Every election is unique, and tactics that lead to success for one political campaign might not work so well for another. After many years of working on local races, though — both my own and for others — I’ve learned there are some common mistakes that are committed again and again by candidates who are new to campaigning and smart election strategy.
Most of the mistakes on this list have two important things in common: they seem like good ideas at first glance, and they make inexperienced political candidates feel good. Unfortunately, it’s easy to be seduced by these approaches . . . but you’re likely to lose your campaign if you fall for them. Believe me; I see these mistakes repeated every year by candidates running in all kinds of races, from city council to state senate.
If you’re a candidate for local office and find yourself tempted to make one of these mistakes, take a step back and ask yourself why it’s enticing to you. If it’s because you feel it would be the easier road to take or because it would make you feel good, then you should reconsider running for office. There are no shortcuts to winning a local campaign, and a simple litmus will reveal the effectiveness of any strategy: the harder it is, the better it works.
So here they are: the 25 most common mistakes made by candidates in local campaigns. If you fall for any of these and lose your election, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
1. Running When You’ve Never Volunteered for a Campaign Before
If you’ve never volunteered for a political campaign before, then you probably won’t win your first race for local office . . . plain and simple. There are many benefits to “paying your dues” by volunteering before you become a candidate, but the most important are experience and networking.
By helping other candidates in their efforts, you’ll learn important lessons to apply in your own race someday. You’ll find out what tactics are effective, what tactics aren’t, and discover the essential elements of a winning campaign.
Even more importantly, you’ll make close political acquaintances who will be there to assist and advise you when it’s your turn to run for office. And beyond politics, many of the people who you volunteer with on political campaigns will become trusted, lifelong friends.
2. Focusing Too Much on Yard Signs
I’ve worked on dozens of political campaigns: local, statewide and even presidential races. In almost every campaign, there was one thing that inevitably wasted more time and energy than anything else: yard signs.
The myth that yard signs win elections is often perpetuated by the tactics of incumbent candidates who win in spite of, not because of, all the yard signs their volunteers put out. First-time candidates see the many signs that are erected by well-known incumbents, and they understandably think it’s the keystone of a successful campaign. In reality, though, the number of yard signs you have out doesn’t predict your chances of winning.
Every campaign needs to have some yard signs, if only for the fact that the absence of them can create a bad perception among supporters. Just remember: yard signs don’t vote. Don’t devote too much time and money to them at the expense of other important aspects of your campaign, like door-to-door efforts and direct mail.
3. Going Into Debt to Finance Your Campaign
It’s difficult to win your first local election if you don’t self-finance – or use your own money – to some degree. For some candidates, that means spending twenty bucks on postcard stamps; for others, it means investing a few thousand dollars from savings.
It’s up to you how much of your own money gets spent on your campaign; I’m not here to be your financial advisor. Lord knows I’ve spent lots of my own personal funds on campaigns over the years. I will give you one piece of important advice, though: don’t go into debt to finance your campaign. If the money isn’t already in your bank account, don’t use it.
Maxing out a credit card or taking out a personal loan to pay for campaign expenses simply isn’t a smart move . . . but it’s a mistake made all the time by candidates in local, congressional, gubernatorial and even presidential races. Candidates become emotionally invested in their campaigns, and it’s easy for them to make big financial missteps in the heat of the moment.
4. Going Negative on Your Opponent
Negative campaigning works well in large campaigns, because candidates in these races are often widely unknown by the people whose votes they are asking for. In a local race, though, candidates are often already well known by many people in the community. In some cases, they’ve spent years among the voters; graduating from the local school, working professionally with the residents, shopping at the same grocery stores and attending the same local events.
Trying to “re-define” your opponent in a local race, therefore, is often a tall order. Even if you do discover some unsavory detail about their past that most residents aren’t aware of, it’s usually a major misstep to try and capitalize on it. When someone already thinks they know a person well, they don’t take kindly to a political candidate trying to change their opinion of them. Whether the negative campaign you initiate is true or not, you run the risk of alienating a block of voters whose opinions about your opponent are already cast in stone.
If you must go negative in your campaign, then make it “comparative.” Concentrate on comparing relevant records and policy positions. Is your opponent an office holder who has a record of official actions as an elected official? Then explain to the voters why certain official actions he took weren’t good for his constituents. Do you and your opponent differ on policy? Then compare your plans with the plans your opponent has advocated, and explain why yours are better for constituents. Do you have more applicable experience than your opponent? Then outline how your experiences make you a better for the job.
5. Getting Too Wordy on Campaign Literature
Regardless of how great your campaign literature is, the vast majority of voters are only going to look at it for a few seconds before they throw it in the trash. This is a tough fact for many new political candidates to accept, but it’s the truth: most voters really couldn’t care less about you. Even if you’re the most interesting candidate in the world, they aren’t going to take longer than a moment to learn more.
Remember: the more you write, the less they’ll read. Just as with personal introductions, first impressions in campaign literature are important. When a voter is presented with a mailer stuffed with paragraph after paragraph of rambling text, they’re likely to just give up on it before they’ve even read a word. The opposite happens, though, when they see a mailer that consists of a few easily-understood bullet points, brief exposition, and compelling images.
At first glance, your literature should give an immediate impression that it won’t take much commitment for the voter to take it all in. It should be brief, simple, easy to comprehend, and visually engaging. And it should only focus on one or two main themes.