The best local political candidates have already been campaigning for years.
In fact, some of them don’t even know that they’re going to be candidates yet. There’s the local businessperson who has been investing in the community and rubbing elbows with residents for decades; the mother who stays involved in the PTA and neighborhood projects; the little league baseball coach who helps with community fundraisers and charitable events. These types of people are more likely to do well on the ballot because they’re already well-known in the community, they’ve had multiple interactions with individual residents, and voters know their story (we’ll talk later about why telling your story is the most important part of your political campaign).
The first time I ran for city council, I had only lived in my city for a few years. I didn’t grow up there, I hadn’t been involved in community projects or organizations, and I didn’t have a big network of local friends and supporters. In fact, my opponents on the ballot (I ran in an at-large race where the three top vote-getters would win seats on council) were significantly better known than I was. They had lived in the city for decades, were involved in numerous local groups, and were already incumbent elected officials.
I ended up beating all of them at the ballot box, and part of the reason I won is because I started campaigning far earlier than any local candidate ever had. Every candidate — no matter how well-known you are in the community — should start campaigning early. But if you’re in the situation I was in — where you’re an unknown who’s running for the first time — you need to start campaigning at least a year in advance.
That’s right: I said at least a year in advance. The reason why this advice sounds extreme to many political newcomers is because they’re used to seeing lazy local candidates who don’t start campaigning until the month before their election. And in truth, this works for many candidates . . . especially if their opponents are equally lazy. As a first-time candidate, though, starting to campaign a year before your competition is the best way to blow them out of the water and overcome the odds, even if you’re running against well-known incumbents as I was.
And let’s clarify, here: “starting your campaign” does not mean just collecting signatures and filing to run for office. Depending on the circumstances, many candidates for public office have to file to run the better part of a year before their election. But when I say that you have to start campaigning a year early, I mean that you need to have your campaign plan already put together, your strategies fleshed out, and are headed out the door to campaign.
When your opponents are still thinking about whether or not they’re going to run, you should already have knocked on hundreds of doors in your district. When they start collecting signatures, you should already have announced your candidacy, sent out press releases, and had your first meet-and-greet event. And when they start telling people that they’re going to be on the ballot, you should already have contacted every likely voter. Twice.
Remember: you should always run your race like you’re ten points behind your competitor, even if you don’t have one yet. That means starting early — very early — and becoming the first candidate who makes an impression on the voters. If you’re afraid of “annoying” voters or “turning them off” by starting too early, then don’t run in the first place. Hustling wins elections, and candidates who work hard and launch before their competitors get elected. Plain and simple.
There’s no such thing as a “checklist” in a local political campaign that, once completed, will guarantee that you’ll win your race. If one of your strategies is to go door-to-door and drop literature (as it had better be), then you’re not going to just do it one time and stop. The more times you repeat that strategy, the likely you will be to win. Starting twelve months in advance will let you hit the same home four, five or even half a dozen times. If you have the time, then you need to be hustling.
There’s one other reason why starting so early is great for your campaign: the gossip factor. When people see you out campaigning a year before your election, it’s going to leave an impression on them. Especially if they’ve never seen a candidate do it before. They’ll gossip about it with their friends and neighbors. “Did you see that guy who’s running for city council? He was out going door-to-door in the freezing cold, and the election is a year from now!”
Your potential opponents might role their eyes at you and say you’re crazy, but they’ll still talk about you. And believe me: you’ll impress people. You’ll stick in their minds. “If this candidate is working so hard already,” they’ll think, “then he’s probably going to continue working pretty hard if we put him in office.”
Does that mean that you can’t win unless you start campaigning a year in advance? No, of course not. In fact, I realize that most people reading this probably have much less than a year left to campaign before election day. It’s a fact of life: most local political candidates simply don’t start thinking about campaigning until the fall, unfortunately. But if you’re one of them, there are still a few things you can do to out-hustle your opponents.
First, start campaigning as hard as you can, immediately. Don’t wait until the time when everyone else is out campaigning; start right away. If you had planned giving yourself just enough time to hit all of the doors in your district once, then scrap it. Plan on hitting all of the doors twice. Or three times, if you still have the time. Start now.
Second, make up for lost time. That means no more weekends off or lounging on your couch after work. If you have spare time — and if it doesn’t negatively affect your family life — then you need to be campaigning. Are you watching a movie at home? Then you can also be writing personal notes to voters at the same time. Are you too sick to go outside? Then you can be sending emails to potential supporters. Multitask, don’t let a single hour go wasted, and hustle your ass off.
There will be plenty of time to relax after election day.