Local Candidates- Don't Make These Common Campaign Mistakes

by Martín Diego Garcia (He/Him)

ice cream cone  dropped on the ground -  Local candidate mistakes

Local Candidates: Don't Make These Common Campaign Mistakes 

Campaigns for local candidates are different than those for bigger races. While you will still have to work to raise money, local candidates will depend in large part on the community for the resources and volunteers that they need. Local candidates also tend to go without the aid of consultants or those with expensive experience working on a lot of campaigns. Thus, there are often people running local campaigns where it will be their first experience doing this type of work. With that said, here are a few common mistakes made by local candidates and what can be done to fix them. 

Ineffective communication  
Everyone loves a good pancake breakfast, but as a primary communication medium, they’re hardly effective. Some local candidates will think that it’s enough for them to show up to their local pancake breakfast or the church’s annual spaghetti dinner to shake a few hands, talk to a few people and call it a day. But at a pancake breakfast, the only thing you know about the people who showed up have in common is that they like pancakes. There’s no way of knowing if they are regular, reliable voters. As a local candidate, you are expected to show up at a lot of these types of events. This, however, should be a secondary means of interacting with voters. To run an effective campaign, you need to develop a strategy for who it is you need to persuade and turnout targeted voters. To target them you can work with your state or county party to get voter file access. Then you need to TALK with these folks, either in-person when it’s safe to do so, or virtually via Zooms, Facebook Lives, etc. Bottom line, you need to be repeatedly speaking with the right voters to win and chances are they’re not all at the pancake breakfast at the same time. 

Ineffective use of resources  
Local campaigns are renowned for using yard signs, buttons, t-shirts, and other chum as their primary means of communication. As we’ve written here many times, yard signs are expensive and are not a very effective communication medium. Their main purpose is visibility and visibility should be last on your list of communication priorities. Other chum, like bumper stickers, campaign buttons, and t-shirts are even worse, in that they can be even more expensive and even less visible. We all love a good campaign t-shirt, but they’re actually pretty expensive to print. If you have money in your budget for paid communication, your best bet is to evaluate what makes the most sense in order to get your message out there, be it direct mail, digital, TV, radio, or phones. In the end, your yard sign will say your name, but it says nothing about who you are or where you stand on the issues that matter to the community. So unless your community votes solely on a campaign’s branding then you’ll want to invest in targeted forms of voter communication. 

Lack of commitment  
In order to run an effective campaign, even for a local race, you need to be able to commit a serious amount of personal resources to the campaign, and for most of you first-time candidates that will be your time. If you want to win, you need to commit to putting in a serious amount of time and other resources in order to do so. For one, you will likely need to take time off work or arrange your schedule so you’re doing campaign work before, after, and in between your day job responsibilities. You’ll need to do call time, knock on doors, and attend events, and there simply aren’t enough hours in the day after 5 pm to get it all done. Further, to run a competitive campaign, you will need to be willing to ask your family and friends for their money and for their time. This can sometimes be an awkward ask, but your family and friends are really the foundation of your campaign, especially for local candidates. If you’re not in a position to dedicate this level of time or ask your family and friends for help, you should probably consider running another time. 

Can’t answer the “why are you running” question  
While this one seems pretty straightforward, it trips up a lot of candidates. The “Why are you running” question famously tripped up Senator Ted Kennedy in the primary campaign against President Jimmy Carter. Of course, running a local race is a lot different than running for president, but you still need to have a really good, clear, and concise answer to the question. The answer to this question will be a core part of your campaign message, and you should be able to deliver it in less than two minutes! For more on this check out our blog on writing a stump speech.   

Don’t know the numbers 
Not knowing your numbers doesn’t fly in Shark Tank, and it doesn’t fly for campaigns. It’s surprising the number of campaigns that are committed to their races and run a good, strong effort but have not taken the time to do the research on the numbers they need to win. Before you start your campaign, you need to spend time researching the basic figures about the district and its past voting history. First and foremost, you need to know your vote goal—how many votes you need to win. Everything you do in your campaign should work toward achieving your vote goal. The other really important number you need to know is how much you need to raise to win. In most instances, these number aren’t that hard to figure out, they just take a bit of time in front of the computer to pull from your state or local board of election. For your vote goal take a look at entity’s website that oversees your election, it could be your city elections committee, county board of elections, or secretary of state depending on the level of your local race. They will have election results for all past elections in your district. For the money numbers, that same website will likely have a campaign contributions or financial filings section that will have the reports of how much was raised and spent in each election. Knowing these numbers will allow you to spend you resources effectively and talk intelligently about your race, whether that’s to prospective funders, voters, or members of the local party.  

Running in the wrong race 
This happens all too often—ambitious local candidates run for Congress or U.S. Senate when there are better, more winnable local races. While there are certainly a number of high-profile exceptions to this rule, by and large, if you’re running your very first race, running for Congress it quite a stretch. This is because you need A TON of resources to run in high-profile races and you’re often better off building your network of donors and a list of community accomplishments at a local level. And many times, you can make a much bigger impact in people’s lives in a local race than you can in Congress. If your goal is to actually bring about real change, you’re better off running for county council or on your local board of education than you would be in a Congress filled with partisan gridlock. Even if you do hope to make it to Congress one day and you’ve done a frank assessment of yourself, the best way to do that is to move slowly and steadily up the ladder from county council to state house on up if you want to prove to constituents and funders that you have what it takes.  

Have other suggestions for local candidates? Share them here.