These 21 rules for winning a campaign represent what one might learn in ‘basic training,’ but no matter how many campaign schools I teach, I find that it always benefits rookies and veterans to review the basics. Before you get too far along in your political campaign, make sure you know the basics.
1. Send out your family and friends letter.
Every campaign needs money when it gets started. An important early test of your ability to raise money is your family and friends fundraising letter. This is a letter to the people who know you best and if they won’t contribute, you don’t have much right asking others to support you financially. Most candidates find great success with this effort. It can raise between $2,000 and $20,000 for most candidates (depending on who your family and friends are, it could raise far more). This should be the first letter you send out at the beginning of your campaign. It’s designed to raise money for your literature piece and other startup costs. It is also designed to help you gauge whether or not you should be running.
2. Bring on board volunteers to get the critical jobs done.
Don’t try to run the campaign yourself. Bring on volunteers and then delegate, delegate, delegate. Whenever I visit with candidates who say, “It takes more time to get volunteers organized than it does to just get the job done myself,” I know we have a candidate in trouble managing their volunteer resources. Early on, you need to find the right people to manage volunteers, yard signs, fundraising, events, and other critical campaign tasks. It’s more important to have key volunteers than it is to have one overall campaign manager (although both are important and helpful). As you first put together your campaign, work to bring on good people who have experience or have succeeded in other volunteer arenas. Don’t mistake someone who is good at business as someone who will be good in the volunteer world because it rarely works that way. Retirees are great as well as stay at home parents.
3. Raise your name identification.
Make sure your campaign plan has adequate tactics to raise your name identification. This can be done with yard signs in local campaigns and broadcast media in larger campaigns. Don’t confuse the distribution of pencils or combs as a name identification tactic. They don’t work that well. An inexpensive notepad delivered while knocking on doors or at parades can be an effective tool early in the campaign. An important rule of thumb is that a voter must usually be exposed to your name at least 6 times before it will remain in their memory. And in any election, it’s important to first establish your name identification and then paint the picture for voters as to what the name really means in government service.
4. Don’t nickel and dime your campaign.
Too many campaigns waste precious campaign dollars on non-essential spending items. You give some candidates a few dollars and they start writing the checks. It’s important to bank most of your money until the last 30 days of the campaign. This means being frugal and saying “NO” to many of the spending opportunities that arise. Small ads in various newsletters and newspapers during the early days of the campaign should be avoided. Campaign trinkets should be avoided, except where they are a specific part of a voter outreach effort (such as notepads or refrigerator magnets while knocking on doors). For every dollar you spend on an early project, ask yourself if it will gain you more votes than if you had saved it and spent it on a media ad the last 10 days of a campaign.
5. Ask for the big dollars.
Winning a campaign, means raising the money you need to implement your plan. The bottom line with campaign fundraising at almost all levels of government is that you must find the people willing to write checks and personally ask them for the money. Too many candidates will send out one fundraising letter, hold one event and expect to pay for the campaign. As nice as that would be, it rarely works. To raise money, it’s necessary to personally ask major donors to write a check. That means identifying the big donors, calling their office, setting up a meeting and showing up to make the “ask” in person. It’s the most effective way to raise big dollars in a short amount of time.
6. Line up well-known endorsers.
To raise money, gain votes and generally create a sense of momentum, it’s important to line up at least a few well-known people in your district or state to support you publicly. As you work to put all the pieces together, it’s helpful to have other elected officials or party activists who have signed on publicly with your campaign. By doing that, it gives the cue to other interested parties that you are a legitimate, viable candidate. Endorsements will generally not sway enough votes to win a campaign on their own, but while gathering volunteers and campaign contributions, they can be very helpful.
7. Go directly to the voter.
Don’t lose sight of the old-fashioned basics in campaigning – personally asking people for their vote. Nothing is more essential to winning a campaign. For local campaigns, this means going door to door. For Congressional campaigns, it means being at events, parades and meetings to personally ask for support. Sometimes a candidate will rely too much on paid advertising and lose sight of the personal contact…bad idea. Make sure you run a highly visible campaign and touch the voters personally. The ripple effect can make a big difference.
8. Have two or three good reasons people should vote for you.
Make sure voters have two or three good reasons to support your candidacy – and penetrate with those points. Votes aren’t going to remember more than two or three, so don’t waste valuable resources trying to have everyone read your manifesto. If you are successful in leaving each voter with one good reason to vote for you, victory will likely be yours. Issues still drive voters in most campaigns and people need to know why your election will make their life better. Once they understand that and commit it to their memory, your job will be a lot easier on Election Day.
9. Don’t be vague – be specific.
Too many candidates want to base their campaign platform on platitudes like, “open lines of communication,” or “honest, open government.” Just as these vague promises meant nothing to you when other candidates used them, they’ll mean nothing to voters when your campaign uses them. As you put together the issues for your campaign, don’t be afraid of taking a stand on real, specific issues. After all, taking a stand on issues is what campaigns and elections are about. Perhaps your campaign will challenge a vote by your local school board, city council or state legislature. Or perhaps you’ll propose a tax cut that means less revenue for government programs. Either way, it’s the difference between letting people know that you have some depth and allowing voters to leave their view of you undefined.
I know this seems painfully obvious, but I’m constantly surprised how hard it is for some candidates to smile. The picture on your literature should have a great smile (or the best you can do). If your initial pictures come back without any good smiles, don’t settle. Have the pictures retaken and get a good smile. Make sure you look friendly. Too many voters judge the intangible “friendliness” factor on how you look in your own media. This rule also holds true when you are out campaigning. Always remember Jimmy Carter during his first campaign for president. He always had a smile on and it got him more mileage than one might think. After he was elected, his smile disappeared and malaise set in (not to mention a inflation and hostages). Don’t make the same mistake.
11. Think in terms of Multi-level Marketing
If you’ve ever had a friend walk you through a multi-level marketing business (like Amway), then you know how the system works. One person gets 5 friends and then they each get 5 friends. Pretty soon, you have hundreds of people in your system making money for you. For some people it works well, for others it doesn’t. Campaigns organizations can succeed and fail in the same way. It’s important to find five to ten close dedicated campaign volunteers who are willing to go out and recruit others to be involved at some level. As with anything else, if those people enjoy their experience and like the candidate, it will naturally spread to others. That’s important; because campaign networking can mean many things, including volunteer work, campaign contributions and votes.
12. Don’t be afraid to contrast your campaign on issues.
Some candidates are afraid to acknowledge that they even have an opponent. Get over it. Campaigns are about giving voters choices. It’s a good thing for our democracy to have candidates contrast their positions on issues. Having said that, you don’t have to contrast on issues that are to your disadvantage. In a competitive race or a race where you are behind, finding contrast can be an important part of your strategy. Find those issues where your opponent is on the wrong side with voters and let them know it. You may have a smaller group of voters who have strong feelings on an issue that most voters don’t care about. If you and your opponent differ on that issue and you’re on the right side, then use mail or other mediums to penetrate with voters on that issue.
13. Decide where you stand on important issues – and stay there!
When it comes to difficult issues, sometimes candidates have been known to waffle. I know it’s hard to believe, but yes, candidates do waffle. In most cases, however, the candidate would be better off taking a position and sticking to it. To waffle on a gut level issue like abortion, the death penalty or a local zoning issue only withers support among those who are supporting you and makes the other side not trust you. If you haven’t formed an opinion on an issue, it’s okay to let people know you’re studying it. But once you’ve staked out a position, don’t waffle or change your opinion in response to campaign pressure. At times you may need to deflect attention to another issue more favorable to you, but don’t create a second story that makes you look more like a weather vane blowing in the wind than the sturdy oak people want in their elected official.
14. Don’t assume people support you or oppose you.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that certain people or certain types of people oppose you. Too many Republicans start with the belief that union voters will naturally vote against them and Democrats do the same with business people. It’s true that a majority of these groups will likely follow their tendencies, but campaigns are won on the margin and that means making some inroads in your opponents natural constituencies. It’s a numbers game. Once you’ve secured your base, it’s important to win undecided voters and erode support among opposition groups. The same can be said of donors. Until a donor tells you “no” assume they are anxiously waiting to write you a check. Think positive and actively work to earn their support. To walk away without making an effort only ensures that the negative will occur.
15. Look people in the eye – and hold eye contact.
In 1995, I was meeting a number of presidential candidates and trying to decide who I would support. One of the early frontrunners was introduced to me. He made glancing eye contact and immediately began looking past me at the next person to shake hands with. I wasn’t offended, but I did feel like I at least deserved my moment of attention. It was a turnoff and I ended up supporting another candidate (who eventually became the nominee). While it’s true that campaigns are about meeting and persuading lots of people, it’s just as important that those meetings are productive. Being a candidate is like being a salesman. It’s great to make all those contacts, but people have to come away liking you. Being able to look people in the eye helps to create a personal connection and allows a voter to determine whether they think you are an honest person (hopefully they’ll conclude you are).
16. Look the part.
If you’re running for office in Manhattan, you probably need a tie. In rural Nebraksa, you probably don’t and in the blue collar neighborhoods of Michigan, you had better look like a regular person. The image you project in person or through your media needs to fit the image of your district. Be aware of the car you drive, the clothes you wear the way you keep your hair (not to mention piercings). A man with a ponytail will probably do fine in Berkeley or San Francisco, but in Wichita it won’t be an asset. Early on, ask your kitchen cabinet to be honest with you about image and appearance issues. If you need to tame the eyebrows or trim the nose hairs, someone needs to level with you about it. Remember that its best to get helpful criticism from your friends before you give your opponents the opportunity.
17. Educate yourself, but don’t sweat the minutiae.
If you’re a challenger running against an incumbent, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the knowledge and insider information the incumbent possesses. As intimidating as it can be, it’s nothing to be too concerned about. When an incumbent gets caught up in “government-speak” it can make them seem distant from the average voter and even out of touch. It’s important for challengers to have an understanding of the main issues as well as an ability to intelligently articulate a position on those issues. But don’t worry about obscure amendments, code sections, committee names or other unimportant details that are beyond the average voter.
18. Don’t bluff or BS voters.
No one has all the answers and no one expects you to be the exception. Do your part to educate yourself on important issues, but if you get a question about an issue that you are unsure about or maybe have no clue, go ahead and let the voter know that. It’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know a lot about that issue, could you fill me in on your thoughts?” Or perhaps you could say: “I’ve had a couple people mention that issue to me, but I don’t know enough about it yet.” Most voters appreciate the honesty and also a candidate who takes the time to listen and learn.
19. Don’t fire until you see the white’s of their eyes.
During the revolutionary war, green recruits wanted to fire their weapons as soon as they would see the enemy across the field. Unfortunately, bullets didn’t have enough force to fly that far and would fall harmlessly to the ground. The veterans would caution the new recruits to hold their fire until they could see “the whites of their eyes.” Campaign media spending can be the same. Voters aren’t focused on the campaign until the final weeks or days of an election and that’s the time when most of a campaign’s media money must be launched. For too many campaigns, however, valuable dollars have been frittered away on early media, high consulting fees, combs, or other expenditures that might be better off being spent in the final days. The bottom line is this: a well-run campaign has the self-discipline to save its campaign dollars until the end.
20. End in a big way.
Some campaigns sputter to their finish, others end in a big way. For most campaigns, ending in a big way is important. You can do this in many ways: Make sure your paid media builds to a crescendo at the end gaining strength and not waning. You may also want to have a last weekend literature drop throughout the district or even decorate a truck and create your own neighborhood parade with volunteers and a bullhorn. In some cases, a news conference or a big event with a celebrity endorsement will bring the late news coverage you need.
21. Work vote-by-mail hard.
In almost all states, vote-by-mail (VBM), previously known as absentee ballots, have become a large part of every major election. It also means that a larger percentage of voters are casting their vote earlier than Election Day. This creates a strategic resource decision for voter contact resources. In most cases, candidates can get a list of VBM participants when they request a ballot. This list of voters needs to, at the least, receive persuasion mail from the candidate. If possible, a phone call from the candidate or a volunteer from the campaign is even better. It’s a critical mistake to ignore this group of voters as many campaigns do. Beyond contacting those who have requested ballots, it’s also important for campaigns to utilize VBM in an effort to ensure high voter turnout among favorable groups. That may mean mailing VBM request forms to those in your political party, neighborhood, church or civic club. Modern campaigns use every tool as their disposal. For more and more campaigns, maximizing turnout through VBM is one of those tools.
There you have it, 21 rules for winning a campaign. Election season is just around the corner. Work hard, follow these 21 rules and you’ll be well on your way to victory.