If you’re thinking about starting a career in public service, you may have heard that the candidate with the deepest pockets always wins. But I have helped several candidates run for office with high aspirations and limited funds. As a campaign manager and political consultant, I’ve worked on successful campaigns from Michigan to New York. With 15 elections under my belt, I’ve learned a few tips along the way that might be helpful for anyone who is thinking about putting their name on the ballot.
It’s true that without a powerful fundraising machine, you’re at a disadvantage. But you can overcome the challenge of being the underdog and be victorious on election night. If you don’t have money, you’d better roll up your sleeves for a hard earned win. The reason money is so critical is because it can buy exposure for a candidate. Here’s how to get exposure without dipping into your pocket.
1. Establish a goal
Why are you running for office? If vanity is the answer, you’d be better off pursuing a career in acting. Politics is a dirty, dirty game. If you decide to run for something, all of your skeletons could come tumbling out of your closet and onto the front page of the town newspaper. Every politician says they want to “make a difference.” Your reason should be much more compelling. Think deeply on this because campaigns will test the your sanity, so your motivation should be genuine.
2. Think like a voter
Above all, voters are people. They’re busy moms with children. They’re senior citizens with doctor’s appointments. They’re men with two jobs to make ends meet. They’re unemployed college students sending out a zillion resumes a day. What is so special about you that someone would go out of their way to check your name on the ballot or even show up to the polls in the first place? Did you accomplish a positive change in your community against the odds? Did you overcome a personal tragedy and want to change the law to prevent it from happening to others? It better be something good because voters are people and people are getting more cynical every day. The last thing they want is “another politician.”
3. Start small
Don’t run for governor your first time out. Choose a race that’s local within the confines of your district. I would suggest running for state representative. You may not even have to challenge an incumbent. Here in Michigan, state representatives are term limited. Local elections are great because the district is usually small and the candidates don’t bother with TV advertisements. You can win on the strength of your community connections.
4. Get involved in your community
Hopefully, you already are. If not, you need to be at the block club meetings, community centers, church functions and neighborhood cleanups. When you arrive, don’t just talk about your candidacy. That will turn people off. Be genuinely engaged and you’ll be surprised at how people respond. Volunteer for a great cause. Plant some trees. Do good deeds. But don’t just do it to get elected, do it because you care. Voters can spot phonies a mile away.
5. Go door-to-door
It may seem like a scary prospect to knock on a stranger’s door, but this is something that modern politicians underestimate. Pick a Saturday morning when folks are home. Most people won’t bother coming to the door. But when someone does answer, you’ll have a golden opportunity… the chance to talk to a voter. Take notes and listen. Wait until the end to mention your candidacy. Many of the people you encounter will want to vent and some will be refreshed that you came to talk to them. Remember, if you knock on 50 doors and 10 people answer the door and you make a good impression, those folks will spread the word through the neighborhood. Especially senior citizens. They tend to be more politically active.
6. Recruit some volunteers
Get some high school kids from the neighborhood to help you go door-to-door. Have some senior citizens represent you at some community events. Make them feel important. Offer them good food in exchange for their help. Don’t be give them cheap cookies and punch. Treat them to a home cooked meal. They’ll be happy to continue helping.
7. Utilize social media
Clean up your Facebook page. Delete those pictures of you acting silly at a wild party. Start tweeting about things related to your community and campaign. Put up some YouTube videos of you doing some positive things around your neighborhood. Who knows, you might go viral or even get an interview on the local TV station. Use social media as a platform to reach out but don’t ignore the technology-challenged voters. Consider sending a mailer to absentee voters in your community (they tend to be senior citizens.)
8. Get some lawn signs
If you don’t have the money to do anything at all, you need to scrape together the pennies to buy some yard signs. Ask everyone you know to put the signs in their front lawns… the impact of having your name all over the community is priceless. Websites offer great deals, but you may want to consider one that uses union printers. Here in Michigan, many voters won’t support you without seeing a union bug on all of your materials. But this may be different in different regions.
If you follow these steps, you could be well on your way to winning political office for less than the price of a weekend getaway. Remember, the only way to win voters over is to be genuine.