How to Run a Political Campaign - Top Five Tips

by Ben Holse (He/Him)

TCW top campaign strategy tips

How to Run a Political Campaign: What You Need to Know

Learning how to run a political campaign for the first time can be tough. Sure, there are some great resources online (such as the TCW blog!) that can provide insight. There are also tons of great trainings that can teach you the basic dos and don’ts and if you’re interested in learning how to run a political campaign, we strongly encourage you to attend one. But so much of what you need to know about campaigns really is learned on the job. That said, there are a few very basic tips you can use as you navigate this process as a first-timer.

1. Make sure there’s a path to win

One of the most important tips for how to run a political campaign is to make sure you’re running in the right race. It happens too often; we see candidates who decide to run for office because they’re frustrated that their state senator been unopposed the last ten years. Sure, it’s technically possible that no viable challengers have emerged in the last 10 years. But it’s more likely that the incumbent is so widely popular that viable challengers have made the strategic decision to forgo a run. We always advise our candidates to do their own strategic assessment before they jump into a race and to not run if they don’t have a shot to win. Of course, deciding if you can win isn’t an exact science. Say you’re considering running against the long-term incumbent who’s always unopposed and you’ve met with your informal advisors and believe there’s a large group of voters who would support you based on your unique set of experiences. In this instance, by all means you may want to consider a run. But if you’ve met with your team and don’t see a path to winning and are running with the hope a small miracle happens, the race may not be the right fit. If you decide to run in a race you can’t win, you will just end up wasting your family’s and friend’s time, donor’s money, and worst of all, you could burn bridges that you would need for a more winnable race down the road.

2. Set metrics and accountability

Another important thing to consider when figuring out how to run a political campaign is what metrics you’re going to use to hold the campaign accountable. This tends to be a pitfall for many campaigns; they don’t set measurable benchmarks for voter contact or fundraising goals. Campaigns can be a grind and doing the same thing day in and day out can, at times, get dull. If you don’t have metrics to hold yourself accountable, then it becomes all too easy to slack off week to week. Once you’ve made the decision to get into a race, one of the first things you should do is set goals for how much voter contact you need to do and how much money you aim to raise. This all comes from your campaign budget and from your vote goal. Once these elements are pinned down, you should break them down with some simple math into daily and weekly goals that allow you to hold yourself accountable.

3. Be prepared to delegate and ask for help

Learning how to run a political campaign really means learning how to delegate. The best candidates know that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything themselves and that they have to delegate decisions to their team. The best political campaigns have a clear delineation of responsibilities and who gets to make what calls. From the outside, good campaigns can even look a lot like a well-run business. Delegating doesn’t mean you’ll agree with every decision someone else makes, it means empowering the people you manage to make the best decisions possible and trusting the people you work with. If you’re running a political campaign and you’re doing everything yourself, you need to take a hard look at your to-do list and decide what you absolutely have to do and what your staff or volunteers could take on instead.

4. Stick to your message

Figuring out how to run a political campaign means you need to learn to stick to a message. Political campaigns get an extremely limited window of time with each voter, so you have to use that limited time to repeat your message. It’s a good thing if you’re just repeating yourself over and over to different voters, it means you have message consistency. Too often, campaigns will get hung up on the concept of developing name recognition. They think that if a voter just remembers the candidate’s name, they will almost certainly vote for them. A narrow focus on name recognition can lead candidates to invest heavily in yard signs. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having good name recognition, but we all know the names of some awful politicians you’d never consider voting for. Other voters may vaguely recall having heard a candidate’s name before, but without anything else to go on they just default to selecting a candidate with whom they share some other characteristic, such as party ID, gender, ethnicity, etc. Successful campaigns pair name recognition with a clear message. At the end of the day, you really want voters to remember your name and one thing about you. Ideally, you’d want a voter to be able to say in a casual conversation, “Jane Smith, oh yeah, she’s the candidate who wants to fix all the potholes.”

5. Put in the work and do the research 

It’s not possible for you to run a serious, data-driven campaign without putting in the time and doing research to know your numbers. For those considering a race for the first time, there’s a lot of research to do. You should know your vote goal, what the turnout has been in analogous races, how much money winning candidates have raised in the past, how many Democrats/Republicans there are in your district, who the top donors to candidates in your district are, etc. Sure, this research takes time and often a few phone calls, but it’s well worth the time and effort. Too often, a great candidate will jump into a race and start campaigning without a clear understanding of how many votes they even need to win. Put another way, if you decided you were going to start working a second job so you could save up money to buy your dream boat, wouldn’t you want to know how much the boat costs? It’s the same thing with running for office, you need to know your numbers so you know the effort it will take to get across the finish line.

Learning how to run a political campaign can be challenging and, at times, frustrating, but following the five tips described above will help set you on the right path to success.

Want other political campaign tips? Check out this blog for even more!