Candidate College: 10 Essential Tips for Running for Office

Many citizens believe that they could do a better job in government than our elected officials, if only they had the chance to serve. Running for office, however, is an enormously complicated, confusing, and expensive endeavor.
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Many citizens believe that they could do a better job in government than our elected officials, if only they had the chance to serve. Running for office, however, is an enormously complicated, confusing, and expensive endeavor that often seems inaccessible to anyone not already in the inner circle of politics.

As part of our work as a good government group, New York Civic has spearheaded the creation of "Candidate College," a free informational Web series designed to teach people of all ages and political affiliations how to make a serious bid for elected office. This ongoing video series, which features many of New York's most accomplished consultants and experts in the field, aims to provide the public with an honest, educated, and unvarnished view of electoral politics by illuminating the pitfalls that often ensnare first-time candidates. Our ultimate goal is to teach future candidates how to empower their idealism and run clean, aboveboard, effective campaigns, despite all of the obstacles to doing so.

In preparation for the critical 2012 and 2013 election cycles, here are 10 essential tips you should know before becoming a candidate. [Watch the trailer for "Candidate College" below to get five more great tips]:

1. Choose the right race to run. All politicians might seem the same to you, but not all elected offices are created equally. Before you choose between whether to run for Congress, the state legislature, municipal or local office, there are three important factors to consider. First, who will be your opponent? Over 90% of incumbents are generally re-elected (96% in the New York State legislature!), so choosing to run against someone already in office immediately makes for an uphill battle. That is not to say that it is impossible, but you must carefully determine whether the incumbent is truly vulnerable before embarking on a challenge. Running for an open seat dramatically increases your chances of winning.

The second consideration is the geographical boundaries of the area you are seeking to represent. Before you run, your should go to your local Board of Elections or visit its website to review the district lines of each potential office you could seek and see if they are hospitable to your candidacy (Note: 2012 is a redistricting year, so the current lines for state and federal offices will soon change.). You might have a lot of connections in one neighborhood, but realize that you are completely unknown in the majority of the communities encompassed by the district. The ethnic, economic, and party affiliation breakdowns of the district are all important in determining which race is best for you. There are a number of political consultants who specialize in preparing and making sense of this data. It is worth your time and resources to consult these experts when considering a bid for public office.

The third factor is how much money you will need to raise in order to be competitive. In New York City, the Campaign Finance Board (CFB) system of matching private financial contributions with public money makes running for the City Council the most economically viable possibility for most aspiring candidates. Provided you can satisfy the CFB's requirements, you can get over $90,000 in matching funds by raising around $25,000 in small money contributions. With a current spending limit of $168,000 in City Council races, that means that by raising just $25K that you can be competitive with virtually any candidate in the race, even if they out-fundraise you 3-to-1.

By contrast, making a viable run for the New York State Assembly will require you to raise at least $100,000 (often more like $150K-$200K), because there are no matching funds on the state level. Running for a State Senate seat means you will have to collect $250,000 at a bare minimum.

On the federal level, the average successful run last year for United States Senate cost nearly $10 million, while the median amount spent by candidates elected to the House of Representatives was about $1.4 million.

Research how much candidates have spent in the past to win the seat you're seeking. If you can't reach these monetary thresholds, the odds severely increase against your candidacy. Moreover, if you can't raise $25K to run for City Council, you have to take a hard look at your candidacy and evaluate if you really have the community support necessary to get elected.

2. Master your Rolodex. In order to get elected, you are going to have to ask for help from everyone you know. It is absolutely essential that you build out a computerized database with the complete contact information (emails are a must!) of all your family members, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, business associates, and as many of your friends' friends as you can amass. Next to each person's entry you should make an annotation as to what role the person could potentially play in your campaign. Would they be willing to volunteer? Collect signatures? Send out "Dear Neighbor" letters on your behalf? Most importantly, will they be able to donate to your campaign?

For each potential donor (and this should be practically everybody you know!), you should write down the highest dollar amount you think that they will be able realistically to contribute to your campaign, so that you can approximate how much money you will be able to raise from your network and know how much to ask for when it comes time to hit them up for cash. Don't lowball your target number. You need as much support as you can get. If your friends and family won't donate generously to your campaign, who will?

3. Make a list of the 50 people you need to know to win. When a recent statewide candidate for office went to Mike Bloomberg for advice, the mayor counseled him to start by making a list of the 50 people whose support the candidate needed most in order to win the race. This is excellent advice as it allows you to get perspective on the race and focus on coming up with a strategy to approach the key decision-makers you will have to try to bring into your camp. In some cases, these will be people you already know and all you have to do is reach out to them and convince them to join your effort. In most instances, they will be either casual acquaintances or complete strangers and you will have to devise a way of building a relationship with them. Among the types of people who will likely make up your top 50 are elected officials, union heads, civic leaders, community organizers, prominent donors, and local celebrities. You can leave off people who will not support you under any circumstances, but don't exclude someone just because they seem difficult to reach. Overcoming obstacles is what campaigns are all about.

4. Make 5,000 business cards and hand them all out in your district. This is the advice the late, great leader of the Queens Democratic machine, Tom Manton, gave to a first-time candidate for City Council when he went to the party boss for guidance. Manton wasn't backing the candidate, but he did offer this helpful, common-sense suggestion. To hand out 5,000 business cards in your district you have to interact personally with 5,000 potential voters. Through this process, you learn the concerns of your would-be constituents and develop an intimacy with the electorate that cannot be matched by any other means.

The other benefit of handing out 5,000 business cards is getting 5,000 business cards in return. Whenever you meet anyone, you should always get their complete contact information, then immediately write yourself a note on the back of their card, so that you remember in what context you met the individual and any other useful information about them (i.e. issues of particular concern to them, personal connections you might share, etc.). At the end of each day, all of the cards you receive should be entered into a database.

In should be noted that 5,000 is not an arbitrary number, but one tailored to the approximate number of votes this particular candidate needed to win the City Council seat he was seeking. The number should be adjusted depending upon the scope of the office for which you are running. In the particular case of the Queens candidate, however, Manton's number was spot on. The candidate carefully followed the boss's advice and won -- with 5,080 votes.

5. Social networking is serious business. As uprisings, revolutions and political movements around the world have demonstrated, social networking is an immensely powerful organizing tool when used expertly. But wielding social networking effectively in a campaign means a lot more than setting up a Facebook politician fan page and a Twitter account. It means building an online community that you will need to constantly cultivate, engage and expand from now until Election Day. This is a time-consuming process, limited by the rules of each respective social media platform (for example, you can't add too many people on Facebook each day or your account will be temporarily blocked), so you must start this aspect of your campaign as early as possible.

It is a mistake to think that any young person who spends hours each day on Facebook has the know-how to make your campaign a social networking success. If you do not have the means to hire an experienced consultant whose sole focus is your online effort, you or one of your advisors must become a quick study on the subject. Applying techniques like those explained by best-selling author and social networking guru Dave Kerpen in his article "10 Proven Strategies for Greater Likeability on Facebook" can mean the difference between a token social media campaign and a genuine netroots success.

[For much more on this subject, check out Episode 5 of "Candidate College": Social Media Matters]

6. Know the numbers. How many votes are you going to have to get in order to win on Election Day? How many people vote in your district? Where in your district is the vote the heaviest? Where is it the lightest? Does one ethnic, age, or economic group vote more than any other in your area?

If you don't know the answers to these and many other arithmetic questions about your race, you are flying blind. It is absolutely essential that you become an expert on the history of your district's elections. The fact is that while the outcome of elections is often unpredictable, who will vote in those elections is not. A significant majority of the total votes cast, particularly in local races, tend to come from "prime voters", that is, those people who show up at the polls to do their civic duty without fail on practically every Election Day. Idealistic candidates often talk about energizing new voters or expanding the "voter universe" to activate community members who generally don't participate, but the sad statistical reality is that if someone never votes or only comes out in presidential election years, they are not going to deviate from their habit and come out to vote in your race no matter how exciting a campaign you run.

That's why savvy candidates spend the lion's share of their time courting "prime voters." These are the people you are aiming to win over when you go door-to-door asking for votes. These are the people that you must target with your mailings and your online campaign.

Every moment of a candidate's time is precious. There are simply not enough hours in the day to knock on every door, get in long conservations with unregistered voters, and canvass neighborhoods with chronically low turnout, no matter how well-intentioned all of these efforts are.

7. Know thyself. This ancient adage holds especially true for anyone seeking to run for office. Far too often candidates succumb to their own egos and the echo chamber of supporters that surround them. First-time candidates and long-time incumbents are particularly susceptible to viewing their campaigns from inside of a bubble.

As unpleasant as the truth might be, it is always best for candidates to be honest first and foremost with themselves. If you or someone on your team isn't straightforward about your strengths and weaknesses as a candidate, how can you effectively play to your strengths and defend against your weaknesses? Don't think the skeletons in your closet will surface in a heated election, simply by you refusing to admit to yourself they exist? Think again. Countless candidates who deluded themselves into believing they were invincible have found out the hard way how big the disconnect can be between how they wanted to perceive themselves and how the public ultimately ended up viewing them at the end of a campaign.

Smart candidates not only admit their weaknesses to themselves and their most trusted advisors, they ask someone objective (who will sign a non-disclosure agreement!) to dig up potential dirt on them. That way you have time to prepare against any attacks your opponents might use against you, instead of getting caught off-guard by a surprise that sinks your campaign and wastes all of your hard work.

8. There's no substitute for experience. First-time candidates often flatter themselves by thinking that their campaign will reinvent the wheel and, in doing so, roll to certain victory. Compounding this error, they surround themselves with a campaign staff as new to the political arena as they are to make certain that no one contradicts the brilliance of their strategy.

You can save yourself a lot of time and heartbreak simply by realizing that there's no substitute for experience in politics. The bottom line is practically any (if not every) campaign strategy you can conceive of has been tried before -- many times over.

How do you know what challenges lie ahead for your candidacy, if you've never gone through a campaign before? The electoral system in New York is notoriously complicated and laced with minutia party bosses have slipped into the system over the years to trip up anyone who dares to challenge the status quo. For example, if no one of your team has navigated the deliberately arcane petitioning process in New York State before, the odds virtually assure that your opponent will be able to knock you off the ballot if he or she knows what they're doing.

Political consultants exist for a reason. So, too, do election lawyers, professional fundraisers, and compliance experts. Not everyone on your squad has to be a grizzled veteran, but a team of only rookies is almost certain to go down in flames.

9. Don't be too controlling. No one can simultaneously be the quarterback, coach, and wide receiver on the same team, and yet this is precisely what many first-time candidates try to do when running for office. Afraid someone on their team will make a wrong move, the candidate insists on weighing in on every decision personally -- despite, oftentimes, never having been involved in the inner workings of a campaign before.

While many candidates find this level of control comforting, in practice, this approach is suicidal. Just doing the two main jobs of a candidate well -- raising money and pressing the flesh with voters (primarily, in local elections, by knocking on doors) -- are hard enough. The more responsibilities you take on, the worse you perform in handling all of them.

An effective leader, which is what ideally you are aiming to be if you are running for office, hires the right team to complement his or her abilities. If you trust your managerial skills to hire good people, it follows that you should trust the team you assembled when it comes to making decisions, particularly the minor ones that shouldn't be wasting your time. Of course, sometimes candidates are right to overrule their staff, but the instances where such showdowns should occur are few and far between.

If you don't trust the people you hired, what does that say about your judgment?

10. You can never work too hard. Practically every candidate who loses a race cries into their beer on Election Night that if only they had had more time to campaign the outcome would have been different.

Don't set yourself up for regret! You should accept from day one of your campaign that running for office is one of the most difficult (if not, the most difficult) and time-consuming endeavors you will ever undertake in your life. You must win over and mobilize hundreds of people, so that they in turn will help you convince thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people to vote for you. You must raise a war chest of contributions, attend an endless stream of community meetings, make hundreds of speeches, dazzle the media without tripping yourself up, stave off your opponents' attacks, and survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, all while weathering the inevitable conflicts in your personal and professional life that always spring up, no matter how much you hope to keep the rest of your life at bay while you campaign.

Sounds fun, huh? Well, this is the business you are choosing.

From the moment you decide to run for office, you are already running out of time. Start working now and don't ever stop.

Good luck!

New York Civic wants to hear your best advice for anyone looking to run for office. Please share your tips below in the comments section or write to

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