Many first time candidates have a great deal of drive and passion to run, but not enough knowledge about what it really takes to run for office. It will take hard work and most of your time. You’ll ask for a good deal of help and patience from friends and family. You will need to identify supporters and turn them into delegates for your endorsement. You will need to door knock thousands of doors and spend a great deal of your time begging for donations. It will take a knowledge of the way your chosen party works and how to work it. Running for office is a big deal and not for the unprepared; you’ll need to go into this with a lot more than a sincere desire to make a difference.
If there is one overarching piece of advice for first time candidates it would be to start early. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to do; waiting until March of the year you’ll run puts you at least a year behind. Here’s a general guide to prep time:
2 or more years: Governor, US Senator, US Representative, some statewide offices
1-2 years: State House and Senate, big city Mayor, some statewide offices
Up to 1 year: all others
Once you’ve started, you’ll need to let party people know of your interest before you announce it officially (believe it or not, the day of a congressional district endorsing convention is not a good time to announce your run for Congress -that happened!).
Start your journey with party leaders and activists by the Fall of the year before your election; they’ll help you get a realistic idea of your chances and what needs to be done in your district to win. Make your official announcement anywhere up to the filing deadline. Sometimes an unofficial early announcement to party people is all it takes to keep others out of the race! This also gives you a better chance to line up enough delegates to endorse you the following spring. The early candidate who knows the activists attracts more delegates.
Beginning in January, parties begin to elect delegates at caucuses or party meetings (depending on your state). Well before that you should have gotten to know activists on your district; they are most likely to become delegates to your endorsing convention. You’ll be seeking their vote long before you seek votes from voters. You need to know exactly how delegates get from being just regular folks to being delegates. The process can be quite involved but it’s very important. The party has three things to offer you: people, money and endorsement. Start early and the people will be plentiful. Do not expect your money to come from the party; there are legal limits to how much money a party can give you. An endorsement is valuable in that it gives you recognition, focuses party resources and usually causes un-endorsed candidates to drop out.
Have you run for office before?
If not, you can’t rely solely on your belief in winning. If you yourself have no experience, hiring an experienced campaign manager can help. Candidate training from Wellstone, your party and other organizations can also prepare you for the realities of campaigning. As a rule of thumb, the higher the office (“upballot”), the more campaign experience you’ll need to win.
Have you helped another candidate?
If you have never volunteered on a campaign, you don’t know how it really works. The best way to get that experience is to actively volunteer on a campaign. And if you’ve helped someone, they may help you; you’re getting into politics -you’ll need friends!
Are you on the inside?
Are you active in the party you seek endorsement from?
Have you gotten to know potential delegates to the endorsing convention?
Will you support the party’s other endorsed candidates?
Will you abide by the endorsement and drop out if you don’t get it? That’s not an absolute requirement, but seriously consider your chances of actually getting elected without endorsement and if they are low, staying in will help the opposition party and may reduce your chances of being endorsed in the future.
Have you run against any endorsed or incumbent candidate in the party you seek endorsement from, run for office in another party or are you supporting any members of an opposing political party during this election? If so, your chances for support are slim.
Do you know the party people?
Your announcement is one thing, but well before that you should be getting to know the existing, experienced party activists. These people are very likely to become delegates to your endorsing convention and they’ll have a good deal of influence over newer delegates. Local leaders are also actively seeking potential candidates, so getting to know them early gives you a leg up. Party Leaders and local activists know the nitty-gritty of voter contact in your district, they organize volunteers and they may very well know more than you do about running a campaign. Get to know these folks at party unit meetings at least a year before you intend to run. By the time the race begins you’ll have a huge advantage. Bottom line, asking people to give up their time and money to endorse and canvass for you is much more likely if they already know you.
Are you running for the right office?
Conventional wisdom says that it takes three campaigns before you win anything. Think carefully before you shoot for an up-ballot race. School board, city council or parks commissioner races (down-ballot) are great for first time candidates. There is, however, an insiders name for unknown candidates with no money or experience whose very first campaign is a run for Congress: “sacrificial lamb”. Talk to candidates, leaders and activists with experience campaigning for the office you seek to be sure you are really right for it this time around.
Successful races generally need three things: campaign experience, name recognition and sufficient funds. Or any two of the above as long as one is sufficient funds. It’s a sad fact that it takes money to win. Can you come into the race with commitments for a third to half of it before you ask for an endorsement? If you are counting on the party to give you money, understand that there are legal limits on how much they can give you -and that number is surprisingly small.
Have you had any candidate training?
Are you comfortable asking people for money? Family? Friends? Strangers?
Will you ask for money as often as it takes to get what you need to run your campaign? (This may mean many hours each night.)
Do you know a lot of people in your community?
Are you comfortable walking up to people you don’t know and talking to them about yourself?
Are you comfortable talking to large groups of people?
Are you skilled at public speaking?
Are you able to promote a positive self image?
Are you able to sell yourself and your positions?
Are you able to calmly listen to people who disagree with you?
Are you open to new ideas and ways of doing things?
Are you able -physically and emotionally- to walk several hours a day for many months? If you are not, how will you compensate?
Do you have a strong personal support network to help you through the emotional ups and downs of a campaign?
About Your family
Families and spouses suffer a great deal when mom or dad run for office. You will be gone most nights and weekends. When you are home you’ll be dialing for dollars.
Do you have very young children? If so, this may not be the time.
Is your spouse all in? Campaigns are stressful on marriages.
Is the extended family ready to step in to watch the kids?
Be certain everyone’s completely OK with this and eager to support you.
About your campaign
Have you identified a competent and experienced campaign manager who will commit the time necessary?
Can you pull together a team of volunteers who’ll work with you to win your race?
Will you pick the best people for the job even if it means hurting a friend or family member’s feelings?
Do you have a skilled treasurer you can trust? Have they been trained? This person must file federal and state reports that must, by law, be accurate and complete.
Do you know how much money you need to raise?
Can you get commitments for a third of that amount by the day you announce?
Can you personally fund 25% or more of your campaign?
Do you know your win number?
Who is the incumbent? How much support do they have? Are they in your party?
How have other candidates fared against the incumbent in past elections? What has been the historical spread?
How have voters split on candidates for this seat over time? What’s the trend?
Who are your voters? What are the demographics?
About your party
Do you understand the endorsement process? Do you know who to talk with to find out?
Do you understand “the way things are done” in your district?
Have you met with activists and leadersat the party level who will endorse you?
Are you willing to start one or two years in advance to get to know the people who may become the delegates who endorse you?
Have you met with your party’s House or Senate caucus leaders (if a legislative race)?
Do you understand you can’t “educate” people into supporting your positions?
Have you studied framing? Do you know the difference between framing and messaging?
Do you know what an “elevator speech” is and why it’s important?
The earlier and more completely you have all this figured out the better chance you’ll have of winning!
(Thanks to Deb Pitzrick and Cheryl Poling for their campaign and party leadership experience and their contributions to this article.)