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So You Want to be a Candidate?

Updated on July 6, 2016

When it comes to political campaigns, there are generally two kinds of people - those that want nothing to do with the business and those who cannot wait to run for public office. If you are in the latter category, I recommend you answer these critical question before becoming a candidate. This advice is based on my experience as a campaign manager, consultant, state party political director and twice-elected County Commissioner.

Why do you want run?

The question sounds elementary, but it is the most introspective of all the questions a candidate must ask himself or herself. As a campaign manager, a consultant and sometime advisor, this is the one question I have always asked every candidate. Surprisingly, many are unable to answer the question clearly and concisely. There is no single correct answer. For each candidate, the answer will be somewhat different, but it should include these components:

  1. Authenticity - Deep down, beyond all the noise and rhetoric from friends and well-wishers who are behind you all the way, what is your real motivation?
  2. Why not someone else? -- All candidates and eventual politicians need some measure of ego. On the trail you have to talk about yourself, what accolades have been bestowed on you and what you will do if elected. That is unfortunately the "nature of the beast" and why it is rare to meet a truly humble politician. Aside from visions of your grandeur, what is unique about you? What skills do you bring that others lack? Do you have a special vision for the future? Are you uniquely positioned within your party, the community, financially, etc.?
  3. Is it about the other guy? -- Running to unseat a poor public servant is not enough for entering the political fray. Certainly, a decision to run factors in whether or not the incumbent is doing a good job and whether or not he or she can be defeated. If it is an open seat, then consideration of who the other potential candidates are is important too. What you need to answer, however, is how you are different than the other guy, what you will say and what you will do and whether or not you can make good on those promises.
  4. Could you serve better in a different way? -- It took serving in public office and resigning for me to finally understand that I could do as much good or more out of elected office. My knowledge of government and the community positioned me to advocate for education reform, serve on boards, lead community projects for the City and eventually head a family foundation supporting many of the causes I attempted to support while elected. Some potential candidates are positioned now, because of a unique skill set or background, to have a maximum impact outside of elected office where compromises and trade-offs often limit the effectiveness of community initiatives.
  5. Are you politically ambitious? -- Ambition is not necessarily a bad thing. To succeed in our culture having a ethically balanced level of ambition is an asset. When you search your heart, is your desire to be in congress, so you have decided to run for school board as a step to your ultimate goal? If running is about your long-term ambitions, do yourself and us a favor and do not put your name on the ballot. If you want to be in congress, run for congress or start the process of running. Establish your credentials in the community through other kinds or service, grow your business, support other candidates and prepare yourself financially. Being a school board member when you really want to be in congress, does a disservice to the voters and in this example the kids, because your heart will not be in it. Practically speaking, you may find yourself embroiled in controversies that haunt you in your congressional campaign later.




If running is about your long-term ambitions, do yourself and us a favor and do not put your name on the ballot.

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How much will it cost and what can you spend personally?

At whatever level you consider running, campaigns are won with money. Yes, you can stop reading now and Google campaigns that were out-spent and still won. You will be hard pressed to find many candidates who won without any money. How to spend your money is the subject of another post. As a serious candidate, you will need a realistic budget that factors in costs of the media market(s) you are competing in, direct mail, polling, events, staff, signs, collateral materials and headquarters to name a few. These costs will be influenced by your overall strategy. At this point, you do not need to know all the specifics, but you will need a realistic number. The average cost of a congressional campaign has risen to $1.7 million and a U.S. Senate Campaign to $10 million. In 2006, my primary campaign for a seat on the County Commission (similar to Board of Supervisors) cost $110,000. Search financial disclosures of similar races to determine what successful candidates spent including in the district where you plan to run. For federal races you can find that information on the Federal Election Commission website. For a local or state race, that information should be available at a local and/or state office of election finance. State and local records may not be available electronically.

Once you have a good idea of what your race will cost, then you have to answer the tough question: how much of your own money are you willing to commit? There was a time when candidates did not have to commit their own funds. Campaigns were not as expensive and individual donors were more willing to participate. Now, national parties recruit candidates based in part on their ability to self-fund. At the local level, raising Political Action Committee (PAC) or corporate funds will be difficult if running against an incumbent. Funding your budget through the end of the campaign may depend on some of your resources. I make this recommendation as a former candidate who won without investing personal funds, but times have changed in the last decade and candidates need to be willing to commit their personal resources to the effort.

What role will your family play in the campaign and how will winning (or losing) affect them?

At least one positive aspect of today's elections is the growing diversity of candidates. There was a time when a single woman or man had to overcome not having a spouse or children. Still, today's candidate with a spouse and/or children must think about the role they will play in the campaign and how they will be affected. I have worked with my share of candidates who told me "my wife hates politics." This is a problem in multiple ways. Voters want to know candidates on a personal level. If you don't have a spouse, then no problem, but if you do and the spouse is absent from the campaign, voters will notice and wonder why. Spouses who want to campaign are the best surrogates because they know you best and can speak genuinely about why you should be elected. Most important is your relationship with your spouse. If s/he "hates politics" but is supporting your run, then s/he is making a sacrifice out of love or a sense of obligation. Campaigns are long, hard, stressful and at times vicious and take a toll on the very strongest relationships. The worst thing I ever said to my wife was at 2 AM on the morning before "yard sign day" as we were still organizing lists and maps for volunteers. Neither one of us have ever forgotten it and we have been married 19 years. Bottom line is your relationship will always be more important than any office you campaign for, so consider carefully the feelings of your spouse.

Children are also critical actors in the campaign. Again, if you have children, voters want to see them. Some candidates, especially in the social media environment, are wary of putting the names and faces of young children front and center of the campaign. As father of 4, I completely understand, but the reality is that as reporters, voters and your opponent research your background, the names, ages and faces of your children will become public. When my children were young, I chose to put them in the family campaign photo and only take them to family-friendly events. Four years later, they were older, understood what was happening and wanted to help. They often campaigned door-to-door, put out yard signs and passed out stickers at events.

If your children are teens, there are at least a couple of considerations. First, how embarrassing will it be for their dad or mom to be a candidate and doing the silly things candidates are asked to do. Will they campaign for you and do you actually want them to if they are resistant to engaging voters? My children are all teens or pre-teens and have grown up campaigning and could easily talk to voters about their dad. If this is new to your kids and awkward, then you need to think about their concerns. The other issue related to older children involves their private lives. If your children have been in trouble at school, had struggles with substance abuse or if your relationship is particularly strained with a child, those things will come out in a campaign. Any serious opponent would not overtly attempt to capitalize on your child's struggles with drugs or alcohol, but these are the things of which "whisper campaigns" are made. The point will be not to attack your child, but to judge you as a parent or suggest that your priorities are out of order because you are running for office instead of caring for your family. The person damaged the most will, of course, be your child.

Finally, if you win, your family will hopefully be elated. They need to understand this is not the end. As an elected official, your time will be in demand from a host of new "friends." If you lose, your family will take it harder than you, because they know how much it meant and do not want to see you hurt. Hardest of all will be the negative statements said about you and the attacks you may have to lob at your opponent. It is difficult to explain to young children why people are saying mean things about you. If you have taught your children to love their enemies and "if you can't saying anything nice, don't say anything at all," the may want to know why that applies to them and not you.

The worst thing I ever said to my wife was at 2 AM on the morning before "yard sign day" as we were still organizing lists and maps for volunteers. Neither one of us have ever forgotten it and we have been married 19 years.

Voter Response to Negative Campaigns

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What will be your campaign's message and how will you know?

"Make America Great Again" is not a message. It is a campaign slogan. Donald Trump's message is that the career politicians have broken the government and don't listen to the people. The only way to fix it is to bring in a successful "outsider" who cannot be bought by special interests. Then Trump supports that message with "hot button" issues like immigration and "radical Islam." Hillary Clinton's message is that there has never been a person more prepared to be president than her. Her life in public service, being a former First Lady and Secretary of State have prepared her to continue the progress of the Obama Administration. These are their messages. Issues and slogans reinforce the message. So how do you develop a message?

Part of your message has to include the answers to the question, "Why are you running?" Then there are two methods and I subscribe to both. Trolling and Polling. Trolling used here is not defined as it is in the social media lexicon. Trolling is simply getting out in the community, learning to keep your mouth shut and listening to what voters are saying. Long before you declare your candidacy, file your nominating petition or print campaign materials, ask your neighbors, attend community meetings, read Letters to the Editor and visit places of worship. Within your district and among your likely voter, you should begin to hear common themes to incorporate in your message.

The second way is by professionally polling likely voters in your district. With the never-ending parade of polls cited by the media, most people think polling is about determining who is ahead and by how much. That is an important aspect. Before the campaign starts, odds are unless you are a local celebrity, no one knows who you are and you are likely way behind the incumbent. The value of polling is to scientifically with a statistically high level of confidence determine what is on the minds of a random sample of likely voters. You can test what you learned from trolling, your own ideas and give voters the chance to respond with what's on their minds. If your trolling and polling are similar, then your are on to something. Polls should be conducted by a professional firm with a long track record and be prepared to pay for the poll based on the number of interviews (more interviews = higher confidence) and length of the survey. If you already know that you do not trust polling and will not follow what it says, then don't bother. Save the money.

Can you devote the time to campaigning, serving and a full-time job?

Congress was intended to be a part-time job, but it's really not. Governors and large to medium sized city mayors are full-time jobs. Many administrative type jobs such as court clerk, register, trustee are full-time, but legislative positions are mostly part-time. City Council, Alderman, School Board, State Legislature will require you to hold another job unless you are retired or independently wealthy. If you are self-employed, you do not need permission from a supervisor or your company to seek political office -- the "permission" is not as much to run as it is to be away from work to serve if elected. However, you have to consider the impact on your clients and profits. It is almost a guarantee that serving will have a negative impact on your business, but the question is can you afford it. If others are working for you, will you have to incentivize them to pick up your slack.

If working for someone else, you and your supervisor(s) need to be clear about the time it will take away from your job before you ever pick up a petition or announce your candidacy. It is easier to work full-time and serve in the same town. A negotiated flex-schedule can keep you on top of your work and engaged in your elected service. For legislators who may need to travel to a state capitol for months and weeks at a time, it is not easy. There are numerous creative ways to continue working and serving, but it needs to be clear upfront and in writing.

What is the worst thing someone can say about you and are you prepared for it to be public?

We are all too familiar with the negative political campaigns that make up our process. When polled, the public swears they hate negative campaigning, but outcomes show it works. Voters are influenced by it. What that means for you is that your opponent will research you. Depending on the size of your opponent's campaign war chest, he or she may hire a professional to discover your skeletons. You may think that a youthful indiscretion will not matter to voters, and maybe it won't. Does it matter to you, your spouse or children? You may think a record is sealed or expunged, but count on someone finding the records or a person who knows about it. You may have had a life-changing experience, and you are now a pillar in the community, but what happens to your reputation. For most people, the worst thing they ever did is not that startling and won't cost them the election. However, before you run, sit down with your family and a small group of those who know you best and take stock of the damaging statements your opponent could use against you. When it is all on the table, then decide if you can stomach reading it as a headline in the newspaper.

Serving in public office is an honor. Our communities need well-qualified, good-hearted individuals to serve. Campaigning can be a great experience and time to meet people from all walks of life and to learn about the community around you. Being a candidate is serious business too - for the voters, your family and you. Answer these questions honestly and to the satisfaction of your family and yourself and you will ready to run.

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