Besides giving you a leg up on campaigning, there’s another important reason why announcing your candidacy before your opponent will help your cause. If you announce first, you’ll receive press about your candidacy . . . but none of your likely opponents will be included in the headlines (why would they be? They aren’t candidates yet.) Later, when your opponent jumps into the race, the headline will be that he’s filing to run against you. By announcing first, you’ve reserved space for yourself in every single news story that’s going to be written about your race.
Just envision it: when you announce, the headline will be Smith Files to Run for Mayor. When your opponent announces, it will be Jones Files to Run Against Smith.
Before we get further into the mechanics of your announcement, though, it’s worth talking about how important newspaper coverage will be to your race. Many new candidates become fixated on newspapers and think that getting their name in the headlines will win the race for them. In reality, though, newspapers are becoming less and less relevant to local races. Subscriptions to newspapers are falling rapidly as more people get their news from online sources, and smaller local papers are struggling to keep up readership.
In fact, even people who are subscribed to a newspaper rarely read much past the headline and opening paragraph of a story. While you might get excited about seeing that the local paper dedicated so much space to writing about your candidacy, the vast majority of people who see the story will just read the headline and skim through the rest. In their heyday, when newspapers were the premier source of local information for residents, they had the power to make or break a campaign. Today, they play a small — and increasingly less important — role in a successful candidacy.
Getting your name in the newspaper is one of those things that I call “lounge chair campaigning.” It’s easy to do (just announce your candidacy or have someone write a letter to the editor), it makes you feel good, but it does very little for your campaign. Yes, I know that you might read the paper regularly, and maybe most of the people in your professional sphere do, as well. But the average voter simply doesn’t. I’ve worked with many new candidates who think that the entire city is going to know that they announced once the story appears in the paper, only to find later that most residents have never heard of them. Don’t get offended if that happens to you; it’s your job to educate the voters about your race, and candidates who rely on the newspapers to do it for them usually end up losers.
Remember my mantra: the harder it is to do, the more effective it is for your campaign. Getting in the paper is easy, and does very little for you. Going door-to-door, mailing hand-written notes to voters, raising money . . . these are difficult, and thus far more important to winning.
In spite of the waning influence of newspapers, though, having your name appear in a headline is still a net gain for your brand as a candidate. It’s easy to put together press releases that focus on milestones in your campaign and distribute them to local papers, even if they only result in a line or two of coverage. You shouldn’t completely ignore newspapers; just make sure that you’re realistic about their influence on the electorate. Don’t get too excited when you get a positive headline, and don’t get too upset when you get a negative one. Just keep your head down and stay focused on the stuff that you know will win your race.
In the end, you’ll probably be disappointed by the amount of coverage that local newspapers end up devoting to your candidacy. Most local candidates only get mentioned by the newspapers twice: once when they announce that they are running, and once after the race is over. By then, you’ll either be a winner or a loser. Let’s focus on how to make sure that second headline details your victory.