How to Run for Office: Advice to a Novice Republican Candidate
by David Trumbull
Don’t MakeThese Common Mistakes.
El Niño’s and global warming’s effects on the climate in New England are as nothing in comparison to the effects of the “silly season” on the political climate in the Grand Old Party. This period, running from February or March--when state party convention delegates are elected and candidates begin gathering nomination signatures--to the election in November, has been, typically, a showcase of Republican bumbling, incompetence, prevarication, backstabing, and all around ignorance of campaign basics, culminating in defeat of the candidates and dejection for the party faithful. Before you, as a candidate, blunder your way through yet another unsuccessful campaign, leaving behind as wreckage your demoralized volunteers and contributors, learn and profit from the mistakes of recent Republican candidates. Remember, the campaign you save may be your own.
You can’t win if you don’t run, and you can’t run if you’re not on the ballot. Yes, it is true that a few--very few--people have won a contested election as write-in candidates, but the general rule is that write-ins hardly every succeed. Moreover, running even a failing write-in campaign is infinitely more difficult than just getting the signatures in the first place. There are statutory requirements that govern how many signatures you need (from 125 for State Representative to 10,000 for Governor), when the signatures must be submitted for certification and when they must be filed with the Secretary of the Commonwealth, and who may sign (Republican and unenrolled voters in the district may sign for a Republican candidate). With a few, very narrowly defined exceptions, this rules regarding signatures must be followed or you will not be on the ballot.
Although the signature requirements are clear, we see candidates, such as a woman who, in 1996, announced her campaign for State Senate at a huge kick off party attended by the Lt. Gov. and other Republican leaders and who printed large quantities of expensively-produced campaign literature and bumper stickers without bothering to get the signatures to be on the ballot. Her campaign started with a bang and ended the same way a few week later. She would have been smarter to focus her efforts on getting the signatures first and spend her money on a party and printed matter once she had her place on the ballot secured. Another candidate who got ahead of himself and sunk his campaign on the signature requirement started his general election strategy for a 1994 State Senate in the spring with an appeal to Democrats to cross over and vote for him in the general election. He would have done better to focus on Republicans and unenrolled voters until he had fulfilled the signature requirement, for although he submitted far more signatures than required, so many of his signers were registered Democrats that he failed to get on the ballot for lack of valid signatures.
Getting the signatures takes work, but no more work than you should expect to exert in other aspects of the campaign. The number of signatures is high, but not unreachable, and it is never more than ten percent of number of registered Republicans in the district. Both of the would be candidates described above saw the signature gathering as bureaucratic nuisance, a hurdle to be cleared, before the campaign began. They, being in a hurry to start the “real” campaign, neglected the “nuisance”. That thinking couldn’t be more wrong. Getting signatures is the first major campaign activity. Meeting voters, whether going door-to-door (higly recommended) or at public places such as subway stops can be awkward; asking for a signature can be an excellent conversation opener. Most voters are least somewhat aware of signature gathering for candidates or issues and, even if they find it annoying, they find it less annoying than a politician asking for votes or money. People who sign your nomination paper have taken a concrete and highly person action (signing) on your behalf and have done so on a legal form. Your signers ought to be a prime target for votes and money. Yet, sadly, many candidates ignore these early supporters.
A 1993 Cambridge City Council candidate went through one large apartment building and got about 75% of his nomination signatures in a matter of a few minutes spending very little time with each signer. Once he hadthis “bother” of signatures out of the way, he started his $30,000 campaign to get his message out to voters. He lost the election by 46 votes. Those original signers who might have closed the electoral gap were never even contacted by the candidate after the signatures were certified.
In a state-wide race, where the signature requirement is high and there is neccessarily a heavy reliance on paid or volunteer signature gathers it may not be practical to build a database of signers. But State Representative candidate who is not willing to keep in personal contact with the 125 people who signed his nomination papers is not likely to ever build a winning coalition in his district. Are you ready to run for office? Well then go out, meet voters, and get those signatures.
Money is the Mothers Milk of Politics
Congratulations! you got your nomination signatures and you will be a candidate on the ballot. You have a message to deliver: “Vote for me because…” and by now you have developed a strategy for delivering that message and winning the election. Implementing your strategy will take money Campaigns for local offices cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, congressional races cost hundreds of thousands, and state-wide races cost millions. Where is this money to come from?
Ask for the Sale.
In an otherwise excellent book on winning state and local elections written in the mid-1980’s, two Bay State campaign advisors stated: "The candidate who is independently wealthy doesn't have to worry about fundraising." Their error, the error of the self-funded candidate, is particularly tempting to Massachusetts Republicans. The Democrats advantages in fundraising drive Republicans to attempt to level the field by running a millionaire. Occasionally it works (Weld 1990); more often it fails (Rappaport 1990, Romney 1994). Having personal wealth available for quick infusions of cash at critical times in the campaign is a tremendous advantage if it is combined with aggressive fundraising. But personal wealth minus fundraising usually results in an election lost and reduced personal net worth.
The “cheapness” of the millionaire Kennedy clan is legendary. Volunteer enough unpaid hours to a Kennedy campaign and you earn the right to buy a shirt or trinket, according to one former Democrat elected official now turned Republican. This supposed “cheapness” is actually just good campaign strategy. People who give you money--even a small amount--have made an investment in your campaign and they don't want that investment to go bad. Tell me that you will vote for me and I know you may vote for me. Give me $25 for the campaign and I am fairly sure that you will vote for me--you might even get a few others to vote for me also. Any contribution, even five dollars, helps bind the voter’s allegiance to you and contributes to the overall funds available for you campaign.
Is Money Corrupting Politics, or vice versa?
Every voter who is favorable to your message is a potential contributor. Five people, each giving $20 equals $100 plus many votes from friends and relatives of the givers. One person giving $100 equals $100 and one vote plus any friends and relatives he can sway.
Actually, in the case of big money givers, the contribution may not represent any votes. A major contributor might be someone who supports your conservative positions but who doesn’t live in the district. A major donor might also be a business concern that hedges bets by contributing to both Republicans and Democrats. Some business PACs have become so enamored of political power, and so eager to "have a place at the table," that they compromise their loyalty to business interests by giving money to anti-business incumbents.
Still, you will need those major contributors, those who can give the maximum allowed by law. The amount of money it takes to run for office is much more than many sincere first-time conservative candidates think: according to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance the average candidate for State Senate spends $51,000, and a State House race averages nearly twenty grand.
Ironically, political campaigns also cost much less than people think. Susan Gallagher lacked money in 1994 to promote her great conservative message in the U.S. Senate race. At a Conservative Society of Massachusetts meeting (Boston Mercury January 1996), Gallagher alluded to the $5 million voluntary spending cap of incumbent Democrat John Kerry and Republican challenger William Weld when she said that the Senate should not be "a very exclusive club--almost all of them are millionaires." Well, let’s do some math: there are about three-and-one-half million voters in Massachusetts, most of whom will not give any thought to the November election until September, giving politicians two month in which to make their case. Five million dollars, divided by three-and-one-half million votes makes $1.43 per voter--not very much! In fact, American companies spend more in twelve weeks advertising candy and soft drinks than all the candidates of both parties spend in two years for U.S. House and Senate races.
“We can get the money”--R. M. Nixon
You must go through your personal address book--your friends, relatives, political compatriots, co-workers, neighbors, fellow parishioners, and fellow club members--and tell each one that you are running for office. Doing this before you make your formal announcement makes these personal contacts feel flattered that you confided in them first. Ask for a financial commitment and ask for names of other people who can help. From this list of initial contacts you will assemble a finance committee. For finance chairman and committee members you want people who can make a significant--ideally the legal maximum--contribution, and who know other people they can solicit for contributions. In choosing finance committee members look for people who can tap funding sources not otherwise available to you.
Your finance committee can identify potential donors, perhaps making an initial contact, and provide you with a list of names and phone numbers for calling. A good list will include information about the donor’s political views (which parts of your platform appeals to him) and how much he typically gives. That second piece of information is very important. When a busy person who can make a major contribution--a banker, businessman, etc.--agrees to speak with you about your campaign you must assume he is inclined to support you. Now you need to negotiate the amount of the cheque. If you ask for $100 from someone who has given $250 to candidates in the past you will get the $100 when you could have gotten more. Ask the same person for $500 you may get it; in any event you will likely get the $250. If you are asking for $50 and $100 contribution and getting them easily you are not asking for enough.
Likely your campaign strategy includes direct mail to voters. Turn ever appeal for a vote into an appeal for money as well. Mail to 4000 registered Republicans in your district and you may get 80 contributions (2% return rate) with an average contribution of $25. Using volunteer labor, the 4000 letters can be printed and mailed for about $4000 and can be expected to yield $2000 in contributions. With careful targeting of the mailing to Republicans who support your positions and who tend to give money to candidates you can increase the return rate to a break even or money-making level. Even if you have to spend more than you get back remember that you need to mail to these voters anyway.
Finally, remember, we conservatives believe that competitive free markets generally produce the optimal results. There are many people who will give money to a candidate. If you are having trouble raising the money to get out your message, maybe your need to examine the product (the candidate, the message, or the campaign strategy) and see how it can be improved to compete better.
Gonna Sit right Down and Write Myself a Letter
Election day is fast approaching. As a Republican candidate you operate under significant disavantages in this heavily Democrat state. Yes, party registration is against you, but you are sure--and correct--that your message of limited government under law and personal responsibilty appeals to Bay State voters. But how to raise enough money to get out your message, and how to contact voters? Those are the questions.
Direct mail, that is to say letter-writing, is the single most effective way to raise money for your campaign and target your message to likely voters. While slick television advertisements attract the attention of political pundits, and the ire of supposed good government reformers, direct mail is in fact the biggest expense for political campaigns. The reason why is simple: letter writing has consistently proved the most efficient way to raise money and get votes.
Love Letters in the Sand
“A campaign is a seduction,” says Amos Eaton, Chairman of the Woburn Republicans. You want the recipient to read your letter, not throw it out as junk mail, and you want the reader to respond; to accomplish this you must woo the reader. A seduction is a dialogue, not a monologue. You have a message to deliver, but in delivering it be sure to seek responses from the readers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the reader will write a letter in response. No, Your part in the dialogue is the letter writing; the voter’s part is sending a contribution and voting for you.
People respond to personal apeals. A letter from the Committee to Elect Jim Dandy is junk mail, even though I like Mr. Dandy. But I will read and respond to a letter from Jim to me. You have passion about your campaign; you must generate passion in readers who can help get you elected.
Return to Sender
The first step in getting a response is getting the recipient to open the envelope. Make your letter looks like a personal letter, not a mass mailing. Use an ordinary looking envelope, such as a plain white number ten envelope. A letter bearing a stamp is much more likely to be opened than one bearing a bulk permit number. Printing the address on the envelop is more effective than using an address label, and hand addressing the envelope practically assures that the recipient will open it.
The letter should be printed on ordinary 8-1/2 by 11 inch paper. A fancy letterhead is not necessary and may even be counterproductive as it creates the image of a piece of advertising, not a personal letter. A good letterhead will have your name, address, and office sought, and not much else. Again, remember, this is to be a letter from you, the candidate, not from your committee. Professional direct mail marketers will tell you to use paper of some heft, such as 24 pound paper, to use a typewriter-style type face such as courier, and to write long letters, up to six pages for maximum response. Those suggestions are basically good, but don’t follow any particular formula too slavishly or you risk losing the all-important personal element.
It is not enough to get the voter to open the letter, you must grab his attention and make him want to read the letter and take the action you seek. You need a "hook" to draw the reader into the dialogue. You have issues to address in the body of the letter. An old, but still useful, rule is grab their attention, make three points, and ask for the sale.
Asking for the order is vital. It does little good to rouse an audience to action unless you also direct them to the action and give them the means to do it. Always include a return coupon and self addressed envelope for contributions. One consultant estimated that the response rate drops by 60-70% if you omit the return envelope. The return coupon (and accompanying check) is the reader’s response to you, make it an answer to a question (i.e., "YES, I want to support …)"
Professional fundraisers know that you always list suggested donation amounts from high number to low number (if you reverse the order the return is typically 20% less). Never hesitate to ask for $100 or more, up to the legal maximum.
Let me count the ways
Follow these directions and your mailing will break even with volunteer labor. Give voters a reason--a candidate or issue to support--and they will respond to your letters. A ten percent response rate is fantastic; one to three percent is typical. When I ran for Cambridge City Council last year I twice mailed to 2,500 Republican households and once to a list of 1,300 property owners. Those mailings, and other fundraising efforts, raised $5,000 from 77 people.
The more letters you can get out before the election the better. Write again and again to the same people. It can take three to six letters to make a sale, but if you keep up the effort you will see results--money flowing into the campaign and voters motivated to go out and support you on November 3.
It’s Not Over ‘til It’s Over: Election Day Activities
You decided to run and you got your name on the ballot for the upcoming election. You raised the funds to get your message out through direct mail and by other means. So far so good, but all your effort of the past few months will be wasted if your supporters do not show up to vote. An effective Get-Out-The-Vote, or GOTV, effort can make the difference between winning and losing.
Here I must be honest--I have never worked on a Massachusetts Republican campaign that had the resources and inclination to do GOTV as it ought to be done. GOTV takes planning, money, volunteers, and discipline. How a campaign treats GOTV--as a major component of the race, or as an afterthought--tells how serious the campaign is about winning. You cannot win a competitive race without an organized effort to turn out supporters on Election Day. Experienced campaign managers will tell you that a well-organized, and thoroughly implemented GOTV program can add about five percent to your vote total.
I’ve Got a Little List
It is said that, when asked how to win an election, Abraham Lincoln responded, “make a list of all voters, ascertain who they will vote for, and make sure your supporters vote.” The first step in turning out your voters is knowing who they are. Your list of registered Republican voters, likely Republican voters, and other favorable voters is the key to GOTV. Unless you have carefully built your list of supporters in the weeks and months before Election Day you will have no way to target your voters when time comes to vote. Some consultants use a ten percent rule, targeting for GOTV calls ten percent of the number of voters it will take to win the election.
Are you hoping for a high or low turnout? The correct answer is both. You want a high turnout among your supporters and a low turnout for your opponent. The key to GOTV is targeting the right voters, those who will vote for you. Scatter-gun tactics, such as holding signs at traffic intersections, are not going to accomplish your goal.
Vote Often and Early
You’ve used letters to persuade voters and potential contributors through the course of the campaign. Now, in the final days of the race, you need a get-out-the-vote letter to motivate those supporters. Many voters need a reminder. Remember, it is not unusual for half of the registered voters to stay home on Election Day. Your GOTV letter must highlight why it is imperative to vote in this critical election. Follow the letter with a reminder phone call on the eve of the election. This is where your months of list preparation pays off. Your list will have the name, address, and telephone number of the voter, along with important information such as the reason for supporting your candidacy (party affiliation or public policy issues of importance) and the location of the voter’s polling place.
On Election Day you will cover as many polling places as possible with your workers. Campaign workers holding your signs at the polls may influence that minority--five to ten percent--of the voters who have not made up their minds. But you are prepared, you know who your voters are and can target your activities toward them. Your campaign workers will go to the polls with voter lists identical to the check-in sheets the municipal election workers use. As the election officials call out the name of each voter, your poll watchers mark the name on the voter list. Periodically through the day other campaign workers stop by the poll to pick up the list of people who have not yet voted and take that list back to your headquarters for other campaign volunteers to call. You’ll also want to have prearranged for transportation for voters who need a ride to the polls. Keep on calling supporters who have not yet voted up until just before the polls close. When the polls close stop calling, have your first real rest in days and start celebrating your victory.