What is a Campaign Plan and Why Do I Need One?

by Ben Holse

Man writing on whiteboard Campaign Plan

Your Campaign Plan is Your Blueprint for Success

While every campaign comes with unknown variables, the more you plan, the better prepared you’ll be to manage whatever comes your way. The best way to be prepared for success is by creating a written campaign plan. This means detailed planning and thinking ahead from the jump so you can plan your moves ahead of time and take the process seriously.

Too often campaigns will skip the step of making a written plan, which is like driving to a new place without your GPS. Sure, it’s possible, but you’re going to waste a lot of time and energy getting there. A good campaign plan serves as the strategic blueprint, outlining the goals, strategy, and message. It forces you to answer hard questions, like how are we going to get enough votes to win? How are we going to raise enough money? And do we really have enough money to buy all those expensive custom drink cozies?
What Is a Campaign Plan?
A campaign plan is a written document that serves as your campaign’s roadmap for getting you across the finish line. Your plan should address every question that will come up during your race—whether they come from potential donors, voters, or volunteers—such as:

What’s my message?
What does a winning budget look like?
How much money do I need to raise, and how will I raise it?

After deciding to run, writing a campaign plan should be one of the first things on your to-do list. Your plan will be a living document—you may need to tweak it as your campaign evolves and encounters unexpected setbacks or changes. That said, if you take the time to write a quality plan, you’ll find that many components won’t change over time. If you calculated your vote goal correctly, that number won’t budge. And if you’ve exhausted your fundraising network after identifying every potential pledge, there won’t be a vast difference in the amount of money you raise versus what you hoped to raise. 

Developing a practice of referring back to your plan and revisiting it regularly can help you and your team stay updated on various aspects of your campaign, while generally keeping a helpful 30,000-foot view of the entire campaign.

Why Do I Need a Campaign Plan?
A written plan will help you run an efficient and effective campaign. No matter the size of your campaign, you need to know what it takes to win. What’s more, the absence of a plan will serve as a major red flag about your viability to potential donors, supporters, and endorsers (which will make it doubly hard for you to mount a winning campaign). Very few investors would invest in a business that doesn’t have a business plan. Why should a donor max out to your campaign if you haven’t taken the time to even write out a plan for how you’re going to win? Plan ahead and show you’re invested in winning your race. Creating a plan will not only give you confidence and direction, but it will show to others that you take the race seriously and are committed to winning office. 
Writing a plan involves digging into a long list of variables and being honest about the journey you face as a candidate. The process will highlight both opportunities and vulnerabilities that your campaign should be aware of. Having a plan will force you to be strategic with your time and resources with an eye toward addressing deficiencies and capitalizing on your assets to strengthen your campaign. This exercise also involves getting buy-in from members of your team to ensure everyone understands the roadmap for success as their role in helping you execute it.

Components of a Campaign Plan
So, what exactly should be in your campaign plan? Below are some specific elements your plan should include. You can of course adjust these components as needed and add to the list based on your specific needs. 

Strategic Summary
The beginning of your plan should have a brief summary of your campaign’s goals and overall strategy. Think of this as an organizational mission statement. This short but important section will as a teaser for anyone who’s invested enough in your success to take the time to read the plan. It sets the tone for the plan that follows. 

Your campaign plan should include an overview of your overall message—why are you running and what will you do if you’re elected? We always recommend running through a Tully Message Box exercise to pin down what you’ll say about yourself and what you’ll say about your opponent, as well as how you expect your opponent to frame their candidacy and yours. You’ll need to establish a contrast to give voters a clear reason to support you. The practice of preparing answers, as well as predicting what your opponents might say, can be challenging to organize. By creating a Tully Message Box you can organize your thoughts and create thoughtful responses ready to use in any given situation, whether it be in an interview, during a debate, or talking with voters. 
Your messaging section is one of the sections that is most prone to change and be updated over the course of the campaign (the other being the fundraising and budgeting section). Your campaign’s messaging should be broad and versatile so it can be used across several different communication channels and is easy to understand for any voters and/or campaign surrogates. But don’t stress too much that your message isn’t perfect because this section will need to be revisited and updated based on real-time changes in the political landscape. 

Your timeline is a critical piece of your campaign plan. When will you kick off your campaign? When will you do any hiring that is needed for the campaign? When are important deadlines that your campaign must meet? When will you send out press releases? When will you do call time to raise money? When will you send out emails? When will you start spending money on paid communications tactics? When will you start canvassing in neighborhoods? 

These are all questions you should address in a clear timeline. It may feel daunting to have to consider all of these at once, but the more you plan now, the happier you will be down the road. You can always start with a list of items in priority order that you know need to be placed on the calendar, and tackle a few at a time to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Creating a calendar marked with specific goals and deadlines will be helpful in visualizing the priorities for every month, week, and even on a day-to-day basis. Be sure that necessary campaign staff or super volunteers have access to the calendar, so everyone is on the same page. 

Vote Goal
Building a vote goal is one of the most important pieces of your campaign plan. In short, you won’t know how to win if you don’t know how many votes you need to win. 

Developing a vote goal is pretty straightforward math. Look at past voter turnout to get a sense of how many votes you’ll need to win your race. If you’re running against one opponent, you’ll need to garner at least one more vote than 50 percent of the total vote to win. To account for margins of error, we recommend setting your vote goal to 52 percent of the expected vote. You can calculate the average voter turnout across the past three similar elections, and then take 52 percent of that average to pin down your own vote goal. Keep in mind: If you’re running in a three-or-more candidate race, you won’t necessarily need 50+ percent (depending on the system) to advance—look at past margins of victory and come up with a vote goal you feel comfortable with.
Remember to look at current voter registration before you calculate your vote goal as well. Perhaps registration skyrocketed since the last election due to reactions to the political atmosphere or a local issue. Multiply the voter turnout percentage in the most recent similar election by the current number of registered voters to predict likely turnout in your election. Then, multiply that number by 0.52 to determine how many votes you need to safely win by a margin of 52 percent. Have campaign staff help you with this to make sure there is agreement on goals, and to serve as another pair of eyes on the math. 

Think through who you need to communicate with to win your race. Who do you expect to support you (a.k.a. your base) and who should you work on persuading to vote for you? You won’t be able to talk to every voter—you’ll need to be strategic about how you use your resources to mobilize your base and make the case for your candidacy to persuadable voters. Identify areas of your community that will require the most attention in terms of door knocking and calling. Determine which supporters may need an extra push to the polls on Election Day. Knowing exactly who your targets are will determine when it is that you are reaching out to them. 

Budget and Fundraising
You’ll need to account for both intake and expenses when it comes to your finances. Set weekly or monthly fundraising goals and write down exactly how you’ll achieve them. Link your fundraising goals to your campaign budget. You should have several budget levels drawn up to go along with different fundraising amounts, with 70 percent of your budget going toward direct voter contact (field, direct mail, digital advertising, phones, radio, television, etc.). Knowing what you’re spending on items large and small (versus what you’re fundraising) will help you manage and maximize your resources. Your budget should include everything from your campaign manager’s salary down to the office paper clips. Maintain a clear idea on what the “nice-to-haves” are, so that if you find yourself with less than expected in the bank, you know what to cut from first. Likewise, it doesn’t hurt to have a wish list ready so, should you run into additional cash, you know exactly where to invest.  

A strong field plan is critical to the success of your campaign. This section should outline your strategy for talking to voters at the doors leading up to and on Election Day. How many doors do you want to knock on? How many times do you want to knock on each door? How many volunteers do you need each weekend to hit your goals? Do you have the funds to hire a volunteer coordinator? How will you incentivize volunteers to show up on a cold Saturday morning? Will the script volunteers use change throughout the course of the campaign? If so, when? After your field program starts, revisit your estimate on results by hour and adjust projected needs (number of shifts, length of shifts, volunteers per shift) accordingly. 

Paid and Earned Media
In the digital age where voters’ attention is limited, it is critical to make sure you have a strategy for amplifying your message. There’s no one-size-fits-all combination of tactics to reach voters with your message. Factors like demographics and population density will help determine the tactics that make the most sense to utilize.  You should have a plan to build your online presence organically and how you will effectively leverage paid advertising on the channels that are most likely to reach your target audience, be it paid digital, direct mail, print ads, TV, etc. At the same time, you’ll want to have a plan for generating free media coverage of your campaign (earned media). Who on your team will handle talking to reporters? Are there particular publications you want to develop relationships with?

Hiring Your Team
A campaign’s success isn’t just about the candidate, it’s also about the team that’s behind the campaign. A well-rounded campaign team will bring a diverse set of expertise and energy to the table and the best way to build out that team is by planning. Start with outlining the jobs you think you will need, from campaign manager to call time manager and field organizer. List out the consultants you think you’ll want to bring onto the team. Then start to estimate the timing for when you would like to bring these people onto your team and what you think the salary ranges to be. 

A winning campaign team is more than just hiring the right people – it's about building a strong culture of collaboration and creativity. Your campaign plan should talk about how you will foster open lines of communication, delegate tasks, communicate internally, and create an environment where everyone is valued. You should also make sure you are setting DEI goals for your team. A strong campaign team reflects the diversity of the community and will bring together individuals from different backgrounds and cultures. This diverse team allows you to connect on a deeper level with a broad range of voters in your community and is important to your team’s success. 

Executing Your Campaign Plan
Once you’ve involved your team in the process of writing a campaign plan that your team is on board with, that plan will be your main reference point in guiding you what to do and when. Put the time in at the outset to set yourself up for success. Consult your plan regularly to ensure you’re on track to meet your goals and be honest in your evaluations of how things are going.

Have questions about writing a campaign plan? We’d love to hear from you! Drop us a note.