Ask for money from friends and family, don’t waste funds on feel good items and remember to file your forms
Competing in an election needn’t be that complicated.
Since President Donald Trump was elected last November, there’s been a spike of interest in running for elected office. EMILY’s List, a pro-choice group, recently said that 10,000 women have reached out about potentially putting themselves forward for everything from the United States Senate down. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are seeing celebs like Kid Rock and Curt Schilling place themselves in contention.
Still, the financial barriers for office can seem high. The average cost of winning a Senate seat last year was $19.4 million according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group. Some estimates peg total spending for the recent special election in Georgia’s sixth district at a record $50 million, while incumbent New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has a war chest of over $4.78 million, almost 40 times that of his main Democratic primary opponent.
For most candidates though, those astronomical sums are irrelevant. “People see all these numbers online, but most elections aren’t like that,” says Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, a progressive group that helps millennial state-level office seekers. “Money is certainly a factor. But the more local you get, the less impact money can have.” About three-quarters of school board races for instance, cost under $1,000.
The bulk of spending by bold-faced names is on items that local candidates just won’t need. Trump’s campaign shelled out $8.7 million last year to pay for his private aircraft, while the Clinton campaign spent hundreds of millions on television ads attacking the Republican. For his successful 2013 mayoralty bid, de Blasio spent over much of the $10.5 million he had on media buys in the expensive New York market, while also hundreds at a time on pizza and Seamless delivery. Jeb! splurged his $139 million cash pile on pricey consultants and attack ads, only to drop out early in last year’s Republican primary.
That said, it’s often those with flexible work schedules that run successful candidacies. “It’s difficult to take four to five months off a job” for an election, says Matthew Calcara, a Democratic candidate for the Kansas House of Representatives. As a web design consultant, Calcara largely controls when he works and it’s made his office bid way easier. “It’s like a sabbatical every year, but what jobs let you do that?”
Unless you can entirely self-finance a campaign, you’re still going to need donors. Asking for money is often the biggest psychological hurdle for new candidates, but your main targets aren’t shadowy billionaires pulling the strings in backrooms. “Most important are friends and family, the people who already know you,” says Litman, email director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “They know that you’re the best person to invest in values that you share.”
Her group advocates sharing the story of why you’re running, asking for moolah and then not saying anything so the would-be donor can process your request. “It’s like any other interaction in which you’re giving people a way to channel their enthusiasm. There’s no bad outcome,” Litman says.
Calcara recalls being initially embarrassed to solicit donors, but overcame his fear by noting he wasn’t asking for money for himself but for his political vision. “I got over it realizing it’s for a good cause,” he says. Both his parents have contributed the maximum $500 for his primary election, while all his out-of-state donors have been friends.
The personal touch is often key. Calcara’s received press attention for potentially being the first gay person elected to Kansas’ state legislature. Republican Phil Van Treuren wrote postcards to all 7,000 of his constituents asking for their support during his first campaign for city council in Amherst, Ohio. The endeavor took him six months, writing each by hand, but he’s seeking his fifth term today.
Fundraising online can help, but it’s a distinctly less important factor at a local level. “People think it’s magical but there’s no special software. You just have to post your message on social and build your email list over time,” says Litman. “It’s hard and most people aren’t going to raise the kind of money Bernie Sanders did.” The self-described democratic socialist collected $8 million within 24 hours of beating Clinton in the Democratic primaries last year.
Just because you’ve amassed a war chest of your own doesn’t mean you should waste it. “The most common mistake is spending on things that don’t do your campaign any good, though it makes the candidate feel good,” says Van Treuren, a political consultant for over 30 state and federal races before seeking elected office. For him, the best investments are either old-fashioned direct mailing or well-tuned Facebook ads, since both target the very people you need to turn out. “If you have a likely voter list, it’s much better to target those voters multiple times,” he says.
Among those things that are a waste of money: billboards, #MAGA-inspired caps, and websites. The latter, Van Treuren says, can be adequately replaced by a better-designed Facebook page for nearly free. Advertisement in newspapers and on the radio are best avoided, though they can be useful in larger races. “Most of the audience probably isn’t in your district anyway,” he says.
Also, leave ferrying voters to the polls alone. Oftentimes, it’s only a handful of federal candidates that have access to people able and willing to bring Granny to the polling booth. And they almost always count on volunteers, not hired help. “If you’re a local candidate, you’re not going to be able to do it,” Van Treuren says. “I don’t care how charismatic you are. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and most campaigning is a very lonely, do-it-yourself experience.”
And in a world where major politicos have armies of lawyers, it’s important for new candidates to remember to file the relevant paperwork to the right authorities. Democrats for instance, should consider signing up for ActBlue, which automates the finance disclosure process. The non-partisan CrowdPac, founded by British Conservative consultant-turned-Fox News host Steve Hilton, is a good alternative for those on the right.
“The obstacles are often high,” Litman says. “But most politicians get started on the local level, where’s really important legislating done. If you aspire to office, this is your starting point.”
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