10 Tips for First-Time Candidates
Running for office for the first time can be an intimidating experience. There’s a lot to running a campaign that’s hard to know without experience. Mistakes will be made, so don’t be too discouraged if you make a few — but we’re here to try to make sure you know as much as possible before you decide to run, and avoid as many rookie mistakes as possible. Read on for our top 10 tips for first-time candidates that will make navigating the campaign world for the first time a little easier:
1) Know the law.
First and most importantly, make sure you know your campaign finance laws! This covers everything from where you put your money from donors to the legal language required on your direct mail. These laws can seem intricate and confusing at times, but if you’re running for office, you need to know and abide by them. Nothing can end a campaign before it even starts like breaking campaign finance laws, even by mistake — especially if your opponents realize it before you do. Campaign finance laws will be different depending on where you live, so make sure you talk to a local expert who knows your specific campaign laws.
Another example of a law you should know as a candidate involves canvassing and political literature. Make sure all your staffers and volunteers know that it’s against federal law to put anything in someone else’s mailbox — so make sure to avoid mailboxes while you’re knocking doors, and bring door hangers with you instead for folks who aren’t home!
2) Reserve all possible campaign domains — just in case!
Even if you’re not going to use every variation of your name, you never know when you might want to be in control of that Facebook or Twitter handle. You don’t want to be forced to take a less recognizable domain name because the one you want has already been taken, and you definitely don’t want it to get into the wrong hands. Reserving, and renewing, excess campaign domains and social media accounts can make or break your campaign. Don’t end up like these guys!
3) Don’t be shy about sharing your views.
An Issues page is a great (and often overlooked) opportunity to showcase your positions and ideas on various issues. Your stances on the issues that matter should definitely be on your website for many reasons — but a lot of people don’t know that Facebook and Google both have options for displaying your views, too.
Facebook makes sharing your stances on your Page easy with their “Issues” feature. Check out their step-by-step guide to adding Issues to your Page, and best practices for effectively writing them. Google takes the content for its issues feature from other sources online, so there’s no way to add them yourself — but making sure they’re on your Facebook Page and website is a good way to make sure there’s accurate information out there for Google to pull from.
4) Follow up with supporters.
Knowing how to be consistent and deliberate when you follow up with people is an important skill for a candidate to have. When you’re a candidate, you need every last donation, volunteer, and vote you can get — so it’s crucial that you know how to follow up and ask people for things in an organized, effective way. Persistence and following up are key to get people to take action. Plus, your friends, family, and supporters will likely be willing to do a lot more than you think they will to help you win — which brings us to the next point:
5) Don’t be afraid to use the “hard ask”
When running for office for the first time, one of the most intimidating skills to learn is how to ask people for things. It’s uncomfortable and sometimes discouraging, but it’s also a part of the job. It’s important to remember that your friends/family/colleagues likely want to help you as much as you need their help. You can’t win a campaign alone: you need the help of others when it comes to fundraising, volunteering, support, and more, and you may not get that help unless you ask for it.
The “hard ask” is, essentially, asking people for things in a specific and direct way that makes it more difficult to say no. For example, instead of “Would you be able to volunteer next week?” say “Will you be joining us Tuesday, September 5th for a canvassing kick off event?” This can be uncomfortable, but it puts the pressure on the other person to respond, and often it’ll pay off.
6) Put disclaimers on everything!
This goes hand in hand with following the law — with every piece of lit, website, email, mail piece, etc., there needs to be language that says who paid for it. It’s important to make it clear on all your materials what it’s for and where the money is coming from. You don’t want to look untrustworthy or crooked, and you definitely don’t want your opponent to realize you broke any campaign laws! You don’t want to get into a messy situation with this, so when in doubt, include a disclaimer.
7) Seek out and gain endorsements.
Seeking endorsements, and learning how to use them once you have them, is an essential part of campaign communications and getting your message out there. Endorsements help you build rapport and legitimacy within your community, so knowing how to go about endorsements is crucial. Larger organizations like Unions are important to go after because they have a great amount of influence when the members of their organization and are able to influence a broader audience more effectively than single endorsements. Finding an appropriate way to communicate endorsements is also crucial whether it be through advertising, social media or your website.
One way to go about seeking endorsements is to contact organizations that regularly give out endorsements in elections and reach out to them early in the race. Some organizations that are seeking to endorse candidates will have a specific process for applying so be sure to contact them (and follow up!). With organizations that do not have a formal process, you can start by sending a letter detailing your experience and positions on issues, and take the next steps as they advise from there.
8) Do seek out advice — but not from everyone.
While talking to political contacts and trusted colleagues is a great way to start looking for ideas and advice, remember that not every person you meet on the street should become an advisor to your campaign. It is important to seek advice, especially for first-time candidates — but it’s even more important to discern who you should be seeking advice from, and whose advice you don’t need to take. Everyone has an opinion and will likely gladly share it with you, but it’s important to recognize when advice is helpful or if it’s a complete waste of time. Surround yourself with people that are going to give you good and honest advice.
9) Start out with a plan.
Building a plan to win is essential for any successful campaign. This may seem obvious, but many first-time candidates set out without specific plans for big parts of their campaign strategies! You need to make a plan for your campaign that integrates organizing, communications, fundraising, and more. Set goals to keep yourself on track, and be realistic but optimistic with your goals. It’s always better to set your goals higher rather than lower. Don’t underestimate what you can do!
10) Don’t lose — keep campaigning until the last second.
Your priority is winning—keep your eye on the prize. Campaign like you’re 20 points behind in the polls no matter how you are doing. Don’t let distractions get in the way of you running a winning campaign.
Never stop campaigning as hard as you can asking for donations, volunteers, and support until the polls close. Do everything you can in your power to go all in. Use all of the resources you can, and give it all of your energy. We hope these tips will give you the extra knowledge you need to run a great campaign. If you give it your all, you’ll have run a campaign to be proud of—no matter what the results.
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