Every two years in the United States, there are over 500,000 public offices up for election. During that time, more than a million and a half candidates will seek elected office. For many of these candidates, it will be their first race.
Maybe you are running for office this season. If you are, preparation is essential. Many new candidates find the campaigning process overwhelming. In this post, we answer some common question about running for public office.
- How do I win an election?
- What is a good reason to run for office?
- What office should I run for?
- What are the requirements to run for office?
- What do I need to start a political campaign?
- When should I fill out my candidacy application?
- How much money will I need to raise to win my election?
- How can I set up a campaign bank account?
- How can you run for office without money?
- How can I raise money for my campaign?
- How do you create a campaign strategy?
- What positions are needed for a campaign team?
- How many votes do I need to win an election?
- What is a good campaign slogan?
- What are ways to get your message out to voters?
- Is it important to campaign online?
- How can I leverage online advertising for my campaign?
- What is GOTV?
- What will surprise me most about running for office?
- What happens if I win my election?
- What happens if I lose my election?
How do I win an election?
We will answer the most common question right off the bat: How do I win an election? The most basic answer is that you need persuasive, repetitive communication with people who will likely vote for you. When you strip it all down, that’s the essence of any winning campaign.
What is a good reason to run for office?
The reasons why someone runs for office are as varied as the candidates themselves.
For some, it is to help their community. They may feel that they can contribute in some way to make their community better. It can be a way of serving or giving back.
Many candidates run because of a specific cause or issue. Often the issue is one that is close to the candidate in some way. They feel that they can have a positive impact on policy and their community.
Sometimes, a citizen is just fed up with a situation.
Regardless of your reason for seeking office, you should have your reasons ready for public discussion. All candidates should have a quick elevator speech to explain, “I’m running for office because…” or “I want to run for local office to…”
What office should I run for?
Most elected offices in the United States are at the local level. There are plenty to choose from. They include town, village, county and city councils, school board members, water districts, ward alderman, county treasurers and clerks. Then there are state and federal positions, like state representative and congress.
Some candidates choose an office because they feel they can win it. Just because you can win a race does not mean you will like the job, particularly if you do not have a clear motivation for seeking it.
Running for a less competitive office can improve your chances of victory. It can also provide experience for a better position later. It’s better to compete in a race you can win, rather than choosing an office that you have little chance of winning. Don’t run to lose.
Before you decide what position to pursue, you should know its roles and responsibilities. The office you run for should relate to the reason why you are seeking public office in the first place.
One way to approach the question is to consider your own skill sets and determine what office best suits your talents. If you have law enforcement experience, running for sheriff might be a good fit. If you are an engineer, perhaps you might want to seek the position of water commissioner.
What are the requirements to run for office?
Once you have decided to run for office, the first thing you must do is make sure that you meet the requirements for that position. Requirements often include being a minimum age (often 18), a registered voter, being a local resident, and a U.S. citizen.
Requirements can vary, of course. For example, to become a US Senator, you need to least 30 years old, a citizen for at least 9 years, and a resident of the state you hope to represent. To become President or Vice President, you must be least 35 years old, a natural-born citizen, a U.S. resident for at least 14 years.
Other qualifications may be needed, depending on the position. For example, to run for judge, you may need an undergraduate or law degree. To become a sheriff, you may need to be a licensed or certified police officer and pass a physical and criminal background check. School board candidates must usually be a resident in the district they are running in and a registered voter.
You can learn more about requirements in your state by visiting your Secretary of State website. You should also reach out to their local state political party for support.
There are also organizations that assist individuals who want to run for local, state, or federal elections. They include leadership training, campaign resources and checklists describing the necessary requirements for starting and running a political campaign.
What do I need to start a political campaign?
One of the first things to do when starting a political campaign is to create a political campaign committee. You will need a committee in place in order to legally accept donations and spend money on your campaign. Rules and requirements on establishing a committee vary from state to state. Your local county Board of Elections can provide you with information and the paperwork necessary to start your campaign committee.
When should I fill out my candidacy application?
First, you want to make sure you meet all the position’s qualifications. Then, in order to be placed on the ballot, will need to file your paperwork on time. The deadline for submitting your documents is listed on your secretary of state (or other governing body) website.
In addition to filing your candidacy application, you will need to pay any required fees and, in some cases, file a valid petition with a minimum number of signatures. Laws vary from state to state.
You’ll likely submit your forms to your secretary of state’s office. In some cases, however, you might need to file your application with the district that oversees your office.
How much money will I need to raise to win my election?
The short answer: More than you probably think.
Seriously, though, the best to figure out how much money you will need to raise is to research what other campaigns for the same or similar office have spent in your area.
In the U.S., most local offices require a budget of 20 to 25 thousand dollars. This money is spent on campaigns signs, advertising, public events and fundraisers and maybe a few part-time staff.
For statewide or federal races, the budgets run into the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. You’ll need a pair staff for communications and legal compliance. Your advertising budget will be much larger, as well.
Be sure to review relevant campaign finance laws and regulations so you know how much you can legally raise and how you can legally spend your campaign funds. You can get initial campaign finance information from your Secretary of State website.
How can I set up a campaign bank account?
You will need a campaign bank account in order to collect donations. This account must be in your campaign’s name, and not a personal bank account.
Be sure to keep detailed records of all donations and expenses. At some point, you will need to declare that information. You will want to hang on to those records even after the election.
How can you run for office without money?
If you are running for office in the United States, you will have to spend some amount of money on political activity. If you cannot afford to self-finance your own campaign, then you will have to fundraise.
How can I raise money for my campaign?
Fundraising is an important part of campaigning. Reach out to your political party to see if they can offer financial assistance. Even if they cannot provide money, they may be able to point you into the right direction as far as donors and potential resources.
Check how much was spent on previous elections for your desired office. Your budget for campaign signs, literature, campaign staff and travel should also be factored to determine how much money you will need to raise.
Common ways for political fundraising include:
- Fundraising Letters
- Telephone Requests
- Holding Fundraising Events
- Accepting Donations Online
- Email Marketing
- Text to Give
Start your political fundraising campaign as soon as you can. In many cases, you can start to raise funds before you announce your intention to run for office. This will help pay for initial campaign expenses.
You will also want to watch how much you spend in your effort to raise money. Watch your budget on fundraisers. You don’t want to end up in the red if you spend too much and raise too little!
How do you create a campaign strategy?
Every political campaign requires a unique strategy for victory. Most candidates will write out a political campaign plan before they decide to run for office. You may want to work with others in creating this plan. Your own campaign strategy will depend several factors. They include the size of the electorate, the locality, the issues at play, the voter outreach methods and the general timeline of the election season.
A strategic summary encapsulates your campaign’s goals. Yes, it’s to win the election, of course. But you can also expand this summary to include the broad strokes of the actions that your organization will take. It should include a general overview of why you are running and what you plant to do if elected.
You will also want to include your vote goal, locations and/or voter types you wish to specifically target. If you are in a primary, you will want to take your opposition into account along with potential challengers.
What type of media exposure do you expect to gain? What are your plans for coverage by local media? Who will speak with and handle reporters? What paid media will you use – and how much will it cost? How do you plan to use television, radio and online channels?
Your timeline is very important. This where you lay out the campaign calendar. You will need to decide when you announce your campaign, when events and fundraisers are held, when press releases are scheduled, when you will start spending money on media and your GOTV efforts. Things move rapidly during a campaign, so you calendar should be flexible.
Related: Creating an Online Campaigning Plan
Download our FREE Campaign Guide
What positions are needed for a campaign team?
Politics is a group effort. You need the right people and the right structure to make up your campaign team. Larger campaigns require a more extensive team, but even a small campaign requires a campaign manager, fundraising manager and treasurer.
The role of campaign manager is critically important. A campaign manager takes the lead on everything related to your campaign. The campaign manager and acts as the primary contact between the candidate, the staff and outside help. In small campaigns, the campaign manager is often the only paid staff member. A candidate should NOT act as his or her own campaign manager.
You are going to need money to run a campaign. That means you need someone to responsible to raise that cash. A campaign fundraiser or finance director is responsible for keeping the candidate on track with fundraising efforts and overseeing fundraising events. A campaign fundraiser must be well-organized, outgoing and willing to push hard to meet their goals.\
The campaign treasurer oversees the campaign’s financial and accounting operations. They approve expenditures and help with maintaining the budget. They also track contributions, maintain financial records and are responsible for compliance with the relevant election board. Whoever you pick for this position should be highly responsible and have experience in accounting or finance.
In addition, you will want to staff the following positions:
This is someone who can manage volunteers and keep multiple activities running smoothly. This should be someone who can work well with people and keep the volunteers organized.
This person oversees the operations that gets the campaign message out through direct voter contact. This includes door-to-door canvassing and managing phone banks. They may also organize voter registration efforts and final GOTV operations.
While paid consultants are usually used in larger campaigns, you may decide that you want to hire consultants for specific tasks. They often have expertise in political strategy, advertising efforts (digital, mail, television), field operations and more.
How many votes do I need to win an election?
This is a question you should have figured out right at the beginning of your campaign. You need to know early how many votes you require, and you need to know where those votes will come from. To win a local election, you need a majority of the votes cast. Basically, the winning formula is:
Expected Vote x .50 + 1 vote = Minimum Votes to Win (50%)
Expected Vote x .52 = Comfortable Margin of Victory (52%)
Here is more information on determining the votes you need for election victory.
What is a good campaign slogan?
It doesn’t matter if you are running for mayor, county sheriff, town or state legislature. You will want a slogan to help brand your campaign. It should be memorable and concise. Basically, a slogan should summarize the essence of your campaign in a single phrase.
What are ways to get your message out to voters?
There several traditional methods for getting your message out to the public. Political advertising has a long a varied history. You’ll have a lot of competition to get voter’s attention during election season. The major communication mediums include:
Campaign literature. This includes brochures, flyers, door hangers and other print materials that are used for direct mailings.
Campaign signs are another traditional advertising method for political campaigns. Lawn signs help build name recognition for candidates.
Other paid media coverage. There are many channels available for this purpose. Newspaper advertising is still a popular medium. Television and radio advertising are common but are typically reserved for campaigns with larger budgets. Other affordable advertising channels include digital advertising.
Is it important to campaign online?
Absolutely. As a candidate, you want influence over what people see, hear, and read about you online. This means that when someone searches your name, positive information about you appears in the top search results. This can be information created by others, or it can be information that you create yourself.
Building a personal online presence early on gives you a leg up when you announce your intention to run for office. Your friends and fans will be the first to check out your campaign website, provide feedback, promote your cause, and help in your fundraising and volunteer efforts.
A campaign website is the hub or your online campaign. It is where your social media accounts and paid advertising will link to. Most of your online donations will be transacted through your campaign website.
You don’t need to have everything in place on the day you start to run for office. A website, social media accounts and an email list will be enough to start. From there, you can grow your online presence with your campaign.
How can I leverage online advertising for my campaign?
There are many ways for candidates to promote their campaigns online. A campaign website and social media (primarily Facebook and Twitter) are the most common promotional platforms.
Most online advertising is of the paid type. If you are looking for any real exposure, you will need to spend money. The most common methods of promotion include:
Social media platforms and search engines are demanding more transparency and verification from political advertisers. If you plan to advertise on a certain platform, make sure you know what information is required. Give yourself enough time to become properly verified.
What is GOTV?
GOTV is an acronym for ‘Get Out the Vote’. It is an organized effort by a political party or campaign to encourage people to vote in an election.
GOTV is the final stage of a field campaign. It is done after voters have been canvassed and voter registration efforts have been completed. This is the point in the campaign where voters on the fence are persuaded to vote – and to remind supporters to cast their votes.
An effective get out the vote campaign can make the difference between victory and defeat, especially in close races.
What will surprise me most about running for office?
Anyone who follows politics knows that campaigning can get nasty. Prepare yourself for personal attacks from all quarters. If you have any dirt in your past, you can be sure that your political opponents will find it and attempt to use it against you.
What happens if I win my election?
Congratulations on your electoral victory! Your hard work paid off, and now you can represent your constituents. Here is some advice on what to do next:
Thank the people who helped make your victory possible. This includes staff, volunteers, donors, friends, family and organizations. Thank them in writing or in person. Thank your voters with a message on your campaign website and social media accounts.
Pay off your campaign debts. If your campaign owes money to vendors or consultants, put together a plan to pay them off quickly.
Wrap up your campaign. Organize and archive your campaign materials. This includes your lists of donors, vendors, volunteers and supporters. These are valuable materials that can help you in your next election – or help another candidate or organization. You’ll need to decide how best this information will be used.
Get the signs down! You should have this done ASAP. If you don’t take them down quickly enough after Election Day, your campaign may be fined for violations.
Step into your new role. After your swearing in, you will have the job you fought so hard to get. Now it’s time to work on the issues achieve the goals that made you seek the office in the first place. Good luck!
What happens if I lose my election?
Unfortunately, not everyone can win their election. After all the endless activity of campaigning, the sudden stop can be jarring.
There are a few things you’ll need to do to wrap things up. First, thank your staff and supporters. Without them, you would have never gone as far as you did.
Signs need to come down – quickly. You’ll also need to wrap up any campaign paperwork and settle debts. This can be difficult, particularly if you have financially invested your money into the campaign.
While it can be difficult to let things go, you will have to pick yourself up and move on. Coming to terms with loss will take some time. You may decide that you are done with politics, or you may channel your energy and experience into other positive community action.
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