take them down after the election.
  10. Don’t buy emery boards, pot holders, magnets, or hats. They are a waste. T-shirts are only good if you can get a number of supporters to wear them at the same time. (Like at a parade.) Don’t give them away; supporters should pay for them.
  11. Buttons are nice for the wearer, but little stickers get the job done just as well for cheaper.
  12. Television and radio advertising for local candidates is generally not worthwhile. You can’t afford enough repetition to make a dent and you don’t know you are reaching actual voters.
  13. You need only the bare minimum on the Web; do not spend time and resources on a fancy web site. But it should not be an embarrassment – people look to your web site to check you out and see where you stand.
  14. Know who the two or three reporters who are covering your race are. Treat them with respect and get to know them. Remember their job is to write news stories, not just publish your press releases.
  15. Do not ever, ever lie. You will be found out.
  16. Know and follow all the rules and laws. Make sure there is someone paying attention to that for you…but you are responsible.
  17. Google yourself twice a day, morning and night. Create a Google alert for your name and other important keywords. Study your opponents’ web sites.
  18. Don’t get caught up in the excitement of speaking to large groups of people unless you know for sure they are possible voters in your district. It does you no good to ask voters in another district to vote for you.
  19. Always present yourself as if you are in office. People expect you to look like a grown-up. Dress up a little. Don’t wear goofy stuff.
  20. At receptions and events, don’t be photographed with a glass in your hand.
  21. Always thank people and be gracious.
  22. If you are going to be on TV, do not wear a white shirt or one with a teeny pattern.
  23. Yes, issues matter, but people are voting for a person. Let them get to know you. Don’t hide behind a bunch of white papers and position statements.

Well, that’s about it. You may have other ideas. Add to them!

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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