How to get elected for the first time

So you’ve decided to run for something. Fantastic! But do you actually want to win?

While a good message is key to running for office, it takes more than that to actually win. Here’s the complete guide to getting elected for the first time.

The following tips are based on more than a decade of experience covering campaigns. This site writes from a North Carolina perspective, but this general process should work anywhere.

1) Get involved

Running for office isn’t about checking a resume box or gratifying your ego. It’s about serving your community.

You’re not going to know what your community needs or how you fit in unless you get involved. No matter where you are, there are more volunteer slots than there are civic-minded people to fill them.

Most cities and towns have advisory boards on everything from parks to international relations, and all it takes to join is filling out an application and committing to a meeting or two per month. You can also get involved with the PTA at your child’s school, a group like the Civitans/Ruritans or a nonprofit.

You’re going to be making connections and putting down roots. It’s a years-long process.

Even if you decide not to run for office, getting involved in your community is a wonderful idea!

2) Register for a political party

Unless you’re a billionaire, you’re not going to be successful in today’s world running as an unaffiliated or third-party candidate. You will need to register as a Democrat or a Republican.

[If you’re sure you want to run unaffiliated, here’s how to do it: How to run as an unaffiliated candidate in North Carolina]

And you need to do more than just register. You’ll need to get deeply involved. Go to county party meetings, volunteer on campaigns and attend fundraisers.

If you don’t like the direction your party is headed, this is your chance to do something about it! Help shape the platform you’ll one day be a part of.

3) Pick your seat

Your experiences in the first two steps will help shape this choice.

Passionate about education? Look at the school board. Into parks or public health? Try the Board of County Commissioners. Want to make an impact on public safety or urban planning? Run for City Council. Have a super flexible job? Maybe the state legislature could work.

Any higher than that, and it’s best to wait until party executives come recruit you.

Be sure to pay careful attention to local dynamics. Are you a Republican in a city? Don’t run citywide. Try a more welcoming district within the city. Is one of your representatives a well-liked public servant? Maybe you don’t want to challenge them in your first campaign.

4) Get educated on the issues

By the time you get here, you’re probably pretty well versed. But at this stage, you won’t be able to get away with checking out. Sign up for the Longleaf Politics newsletter and stay in the know.

5) Talk to the county party executive

Start leveraging the equity you’ve put in with Step 2. Let the county executive committee know you’re ready to run. They’ll be critical in organizing your ground game.

6) Talk to the incumbent

The person most knowledgeable about winning the seat you’re seeking is the person who currently holds it. If you can be their heir apparent if they’re retiring or seeking higher office, all the better. They can tap you into the network of donors and gatekeepers you’ll need later on.

Sure, you can always challenge an incumbent — but it will be much easier to have them on your side.

7) Find your gatekeepers

In any community, there are certain organizations that have tremendous influence on voters. These groups may hold candidate forums, make endorsements, provide campaign volunteers — or at the very least, you get in front of a large number of engaged voters efficiently.

These groups could be the Fraternal Order of Police, the League of Women Voters, the Black Political Caucus, the Chamber of Commerce, or some other civic group. Start attending their meetings as early as you can.

Photo by the North Carolina Fraternal Order of Police via Facebook

8) Line up endorsements

You want to start your campaign with a bang. One of the fastest ways to do this is to have a who’s who list of supporters. Start asking for endorsements early, before anybody else has a chance to. Get popular elected officials in higher office on your side. Secure the incumbent’s endorsement. Get business leaders, clergy, educators, and anyone else with influence.

9) Make a list of everyone you know well

It’s time to start fundraising, and friends and family are the first people you’ll call and ask for money. Your network is a key indicator of how successful you’ll be in raising money and campaigning. If you can’t get these folks to donate to your cause, how do you expect to convince anyone else?

10) Set a budget

How much you can afford to spend is basically a function of how much you can raise. And your campaign budget will determine what you’ll be able to spend on direct mail, campaign consultants, advertising, and everything else a campaign needs.

As you set the budget, make the decision: Will you loan your campaign money? This can be a great way to jumpstart your campaigning early, since most donations come in later in the cycle, after the big expenditures have already been made. You will possibly be able to pay yourself back, but don’t count on it.

No idea where to start? Look at how much successful campaigns for this seat have spent previously, particularly candidates running for the first time. This will likely get you in the ballpark.

11) Refine your message.

At this point, you know in your heart why you’re running. But that’s useless if you can’t communicate it to the voters. Before you start calling people and asking for their money, you need to make sure you can encapsulate your campaign in a few short sentences. It’s like an elevator pitch, but for yourself.

You need to have dynamite answers to the following questions:

  • Why are you running for office?
  • How does your background qualify you for office?
  • What goals do you want to achieve in office?
  • What is government not doing today that they should be?

Remember, your answers need to be authentic, specific and distinctive. Generic likely won’t work. If you can’t back it up, you’re toast.

12) Read up on the rules.

Your state’s Board of Elections will likely have a handy guide to staying on the right side of the law. This includes when you need to file reports, who you can and can’t accept money from, what information you need from donors and what you can spend campaign money on.

13) Find a campaign treasurer

This is probably going to be your campaign’s most valuable person. Make sure you find someone with attention for detail because any errors on the financial documents you send to the state capitol could get you into trouble.

14) Launch a campaign website and start publishing

Now that you have your message and your endorsements, you can set up a compelling webpage. Invest in high-quality photos and somebody to look over the copy. Think about your campaign website this way: What message do I want to send somebody who knows nothing about me but my name?

Make sure your site also prominently features a link to collect emails. I recommend using MailChimp, but there several other email marketing platforms you can use.

Need help with this step? Look into our campaign content consulting service.

15) Write a fundraising letter and start raising money

Now it’s time to start raising money for real. Write a one-page letter laying out your best case for why people should invest in your campaign. Create several versions of this — one that goes to donors to previous campaigns, one that goes to reliable voters of your party, and one that goes to longer-shots.

A fundraising consultant or your county party can help guide you in the right direction on who to send this to. You should also look at who donated in previous campaigns.

You’re going to want to have at least $10,000 in the bank before you file.

16) File for election

Hooray! It’s time to make things official. Follow your state’s rules and don’t miss the filing deadline!

Remember, you’re going to need to pay a filing fee, so don’t forget your checkbook.

Irwin Carmichael filing for Mecklenburg County sheriff in 2014. Photo by Rob Brisley via Flickr (Creative Commons).

17) Recruit volunteers

You’re done with behind-the-scenes work. Now it’s time to get your message and your campaign out to the widest audience in your district. You can’t do this yourself — you’re going to need more bodies to help. Look on college campuses, lock in the help of those gatekeeper organizations we mentioned above and tap your most enthusiastic supporters.

18) Make a door-knocking plan

Even in the internet era, knocking on doors is still the most effective thing you can do as a candidate. It’s even more effective if you do it yourself, but having volunteers door-knock is pretty good, too.

Your door-knocking plan will change based on how big your district is. In a tiny district, go ahead and try to get them all. As you consider bigger and bigger districts, you’re going to optimize your time by focusing on likely voters, especially likely voters who support your party.

This is a great time to try out that elevator pitch, but more often than not you’ll spend more time explaining what office you’re running for than having deep dives on the issues. Don’t forget to print up some door hangers to leave when people aren’t home.

19) Decide on whether you’re able to send mailers

Those jumbo-sized postcards are still very effective, but they’re expensive. The good thing is that you’re able to be extremely targeted in who receives them. Look at your budget and see how many you’re going to be able to send.

If you just have the budget for one, make it an introductory mailer that keeps things positive and gets across your message.

If you have the budget for multiple mailers, you can get into more strategy on when you send them and what the message is for each one. You can distinguish your message from your opponent’s, or you can hit different parts of your platform.

20) Keep your core supporters informed

Remember those emails you collected? Now’s a good time to use them. A robust email list can be a valuable asset in getting out the vote, recruiting volunteers, and leveraging networks to spread your message.

Invite them to campaign events. Meet them at early voting locations. Send them photos and blog posts they can share on Facebook. And yes, you can ask them for money, as well.

21) Interact on social media

Now that we’re well into campaign season, get your campaign communication humming. Post Facebook updates of where you’re going. Make sure the cameras are rolling when you give speeches, knock on doors or answer questions. Those videos can quickly spread.

22) Talk to civic groups

Go back to that list of gatekeepers. Most of them will hold candidate forums or at least allow you to speak at their meetings. If you can win another endorsement, all the better.

23) Phone bank and knock on more doors

You can door-knock all the way to Election Day. But at some point, it might become more efficient to hit the phones. Record a robocall you can use to encourage supporters to vote, and write up a loose script that volunteers can use to reach potential voters who may or may not know who you are.

Behind the scenes of Sen. Jeff Jackson’s “Gameplan Phone Bank” operation. Photo via Facebook.

24) Get volunteers at early voting sites

Early voting has begun. You need people on the ground at your county’s early voting locations. Station yourself at the highest-traffic location — you can find stats from your county Board of Elections — and send your best people everywhere else. Introduce yourself to voters as they come to cast their ballots. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to vote for you once they meet you, and you’ll never find a higher-intention voter than someone in line.

25) Make a closing argument

In the final days of the campaign, you can take everything you’ve learned from this months-long process to make your final push.

Knock on a few more doors, call a few more people and head to a few more polling places. Send a few more emails. This is it.

26) Celebrate!

Congratulations! You just got elected. Time to thank your donors and volunteers and get cracking on the promises you’ve made.

Cover image by Kyle Taylor via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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