A Step-by-Step Guide to Preparing for a Political Campaign. The expert’s guide on how to create your message, finding influential people who can help you win, constructing an inspiring stump speech, raising early money, finding your opponent’s weakness, and mastering the art of making news in a political campaign.
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This begins a series on how to prepare for a political campaign. I’ll be discussing the art of developing your message, your story, how to convey to voters your fundamental notions of right and wrong, what you should know about your jurisdiction, how to raise money, where to find it, and the various ways to disseminate your message to the voters.
I’ll begin with something seldom discussed, but fundamental to what you are doing.
Step 1. Know thyself.
You were not born believing the things you do today. You were not born with a moral code, or a particular notion of right and wrong. You were not born believing what you regard today as fundamental truth.
All of you, what you think, and believe, and say, and the way you act, is a product of your journey, what you have learned, the people you have encountered, that you have seen, heard and experienced during your time on earth.
That made you who you are. And it is you who will be asking voters to place in you the power to govern on their behalf. It is impossible for voters to know you if you don’t know yourself.
So, have a seat take a mental journey through your life. What is your earliest memory? Why do you remember it?
What kind of relationship did you have with those who raised you? Were they strict, or kind, or demanding? Were their times when the relationship was strained. How did those who raised you shape the person you are today?
Think about the teachers you had in grade school. Do you remember any that had an important influence on you? Or took a special interest in your well-being? If so, what is it that you remember and why?
It is in our junior high and high school years that we begin to develop social relationships, discover subjects that interest us, things we do well, and things we don’t. A time when we discover our passions.
Are the ones you had then still yours, or have experiences since helped you discover new ones?
If you served in the military, what did you learn or how did the training you received affect your view of country, honor, duty?
If you went to college, who were the friends you had? What were the clubs you joined? Did any of your professors profoundly affect your thinking, your point of view, or what you decided to do with your life? Do you remember a book you read or a course you took that somehow changed you or exposed you to a different way of thinking?
Think about the jobs you’ve held, the people you’ve worked with, bosses and colleagues, those you became close to. Recall those you’ve met in civic and charitable organizations, your volunteer activity, things you may have seen or heard that you still remember.
What was the worst day of your life? What was the happiest day? What are your proudest accomplishments? Why take yourself through this exercise?
It is to help you understand the turning points in your own journey. Those occasions that changed the way you think. The way you behave. Your point of view. The you that you are today.
Knowing those will make you a better candidate. Sharing stories about those important times in your life will help voters better understand your motivation for running.
A political campaign is a stressful inconvenience. Asking people for money. Time away from work and family. Absorbing the brickbats inherent to political combat.
You will have difficult days. Reacquainting yourself with what brought you to present day will help you get through them. You’ll better understand your quest for power, the cause you hope to advance, the movement you hope to ignite, or the difference you hope to make.
The best friend you’ll ever have in politics is knowing the higher purpose you seek to serve.
Step 2. Create Your Message.
This is about how to identify and compile the elements of your campaign message.
Voters have five basic questions about any political candidate.
Are you qualified?
What values do your hold sacred?
What are you going to do for me?
Why should I trust you?
What makes you better than your opponent?
It is incumbent on you to answer these questions during the course of a campaign.And to do so in a manner that is easily understood, in clear and compelling language. Using as few words as possible.
Some suggestions on finding answers to those five questions I mentioned.
What makes you qualified? Voters want proof that you have done something useful in your life, that you have your feet on the ground, that you have your head on straight. Did you graduate college, start a business, write a book, serve your community, raise a family, win an important award, volunteer in a civic or community organization, advance a cause, hold and keep a job, excel at your profession. Voters do not vote for resumes. But they do what to know that you are real, and that you’ve done something that qualifies you to govern on their behalf. Proof that you are not a fraud, a crook or a con-artist.
What Values do You Hold Sacred? Voters want to know that your values and fundamental notions of right and wrong are in sync with theirs. Examine your own notion of good and evil, the vile and the virtuous. What makes you angry? What do you regard as injustice? Are there lines in your moral code that you will not cross under any circumstance? Do you believe those with means should help those who have none? That children should not go hungry? What are your fundamental principles that guide you own life and conduct? We all have some sort of moral code. It is your job in a campaign to let voters know that what grounds them also grounds you.
What are you going to do for me? Voters don’t care about you. They care about what they are going to get from you.
What wrongs will you right? What injustice will you correct? What evils will you eradicate? How will you improve the quality of life for your constituents? What programs will you establish? What initiatives will you pursue? What policies will you change? What cause will you champion? How do you plan to improve your country, state, city or community? It is your job to tell voters what they get by voting for you.
If you are having trouble coming up with ideas, read the newspapers and you’ll find plenty of problems that need to be fixed. Drive around your jurisdiction and note the problems you see. Form a mastermind group of the smartest people you know and ask them. Talk to civic and community leaders in your jurisdiction.
Why should I trust you? Voters are inherently skeptical of promises made by political candidates. They need proof that they can trust you to do what you say you will. A great way to answer the trust question is the story you tell about why you are running. What happened during your life that made you passionate about having the power to make a difference? What was it that you saw or heard that led you to believe what you do today, and compels you to seek the job you do? What personal experience have you had that drives you fix the problems and challenges of our time? Those who offer voters a compelling story that explains their why are those who attract deeply committed supporters, contributors and volunteers.
What makes you better than your opponent? Voters are busy people. Don’t make them hunt for the answer to this question. In a one-on-one contest, it will be incumbent upon you to tell voters why they should vote for you instead of the person you are running against. It could be a difference on an important policy question. A difference in the story you tell. A difference in your moral code and set of cherished values. A difference of priorities on problems that need to be solved and how.
This exercise is how you identify the elements of your campaign narrative. Once you have them, you can begin building and constructing your campaign message into a crisp, concise, compelling stump speech or video that you can use in your campaign. In the next installment in this series, I’ll talk about how to do that.
Step 3. Know These Rules
It is impossible to win without knowing the rules for getting on the ballot. Impossible to create a strategy without knowing the rules about who gets to vote, when they vote, and how they vote. Impossible to fine tune your message without knowing the demographics of people in your jurisdiction.
If you don’t, you’ll get your clock cleaned.
Among the things you must know? What are the rules for getting on the ballot? In some jurisdictions, it’s very simple. You pay a small fee, or gather a few signatures, file your paperwork and on the ballot you go.
In other jurisdictions, thousands of signatures are required, and there are very specific rules about when petitions can be circulated, the partisan affiliation of voters allowed to sign them, and the kinds of people allowed to carry them.
You can’t get on the ballot without knowing, and complying with the legal requirements.
Each and every year, hundreds of candidates get thrown off the ballot because they fail to comply with the law.
Who Gets to Vote?
In general elections, it’s pretty straight forward. People who are registered are eligible to vote. That said, the deadline for registering to vote varies by jurisdiction. In some places its 30 days before the election, others 45.
In some places, voters can register on election day. The registration rules can affect your strategy.
In primaries, some jurisdictions say only registered members of a party can vote. In others, unaffiliated voters can also vote. Some states like California have are called jungle primaries, where all candidates face each other in a primary and the top two vote getters advance to the general, regardless of their party affiliation.
When and How Can Voters Vote?
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, many states relaxed their rules on when and how people can vote. Because of that, a record number voted by mail in the 2020 election. In some states, voters had to request an absentee ballot. In others, ballots were automatically mailed to registered voters.
Some states allow early in-person voting at designated locations starting weeks before an election. Others limit early voting to the final two weeks. Some states have drop boxes for ballots. Others require they be mailed. Some states permit ballot harvesting. Others not. Some states say an absentee ballot will be counted if received within 10 days after an election. Others require that it be received by election day.
There is a truth about political campaigns seldom mentioned. You cannot properly execute a strategy if you don’t have this information. Those who master the rules usually win. Those who don’t lose.
Examine the partisan affiliation and voter turnout history in the jurisdiction where you are running. Who and how many normally vote varies by year.
In presidential years, turnout is highest. In off-year elections, it is often less than half the turnout of Presidential years. The pool of voters who vote in off-year elections is often demographically very different than those who vote in even-numbered years.
Go back four in your jurisdiction and examine voter turnout. Look at variations in the number of votes cast. Model your expected turnout based upon the year that you are running.
For example, if you are running for an office with a four year term in an election to be held in 2021, you should look at 2017 as your turnout model. If you are running in 2022, closely examine the turnout in the 2018 election.
The cost of your advertising is affected by the number of voters you have to reach, and that is something you need to know at the outset of a campaign. Once you do know, you can begin figuring out your election day coalition.
That task will not be completed until you have obtained a demographic profile of your jurisdiction, including age, gender, ethnicity, race, major employers, income and education levels. Voting preference and voting habits are in part dependent on the demography of a voter.
You cannot get on the ballot unless you comply with the legal requirements. You can’t play the game without knowing the rules. You cannot property strategize a campaign without knowing the contours of the playing field, the kinds of voters who will likely vote for you, those who won’t, and those who are persuadable.
Everything I have mentioned is something you should know at the outset of a campaign, before you have fine-tuned your announcement speech, before you develop your campaign strategy.
Step 4: How to Identify and Court Opinion Leaders who Matter.
Who are they? Political party leaders, elected officials, those in their jurisdiction whose opinion matters, those with a large following who influence the way rank and file voters think and the way they vote.
They have a profound influence on who gets on the ballot, the money you raise, the number of volunteers you have, the doors of influence that are opened to you, the connections they can make to people they know that you don’t.
As you prepare for a political campaign, start by making a list of influential people you already know. Go through the contact list on your cell phone. People you know to be respected and influential in your state or community. Look at your LinkedIn Connections, Facebook Friends, people you know from places you’ve worked or served with in civic and community organizations.
Once you have inventoried the people you know, construct a list of people you need to know but don’t. These influencers will come from five very distinct communities. Political party leaders. Elected officials of your party. Leaders of important interest groups, civic and community leaders, and those who lead important ethnic groups.
I’ll go through each group and explain why they are important, starting with political party leaders. You need to know who they are, and there will be some you need to meet with. If you are seeking the nomination of a political party, you will need to visit with those who lead it. Your life will be easier if you have the support of party leaders. Far better to have it than not. Even if the party organization decides to support your opponent, you may be able to establish strong relationships with some of the party leaders who regard you the better candidate – – people who may help to you even if you don’t get the party endorsement.If you ignore them, if you are a stranger to them, or proclaim at the outset that leaders of your party are the enemy, they will make you the enemy. Many candidates have learned the hard way that those who control the levers of power inside political parties have ways of making life very difficult for those who scorn them. In some states party organizations have the power to prevent people they don’t like from getting on the ballot.
The second community of influencers you should speak with are elected officials of your party. They too are worthy of a courtesy call, and the really important ones a personal visit. Many will have great suggestions on putting together your campaign, because they’ve done it before. If they are willing to open up, you learn important information about who you can trust and who you can’t, who has power and who doesn’t, and minefields to avoid. And even if they are not willing to endorse you, you may find they are willing to help you behind the scenes.
There is another truth I should mention about why this is important. Lack of familiarity breeds suspicion. If none of the elected officials of your party know you, have never met you, never heard of you, they are not going to take you or your campaign seriously.
The third community of influencers you should seek to court of the leaders of important interest Groups. Some are extraordinary powerful. Teachers unions, Civil service employees, health care workers unions, trial lawyers, right-to-life and pro-choice groups, the NRA, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, anti-tax groups, Tax fairness organizations identity groups, in some states the farm bureau and the chamber of commerce.
This is not an exhaustive list. Nor can I tell you which ones you court without knowing more about your jurisdiction. Regardless of where you live, there exists interest groups that are an important source of support, and whose support often determines who wins and who doesn’t. As you talk to party leaders and elected officials, they’ll be able to tell you which ones have real influence in your jurisdiction, and which ones you should be talking to.
The fourth group of people to court are Civic and Community Leaders. In your community it could be prominent ministers, the head of United Way or the Salvation Army, the President of the Chamber of Commerce, people who lead the Rotary or Kiwanis Club, or those who lead important community service organizations, civic institutions, or ones that promote popular causes like Mothers against drunk driving. Often these organizations are run or headed by pillars of a community, people who have enormous influence, and people who know a lot of other people you don’t. You’ll find your campaign easier to wage, and your efforts to network with important people easier if you take the time to meet important civic and community leaders in your jurisdiction. And even if they can’t endorse you, they will know people who might be able to help you.
How do you find these organizations and their leaders? Party officials and office holders will be able to tell you. Or go to google and type Civic and Community organizations in your community
The fifth and final group of influencers I shall mention are those who lead ethnic groups. They are especially important in urban areas. America is a tribal nation. We tend to live in neighborhoods where others look like us, think like us, talk like us. And we have a habit of voting for candidates that fit that description. That is especially true in urban areas. Each ethnic group has its set of support organizations, leaders who advocate on their behalf, celebrate their history, or help members of their tribe with special needs, whether they be housing, health care, jobs, or economic support. It is the support of these ethnic group leaders that you need to court if they have a sizable population in your jurisdiction. Often you’ll find their tribal bonds are stronger than their bonds to a political party.
These are the five distinct community of leaders that can make or break your campaign. Must you have support from all of them? No. In fact I’ve helped many candidates overcome recalcitrant party organizations, corrupt party leaders, or the opposition of special interest groups. I can also say it is imperative that you look for early support from a least one of the groups I have mentioned. They are your source of early funding for your campaign, the infrastructure that you need to get your campaign off the ground, volunteers who can help you, key endorsements you receive, and ultimately the decision that rank and file voters make in the voting booth.
Step 5. Writing Your Stump Speech
Words are the most powerful drug humankind has ever known. The internet is the most powerful weapon ever invented. Few candidates truly appreciate the art of political poetry, elegance or eloquence. But the audiences who will hear your words or see you deliver them do.
During your campaign, every time you talk is a chance to emotionally connect with your audience. When you change the way people feel, when your words touch, move and inspire those who hear them, they are quick to contribute and volunteer.
Today I’ll talk about the art of your stump speech, an address that can be used at your formal announcement, with audiences during the course of your campaign, something that can be condensed into a campaign video for your website and used in social media.
A well-done video can make you an overnight celebrity, help you jump start a campaign and quickly rise from obscurity to prominence.
As you organize your stump speech, start with an outline of the 5 key components: Your Agenda, Your Story, Your Values/Moral Code, Your Bio, Your Unique Selling Proposition.
A good stump speech has all of the elements I just mentioned. Five to ten minutes long, 750 to1500 words.
Some tips about finding the elements of each component of your speech.
Your Agenda is what you are going to do for the people in your jurisdiction, state or country. The Wrongs You want to Right. Injustices You Want to Correct. Laws you’ll pass or change. Initiatives you’ll pursue. Programs you’ll initiate. How you planto improve the quality of life for those you seek to represent, or make your community a better place to live and raise a family.
I usually recommend that candidates mention at least three specific items, but never more than 5 in a stump speech. Your agenda should include items that you passionate about, and concerns shared by a large number of voters in your Jurisdiction.
What story can you tell that explains your deep commitment to the items in your issue agenda. What happened in your personal or professional journey that made you sensitive to these matters? What have you seen or heard that made you passionate about fixing the problems you want to solve? What experience propelled you to ask for the power to do something about them?
Your Values are your heartfelt beliefs and notions of right and wrong. Ask yourself which ones do you have in common with voters. What about your community service in civic organizations displays your devotion to people in need? What principles do you hold dear that you’ll never bend or break? What happened on your journey that served to mold your notions of good and evil?
From your biography, what can you tell voters about jobs you’ve held, the family you raised, the honors you’ve won, the business you started, the deeds you’ve done that prove to voters that you have some basic qualifications for the job?
What is Your Unique Selling Proposition? It’s what makes you different. If you are running in a multi-candidate field, what can you say that none of your opponents can say or will say?
What are you going to do that none of your competitors can do, or will do. If you are in a contest with one opponent, what is the contrast you want to make with your opponent, something that clearly defines the difference between you and your competitor.
Once you have assembled all the elements of your speech, it is time to start writing. Best to do that at a time of day when your creative energy is at its peak, with email and cell phone turned off. Once you have finished the first draft, let it sleep, then tackle it on successive days until you have it down to something crisp, concise and compelling.
This is how you construct a stump speech. The better it is, the more money you will raise, the more the volunteers you will have, the easier your path to victory.
Step 6. Raising Money
There is a myth about how money is raised for a political campaign. It is the notion that you need to do is send emails or run Facebook ads, and you’ll quickly have all the money you need to run for office.
It doesn’t work that way. It takes money to prospect for donors. It takes money to run ads. It takes money to rent or buy donor lists. What we call investment capital. If you want to win an election, you’ll have to be involved in raising it. And to properly prepare for a campaign you need to make a list of people that you are going to ask for money.
These are the tasks to make that happen.
Before you do anything else, make sure you know what the rules are. Federal candidates are governed by federal law. Each state has a different set of rules for state offices. Some counties and cities have yet another set of rules for local offices. Those rules govern who can contribute and who can’t, the amount donors can give, the information you must report, when and how those reports are filed.
Once you know the rules, abide them to the letter. If you get caught breaking them you will have a bad day.
Inventory the people you know. And divide them into two categories. Those who are family, relatives and close friends.And those who know you and like you, acquaintances with whom you have a good relationship.
Where do you find them? Start by looking at the names in the contact list on your smart phone. Then check your LinkedIn connections and Facebook friends.Next, go through you high school and college year books, your holiday card list.
Think about the places you’ve worked, the jobs you’ve held, and jot down the names of those you worked or collaborated with. If you own a company or business, make a list of suppliers or people you purchased items from.
Think of the civic and charitable organizations or clubs you have been involved with, or members of your church with whom you are acquainted.
When you have completed the lists, jot down the amount of money you are willing to ask them for, based up what you know about their ability to give. Not all of the money you raise will come from these two lists. But these two lists are a key source of your investment capital.
When you call or visit the people on your list, tell them how much you’d like them to give. A specific number. If you don’t, they won’t know and you will not get what you want.Don’t be afraid of asking too much. If they can’t give you what you ask for they’ll tell you.
Do not use script on your call. These are people you know, and if you sound like you are reading a script, they’ll wonder what’s wrong with you.
If someone you call says no, don’t take it personally. Move on to the next name.
If they ask you why you’re running, have a good answer about what you want to do, the cause you are fighting for, and why you need the power to make it happen.
Those who make a generous contribution to you can help you raise a lot more money if you treat them well. A gracious, handwritten thank you note is imperative.
Make sure you keep them updated on your progress and good news about your campaign.After they have been appropriately thanked, circle back and ask them if they would be willing to host a fundraiser, or dinner party, or email their friends on your behalf, or call their friends and raise money for you. This is the way you get your contributors to raise money from people they know that you don’t. Done well, during your campaign you’ll be creating an ever increasing number of large donors.
It is also how you raise the seed money that you in turn can use to hire some staff, rent or buy donor small donor lists that you can email, or advertise on social media to begin developing a small donor list that is uniquely yours.
Step 7. War Gaming
Once you have constructed your campaign message, it is time to take a full assessment of the political landscape, the minefields you may encounter,and how your opponent is going to react to what you do and say.
The first step is to take a clear measure of your opponent. Look at their voting record, where their money comes from, their biography and the truthfulness of what they claim about degrees they’ve earned, and places they’ve worked.
What are their issue positions, or times they have been inconsistent? What have they said in social media posts, in TV or newspaper interviews?
I could spend hours talking about surprising things I’ve learned about candidates through the years, including those who have served long in public office. Suffice to say that many have exaggerated their record, embellished their resume, and more than a few have been less than truthful about degrees they’ve earned.
Examining your opponent is not a frivolous exercise. It is an essential task.
When you’ve finished the research on your opponent, do the following:
Examine yourself and jot down what you believe to be your natural advantages and strengths. What about your biography, moral code, story or issue positions do you think voters will find appealing?
What would you consider your weaknesses? What is the principal difference between you and your opponent?
Next, Examine your opponent. And be brutally honest. What are your opponent’s natural strengths? Does your opponent have a better resume? More money. A longer record. A fervent following among certain slices of the electorate?
What about your opponent do you consider to be their greatest weakness?
Next, anticipate what your opponent will do as you gain steam and traction during the course of your campaign. How might your opponent seek to impugn your integrity, question your veracity, assault your moral code or assail your issue positions?
Might they assert that you are unqualified, unprepared, ill-suited for the job, out of touch with people in your jurisdiction or wrong on important issues.
Then War Game. Develop a plan to respond to everything your opponent might do, how you will counter the attack, change the subject or hit back with something you have discovered about your opponent.
Can you win a race without doing this? Yes, if you live in a district where victory is a foregone conclusion. But if you are running in a competitive jurisdiction, the candidate who does the best job in the boxing ring is the one who nearly always comes out on top.
Step 8. Making News
Step 1. Of all the revolutionary changes that have happened in political communication the past 10 years, there has been one constant. Candidates still talk to reporters. Journalists still play an important role in our discourse. What is said by or about candidates in newspapers, magazines, blogs, twitter, social media, on the radio and television can make or break a campaign.
Too often I see candidates who regard the news media as a nuisance to be endured; or in some cases a hostile force to be avoided. That approach will not advance your cause. It’s a good way to ensure the press will treat you an adversary. No matter how much you have to spend, it is hard to outshout those who buy their ink by the barrel, or have unfettered access to the airwaves.
Voters are influenced by things other than your paid political advertising. If you have no earned media strategy you’ll be squandering a cheap and inexpensive means of disseminating your message to the public.
The first step in constructing a free press strategy is to inventory every media outlet in your jurisdiction, every daily and weekly newspaper, magazine, blog, radio station, cable and commercial television station.
Next take a look at media outlets outside your district that are widely read, heard or viewed by a substantial number of your would be constituents.
Step 2. Get the names of the reporters, their contact information, e-mail address and the names of the bookers and producers for the TV and radio hosts. Be sure to also include any important columnists or guest commentators that often show up on the editorial pages of newspapers or important publications.
You now have a press list; those who should receive your press releases, statements, news about your campaign, copies of your speeches or op eds that you write during the course of your campaign.
Step 3. Research the reporters on your list. Not just their name, but everything you can learn, where they went to school, their degrees, their career and special interests.
Inventory the stories they have written and look at their writing style. Are they the kind of reporter who digs and does real investigative journalism, or are they satisfied to quote from press releases they are fed or the blogs they read?
Do the same for the television and radio hosts. They all have their biases, and few even pretend to be objective. Based on their audiences and ideological bent you’ll quickly see which are likely to be friendly to you and which won’t.
Develop a plan and strategy to make news. Common ways to do it include the following:
Your announcement speech
Important Policy Speeches
Important Events where you’ll be invited to speak
Endorsements from prominent supporters
All of your media hits should be heavily promoted on social media, with pictures and video. Even if you don’t always get the coverage you want, it is a good way to keep your supporters engaged.
In this video we’ve covered the art of planning a campaign. The importance of knowing yourself, the elements of a campaign message, rules you need to know, how to find and court influential people, how to construct a stump speech, raising money, war gaming and making news.
If you have watched the entire video, you are several steps ahead of candidates who have not seen it. But knowing how to prepare for a political contest is different than doing it.
My counsel to you is to find someone who can help you complete the tasks, someone who will tell you the truth and serve as a loyal and trusted friend, preferably someone who has been involved in several campaign.
Perhaps the best counsel I can provide is to run for the right reasons. There are plenty of people in politics who think that spewing hate and grievance is an appropriate route to power. It isn’t. It lifts no one. Solves no problem. Doesn’t feed a hungry child, create a job, lift anyone up, strengthen a community or a country.
If you are going to run for office, lead. Fearlessly. Offer a way to better the lives of those you serve, to advance our democracy, to make it work, to offer hope and inspiration to people desperate for both.
Political consultant Jay Townsend works with smart, passionate candidates who want to run for office, win elections and make a difference. He has successfully helped candidates learn how to run for the U.S. Senate, how to run for Congress, how to run for Mayor and develop a winning campaign marketing strategy.
How to win an election:
Running for office and knowing how to win an election is a challenge, especially for first time political candidates just learning how to run for office. Discerning the fine points of how to campaign, raise political contributions, and execute a political campaign strategy often requires the help of someone who has served as a political strategist or who has experience as a political consultant.
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