This Isn't Your Father's Election

This Isn't Your Father's Election
Why the idealistic first-time candidate is the longest of long shots in the modern campaign world.

Rookie candidates often have a campaign in mind that is unrealistic, ineffective and more like a mom-and-pop operation than the polished, professionally run organizations that bring the most success. More often than not, it's a campaign that just can't win.

For these starry-eyed candidates, campaigns are built on speeches to local civic groups and walking parade routes with county party volunteers. They believe superior policies and passion about “fixing the country” are enough to attract the support needed win an election. Sadly, the truth is that the campaigns that win elections are more like the new Hollywood thriller “The Ides of March” than the more wholesome tale, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

Once upon a time, voters in this country actively educated themselves about candidates and their views by attending town halls, speeches and debates. But participation in the political process has waned, forcing campaigns to persuade passive voters that their candidate is marginally better than the opponent. 

Now, more than ever, campaigns have to fight to be heard over thousands of other distractions brought to voters by the 24-hour news cycle, social media, cellphones and the Internet. 

The modern political environment has rendered idealistic, first-time candidates the longest of long-shots to win. The ideas of the Mr. Smith-type candidate may be superior and he may even be better qualified. Voters, however, are only responding to what is being repeatedly pushed in front of their faces.

Even if this earnest politico attends every Republican, Tea Party or civic club meeting across the district, he will only be able to reach a small fraction of the voters who will ultimately decide who is victorious in November. These candidates expend valuable time traveling the district and making hundreds of five-minute speeches to earn a single-digit vote percentage on Election Day. 

Time spent on the road means Mr. Smith has virtually no money in the campaign coffers because it is rare that candidates can make effective fundraising calls from the road. Moreover, most of these candidates find excuses to avoid making money calls because it doesn’t fit into their view of how the campaign should operate. In their minds, the money, support and votes will flow through the doors at campaign headquarters if they make enough speeches. 

Unfortunately, that rarely –if ever–happens. While many of these candidates could actually raise money if they committed the time to doing so, their infatuation with the idealistic campaign prevents them from realizing their full fundraising potential.

The failure of these candidates is not execution, but rather education about what they really want. Many of them work very hard, dedicating many hours a day to traveling and speaking to voters. Despite presenting intelligent solutions to problems facing the state or nation, these same candidates haven’t spent much time thinking about their end goal. A comprehensive self-assessment and a better understanding of campaigns would help them realize that they did not really want to be candidates in the first place.

Being a modern candidate is more about fundraising and less about making impassioned speeches. Successful candidates spend hours every day making fundraising phone calls, approving press release quotes and practicing talking points for new issues. The majority of events that winning candidates attend are focused on collecting donations or developing new leads for future contributions -- not making policy speeches to the local Rotary Club. 

If you are not prepared for long hours on the phone and a disciplined focus on fundraising, then you should probably rethink running for office.

Winning campaigns also employ staff and consultants that possess the skill, qualifications and know-how to construct and run a professional operation that can identify, persuade and get out the voters necessary to be victorious. If you believe that a modern campaign can be run by you (the candidate) and your family, then be prepared to lose.

If you want to travel the state talking to groups about what the government should do to get back on track, you need to consider forming a political action committee, acting as a surrogate on another campaign or becoming a local talk radio host. The worst thing you can do is run for office, embarrass yourself during the campaign and diminish any potential public impact you could have in the future.

If you are serious about running for office (meaning that you are running to win), then you need to be prepared to run a professional and competitive campaign – not a mom-and-pop operation. 

Before throwing your hat in the ring learn more about how a campaign is organized, how strategy is developed and the importance of a finance plan. If you are running for office to make a point, realize that you can likely have a larger impact by not running. Otherwise, you will almost certainly get licked, ‘cause, nowadays, that kind of campaign is a lost cause.

Tyler Harber is a Republican consultant and pollster. A partner at the Prosper Group, Harber has worked dozens of campaigns in the U.S. and abroad. Follow him on Twitter (@THarber).

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george s.

Amen! I'm amazed how many candidates jump in the race with no idea how to campaign. They are clueless and end up marginalizing their voice while completely embarrassing themselves and the party at-large.


I quite agree, and well-written piece. Organization is the first key and direct voter contact is the second (and money/fundraising is a major key as well, but I can never decide where to rank that one depends on the campaign!)

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