Political Campaign Strategy: Run a Campaign and Win
At any level, campaign fundamentals can mean the difference between building a winning or losing political campaign strategy. A lot of this will seem like common sense (and it is), but bear with me, because a lot of this stuff often falls by the wayside as campaigns are being built. In essence, a strong political campaign strategy (meaning, the overall plan to achieve an electoral victory) should rest on a foundation of some very basic building blocks and principles that will help to carry you across the finish line.
Don’t run unless you have a chance to win. Running repeatedly is not a sound strategy when it comes to building name recognition or creating a road map to victory. “Oh, that person has run for office and lost nine times—they definitely seem like the right choice to solve my community’s problems,” said no one, EVER. In fact, it’s often the case that the more times you run and lose, the less likely you are to win. Do the name recognition work in advance by building your credentials and credibility in your district. More to the point, don’t decide to run and then try to justify it, sit down and ask yourself, "Why do I want to run for office?" Take a hard look at what it takes to win (qualifications, political circumstances, fundraising metrics, etc.) and with all of that information in view, make an educated decision about whether there’s a real path to victory.
Know how many votes you need to win. Understanding that math and its impact on a particular race can mean the difference between running in the right race and running a race that you can’t win. Vote goals don’t need to be that complicated, but any political campaign worth its salt needs a vote goal. The simple act of creating a vote goal can save you a lot of time campaigning for a race that isn’t the right fit. Your vote goal is a piece of information that should undergird almost everything in your campaign plan, and it’s a central piece of the puzzle when you’re formulating a strong political campaign strategy.
Create a contrast. Politics is a comparative game. Any political campaign strategy should be predicated on a clear contrast between the candidate and anyone else in the field (even if it’s super crowded and includes more candidates than the 2020 presidential primary). You need to create a reason for voters to choose you and that reason should be woven throughout your campaign activities.
Run for the right reasons. Don’t run to help your insurance business, or because you feel wronged by your opponent. Run because you have skills that can help your community achieve incredible things.
Approach your campaign with an equity and inclusion lens. This is not just about making sure you’re engaging voters from different backgrounds. That’s absolutely important, but this should be deeper than winning votes—approaching your campaign with an equity and inclusion lens is really about living our values as progressives and making sure equity and inclusion are more than transactional. Beyond your voter targeting and your plan for outreach to different communities, take stock of choice points across your whole campaign. That means thinking about hiring practices and who makes up your team (from campaign managers to consultants), it means taking a deep dive into your “like me” bias and making sure your preferences and requirements are clear and that they don’t accidentally exclude people. The Management Center has a great set of resources on this, and though it’s aimed at managers within an organization, the same basic principles apply to just about any situation. Take the time to dig into this and weave it into your campaign structure and strategy.
Know that asking people for things is part of a campaign. Generally, over the course of an election cycle, I hear from candidates who are sick of calling people for money, asking friends, family and supporters to knock on doors, asking organizations for endorsements, etc. I don’t know many candidates who would say they love call time. The fact is if you’re a candidate, you’ll spend the majority of your time doing asking people for things. The sooner you get on board with that reality, the better off your campaign will be (and hopefully you’ll feel a little more at peace as well).
Budget for a winning political campaign. I frequently bump into campaigns that are surprised by what things cost and how much money will likely need to be raised. Do your homework in advance so you’re not surprised, and make sure you have a viable plan to get to that number (or past it, if you’re really cooking with gas). Work with your team to get a real understanding of what a winning campaign will cost. Don’t just budget for any campaign; make sure you plan to have the money you need to win your campaign. That means looking at the costs of similar successful campaigns, as well as assessing the potential competition. At the end of the day, you should feel confident that your budget covers the cost of executing your political campaign strategy well and getting you across the finish line.
Listen more than you talk. It’s not about you, it’s about the voters. This is an essential campaign tip and one that’s difficult for candidates and political campaign managers to internalize. Political campaigns are a means to getting a message out, but they are not the message itself. Take the time to get to know the people you want to represent and what matters to them—you’re running to serve their interests and advocate for policies that will make their lives better, don’t lose sight of that as you build your political campaign strategy.
A written plan is key. Write. It. Down. For serious. If I had a dollar for each campaign I’ve spoken with that keeps their campaign plan through some combination of writing on cocktail napkins and a mental lockbox, I’d own the pony I’ve always dreamed of. Cocktail napkins get thrown away (or spilled on, if you’re having a great night), and mental lockboxes are not a thing (your brain is not a server!). Get your campaign plan written down, make sure that everyone involved knows where it lives and is bought in on how that plan is going to be implemented. Good campaign planning is your road map for victory. This doesn’t mean that once you write your plan it’s done and dusted—a campaign plan is a living, breathing document. Rather, it means that you’ve got a starting place and a way to make sure everyone on your campaign team can refer to it to make sure you’re all working toward the same goal with the same basic parameters in place.