BUILDING BETTER CAMPAIGNS
June 2003, Campaigns and Elections by Dotty LeMieux
Every year a new flock of would be politicians enters the electoral fray, often unprepared and inexperienced at what it takes to run a credible campaign. When they lose, they are often frustrated, burned out and disillusioned with the system. Too many good candidates throw in the towel and never try again.
Here are some common pitfalls the first time candidate should be aware of to build her campaign on firm ground. Following each are some underlying myths and facts about each pitfall. A few examples drawn from recent elections illustrate some of them.
1. Not hiring a consultant: Often, first time candidates, especially those who consider themselves “progressive” are reluctant to hire a professional to help them plan their strategy, craft a message or get the message out.
Partly this is due to a novice candidate’s lack of funding. This of course does not apply to the fabulously wealthy. Another reason is an ironic sense of not wanting to appear too well organized.
And then there’s the nearly universal fear of asking for money. We’ll address that later.
Myth: Consultants are too expensive. As a progressive or “populist” I can use “shoe leather” in place of money. People will think I’m just another slick politician if I use professionally produced materials.
Fact: Without a consultant you will spend valuable campaign time reinventing the wheel, resulting in at least some of the other 9 mistakes first time candidates make.
Example: City Council candidate who read a few how-to articles and decided he could run his own campaign. He soon had poor campaign materials, a fuzzy message and disgruntled volunteers. He looked harried during the whole campaign and lost to another novice who sought professional advice and followed it.
Myth: Only slick politicians raise a lot of money. PAC money isn’t “clean.” I don’t like asking people for money.
Fact: Money is STILL the mother’s milk of politics. If you don’t have at least a bare bones budget with a realistic estimate of costs for direct mail, good targeted lists from a reputable vendor (not the list of every voter in your district you can get from the County Registrar of Voters), a decent photograph and key non-volunteer staff, you will end up exhausted, broke and unelected. Even the Sierra Club and other worthy organizations have PACs. You can be picky about who to ask for money, but don’t categorically reject the idea. And you have to ask to get it. Your chief fundraiser is YOU.
3: Do it yourself campaign materials. In the age of the computer, everyone’s a graphic designer. Printing your own brochures or relying on your cousin’s friend who does desk top publishing virtually assures you will confuse your voters (if you even reach them) with too much information and poorly designed graphics.
Your consultant has experience drafting the types of messages that appeal to voters, and a good graphics designer experienced in campaigns can put that message into a format that will catch the voters’ attention and insure they get your message.
Myth: Professionally designed mail is “slick,” I can’t afford it. Everybody knows what I stand for, or if they don’t now, when they read my nine point program, they’ll be impressed.
Fact: The average voter will spend 7 seconds looking at your mail on the way to the garbage can.
Example: Supervisorial candidate who used a friend in advertising to design campaign brochures. Her issues got lost in materials no one read. She got lost on election day.
4: Relying totally on volunteers. It’s amazing how many other commitments people have on phone bank night! Have you actually ever tried to write a brochure by committee? Volunteers are absolutely essential and can take on a lot of responsibility in a campaign, but they don’t substitute for professionally designed mail and other services you need.
Myth: My volunteers will be loyal to me; they know the district and they are committed to my issues. Therefore, they are best able to write my brochures and phone messages.
Fact: You need volunteers. They are your base. But they get burned out; they have other commitments; they need guidance. They are a vital part of the campaign; they are not the whole campaign.
5: Vowing not to run a “negative” campaign. New candidates are often shocked by the negative campaign ads they’ve seen on TV and in other campaigns and vow to keep theirs clean and positive. The corollary to this is allowing yourself to be sidetracked by an attack on you.
Myth: I can win on the issues. My voters will think less of me if I use negatives. If I get attacked, I’ll just explain the truth. The voters will understand.
Fact: Opposition research is critical. It is the only way you can make pointed comparisons showing your opponent’s “negatives” without being accused of mudslinging. If you’re attacked, you need to quickly respond, then get back to your message. A good consultant experienced in preparing campaign materials knows how to do this effectively.
6: Lacking an effective press plan: Many new candidates either don’t trust the press so they ignore them, or they rely too much on what gets written in the papers, treating reporters like campaign workers and then being surprised when they are quoted out of context.
Myth: The press is going to go for the more “establishment” candidate. I don’t need to bother showing up at a pre-determined editorial board meeting; the reporters ask me lots of questions so they must like me. The more I talk, the better coverage I’ll get.
Fact: Reporters are looking for stories. If you’re interesting with clearly defined issues, they’ll cover you. But they’re not your friends. It’s better to ask to call back when a reporter phones for a quote on a hot topic. Take ten minutes to think, consult with trusted advisors and compose a short sound bite.
You may not get the endorsement, but if you miss the editorial board meeting, you may get short shrift when you want the press to cover your issues and end up looking like a sore loser, instead of a gracious winner.
And remember, NOTHING is off the record.
7: Not raising money, or expecting your fundraiser to do it for you: Candidates hate to ask for money. They hire a fundraiser and then balk when the fundraiser presents them with a plan that depends on the candidate’s participation.
Myth: My fundraiser is getting a good salary (or percentage) and she should be out there collecting funds. I can’t ask for money. It’s demeaning and people will think I’m desperate.
Fact: The candidate is the best person to do the asking. Your fundraiser can help you identify sources of funding, plan events and make follow up calls; but you need to make the sales pitch. You are your own best salesperson.
Example: A State Assembly candidate used her own money to hire staff, including a fundraiser. Two well designed brochures took her from no name recognition to 25%, but her refusal to make calls on her own behalf resulted in not being able to send any mail for the last crucial two weeks of the election. She finished with 25% of the vote. Would she necessarily have won? Maybe not. But a credible campaign would have positioned her for another run in the next go round.
8: Not listening to your consultant, switching consultants or trying to please everyone: Some candidates can’t say no. They forget there’s a chain of command, and want to take everyone’s advice. They’re nervous and insecure and it shows.
Myth: My second cousin Greg is in sales and he thinks we’re doing it all wrong. My neighbor doesn’t like my picture on the latest campaign brochure, so let’s do it over.
Fact: You hired a consultant and staff to advise you based on their experience in doing campaigns. You can’t be all things to all people. You need to stick to your campaign plan, veering off only when it is clearly not working.
Example: A Council candidate in a major city had avoided mistakes 1-7, but couldn’t say no to any “good” idea he heard. The consultant was pulling out her hair with his rewrites and design changes. A too large campaign committee had to sign off on everything, and despite having enough money to be viable, he came in dead last in a four person field.
9: Mixing your message: Candidates have a lot to say. They care deeply about the state of their district; that’s why they’re running. But they only confuse the voter when they have too many issues like a tossed salad in their materials.
Myth: I need to list all my issues and tell the voters how I stand on each one, in complete detail. The voters expect me to take a stand on a broad spectrum of issues.
Fact: Voters want to know where you stand on the two or three compelling issues that matter in their lives. If traffic is in the headlines every day, you can bet that’s an issue voters care about. Tell them what you will do about the problem in one or two short sentences.
Then tell them again, in every piece of material you create, your debates, phone messages and in the press.
10. Getting caught short at the end: Yikes! The election is in two weeks, and you’re out of money; your campaign manager has the flu and your most stalwart volunteer phone banker has a sudden urge to visit her grandchildren.
This isn’t really a mistake; it’s almost inevitable, but if you’ve avoided the first nine mistakes, you won’t panic and you and your staff and volunteers will dig deep into pockets and brain pans for creative ways to get you through to victory.
For example, call your best donors for one last contribution, detailing how their money will make the difference. Hire Manpower workers to deliver your pieces door to door. You may have some of your best brochures saved up for just such a contingency. If not, consider having your printer reprint one he’s kept on file.
If you’ve taken steps to keep good lists, send a simple but powerful message, keep volunteers busy but not overwhelmed, you can weather the storm at the end. Even if you don’t win, you can be sure you will have laid a foundation for a further run at this or another office.
Dotty LeMieux founded GreenDog Campaigns in 1998 and has maintained a steady 75% win rate for women, first time and challenger candidates. She also presents training programs in conjunction with National Women’s Political Caucus, the Democratic Party and other activist groups. Her articles have been published in campaign magazines and online, and she recently presented a nationally broadcast “Webinar” for Winning Campaigns Magazine on the subject of negative campaigning.