In Barack Obama’s farewell address, he challenged his audience not to be complacent. “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”
He was absolutely right.
Although most people choose to grumble amongst themselves when things in our country don’t go the way that they would like, the way to open the door to change in our communities is through rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.
If you’ve never done it before, making the decision to run for office is momentous. You will need to be tenacious to push forward through the long road of hard work and sacrifice ahead of you, and you need a team to help you get there.
Let’s start with the basics.
Carefully consider your decision to run
Elected officials are expected to serve the public, first and foremost. Your constituents will expect you to make sacrifices, focusing your time and efforts toward improving the lives of those you represent. Your family and friends will not be able to get as much attention from you as they may be used to and, unless you currently work a highly demanding job, you will most likely have little or no free time to pursue your hobbies and interests.
If you think that running would be worth the sacrifice, before you begin you need to evaluate whether or not you are the right fit for the office that interests you.
- Make sure that you thoroughly understand the requirements and responsibilities of the office to see if you have the interest and ability to fulfill the necessary duties.
- Consider whether or not you are willing to live your life in the spotlight, where everyone will hold your actions to a higher moral standard.
- Discuss your plans to run with your family and close friends. Running for office is a team effort and is difficult to achieve without the support of the people closest to you.
- Take a close look at your finances. Running a campaign may take time away from your current job. Do you have the financial stability to handle a decrease in income? While it is possible to run for office without a significant amount of money in savings, a lack of reserves makes things more challenging.
- Make sure that take care of any legal issues that may come up during the election. Are all of your taxes filed? Do you have outstanding traffic violations? Are all child support obligations taken care of, fees or penalties paid?
- Think about how your plan to raise the funds for your campaign. You can get an idea of how much you will need by looking at campaign public disclosures from past races. Can you fund the campaign yourself? Will you ask friends and family members to contribute? Do you have other groups that you are affiliated with that you can approach?
Once you’ve determined that running for office is right for you, it’s time to get started.
Building Your Camp
Although you may be an independent self-starter, running a successful campaign takes far more work than one person could possibly do on his or her own. You will need a motivated team to cover all of the departments that need to be handled.
Forming a steering committee from the most motivated members of your friends, family and supporters is a good place to start. They can help you prioritize the tasks ahead of you and determine the right course of action. They can also assist you in filling the vital roles of your campaign, such as Campaign Manager and Treasurer, and possibly create a basic strategy for your campaign.
If you think you can afford to hire a professional campaign manager with the experience needed to get you into office, it is a good idea to do so. Professional campaign managers are familiar with all of the necessary requirements and can help you craft a winning campaign strategy based on your strengths.
Professional campaign managers can coordinate the various factors that go into a successful office bid and know the best way to go about fulfilling the signature requirements that many states have. They can also lay out a campaign timeline with all relevant deadlines for every team in your campaign.
Although you may be tempted to begin fundraising right away, hold off until you have carefully read and understood the complete requirements, fees and filing dates for candidates on the website of the Secretary of State for your state. Some states, such as California and Florida, require that you file the correct forms before you collect any funds.
Ways to run for office
In general, you can run for office one of three different ways:
- By seeking the nomination of a political party that is recognized in your state
- As an independent
- As a write-in candidate
Each method has different requirements, which vary from state to state. Unlike candidates nominated by a political party, write-in candidates have to be manually added the ballot by the voter.
Get to Know Your Constituents
If you are planning to represent your community, state or nation, you need to know what issues matter most to them.
Find out who the influencers in your voter base are and connect with them to hear their opinions about what needs to be changed.
Attend civic events and town hall meetings. Meet with issue-based groups. Find out what problems people face in the community or communities that you plan to represent. Ask questions if you are not familiar with something. Most of the time, people are happy to have their voices heard and you can begin winning their hearts by listening to their needs.
After you have familiarized yourself with the specific requirements of your state, filed the appropriate paperwork and paid any necessary fees, you need to start fundraising.
Although the campaign with the highest budget will not always win, it will definitely have the advantage. The more money that your campaign has to spend, the more you can spend on reaching your voter base and getting them on your side.
Fundraising is usually an ongoing part of the campaign and you will find yourself thanking people for their contributions for a long time to come.
Most candidates start fundraising close to home, with the friends and family who believe in them and who are willing to put their money where their mouths are.
After that, it’s a good idea to reach out to groups that can identify with you to see if you can win them to your side. You will best know if you would be a good candidate to represent their interests. If you belong to a religion, try contacting churches and faith-based groups to see if you can connect with their members.
If you are a minority, seek out other minority groups to contact. It may not even matter if the group is the same minority that you are, if you have views that align with the views of the group. Women’s groups are a good outlet for women running for office.
Seek out people with a history of contributing to campaigns. They will be more likely to contribute to your campaign, too.
Be sure that you carefully comply with the campaign finance requirements of your state. These generally cover:
- Limits on much money you can receive from individuals, political parties, and organizations such as committees, unions and corporations
- Minimum contribution amounts that need to be itemized and reported
- How often contributions need to be reported
Contribution limits may vary depending on who is making the contribution and which office you are running for.
Some states prohibit contributions from certain groups. Michigan, Ohio and Missouri, for example, do not allow campaign contributions from corporations or unions.
Other states, like Missouri, are more relaxed and have no limits on campaign contributions, although they do have requirements for reporting contributions.
Establish Your Position
This is one of the most crucial aspects of your campaign. If you have a good sense of the problems that matter most to your constituents, you need to develop a well-thought-out, specific approach to solving them.
Vague statements and circular talk leave your voter base wondering how you plan to accomplish your goals. Having concrete facts and figures that back up your plan creates a strong impression and makes you seem well-prepared.
Come up with and refine your elevator pitch. Imagine that you are in an elevator with a potential voter and you have to give them a basic idea of who you are and what you stand for before you reach the lobby. You will have many opportunities for this type of brief contact and using this time well will create a positive impression. Your elevator speech should be 30 seconds or less.
It’s also a good idea to have a stump speech that you can easily deliver at events. Your stump speech should touch on the most emotional, compelling reasons why voters should choose you in three to five minutes.
Communicate with your Supporters
Once you have a solid position, you need to make sure that as many voters as possible know what it is before election day. Thanks to modern technology, there is a wide variety of communication methods available.
Begin with consistent branding and messaging. Develop a strong, but simple logo and a memorable slogan. Make sure that you promote both on your website, in all campaign literature, whenever you appear in person and throughout your team of supporters. You want people to strongly identify your name with your branding and message.
Build a fully fleshed-out online presence. Remember that many voters may never meet you in person, so be sure that your website, social media accounts and profiles capture your voice and fully express your most convincing viewpoints.
Take advantage of opportunities for earning media time by making sure that newspapers, radio stations, bloggers, and other correspondents know when you are doing something that is newsworthy. Consider promoting yourself through paid advertising through social media and other channels.
Craft an onboarding kit that shares your elevator speech and stump speech with all members of your team so that they can speak with your voice when they are campaigning for you. No matter how hard you campaign, you will never be able to knock on all of the doors, make all of the calls and shake every hand that they do. Make sure that the contact they make represents you well.
Pat Yourself on the Back
No matter what the outcome of your bid for office, if you create a solid plan and then follow it, adjusting for changes as you go, you will put your best foot forward and give yourself every opportunity for success.