You’ve embarked on a campaign, and you’re on top of the world. It’s all speeches, appearances and kissing babies, right? Well, not exactly.
Life on a political campaign isn’t like “The West Wing.” Good candidates need to be invested, honest and willing to adjust to the realities of campaign life.
First-time candidates find out quickly that campaigning is hard work and that relationships with staffers and consultants are often challenging. Not that this comes as a shock to anyone who’s worked in the campaign world, but candidates complain about their consultants and consultants always grumble about their candidates.
In a quest to find out what sets consultants off the most, C&E surveyed close to a dozen political strategists, from campaign managers to direct mail vendors. Not surprisingly, we found they had lots to say. Candidates, here’s what you’re doing wrong—at least from the consultant’s perspective.
1. Your meddling spouse
For some consultants, the candidate’s spouse can be their worst nightmare. Whether it’s a husband or wife who thinks they can do a better job than members of the campaign staff, or a spouse who wants revenge after the opposition’s latest attack ad, consultants don’t take kindly to meddling.
A passionate spouse is to be expected, but candidates need to be willing to set certain boundaries, even if it means telling a husband or wife to back off. It’s simply not smart politics to react to a negative spot or an underhanded campaign tactic with emotion.
And, consultants warn, giving a spouse a seat at the campaign strategy table could be a bad move. Spouses need to feel involved and motivated by the campaign, but at the same time understand they’re not making all of the decisions.
The solution? Find a way to not bring every aspect of the campaign’s business to your spouse. It’s hard to do, but it may very well be in your campaign’s best interest.
Even if your spouse doesn’t expect to be consulted on every strategic decision, they will obviously still have your ear throughout the campaign. That can often be a good thing, say consultants. Campaign managers and other top staffers realize the value in forging strong relationships with the candidate’s spouse and they’re eager to do just that. All they need is a bit of help.
If you’re filming a TV or radio spot, make sure your spouse—and you, as the candidate, for that matter—understand that the media consultant knows the process better than either of you. Listen to their advice. Consultants realize they’ll never outrank the candidate’s spouse, but they’ll thank you for not allowing that spouse to boss them around too much.
Most importantly, ensure that your spouse is 100 percent on board before the start of a campaign. Politics is a dirty business, and if you have a spouse that’s on the fence before the campaign even begins, they’re more likely to be a distraction during it.
2. You won’t ask for money
Most candidates would rather have a root canal than sit and ask for money for seven or eight hours a day. But if your campaign is going to get off the ground, you need the money and you need to start hitting up your network of family and friends.
It can be an uncomfortable process, and consultants don’t expect you to be in love with it, but you have to play the part and play it well for your campaign to succeed. There are few things consultants resent more than a candidate who talks a big game when it comes to raising the cash, but then wants to take a 30-minute break after two fundraising calls.
If you want to stay on the good side of your manager and top staffers, don’t ask if surrogates or supporters can make all the fundraising calls on your behalf, and figure out a way to stay upbeat and energized throughout the process.
Keep in mind that consultants are often willing to compromise. If there are certain parts of the pitch or fundraising process that make you particularly uncomfortable, broach it with your fundraising team or campaign manager and figure out a way to make it work. Those fundraising calls are one of the few things that no one other than the candidate can do. It’s not fun, but you need to realize that it’s what you signed up for when you decided to run for office.
The bottom line is that you have to do the hard stuff before you can do the fun stuff. If you spend the first two months making the calls and forming a base level of funding, you can enjoy being a candidate later. Raise enough money for the campaign to stay afloat so that you can march in those parades and shake those hands. Fundraising is what will make or break you.
3. You try to take control
Sure, it’s your campaign, but you can’t make every single decision. Consultants are typically the ones who have the most campaign experience, and if you pick your consultants and vendors wisely, they can be trusted to do what’s in the best interest of the campaign and to give you sound advice. One thing consultants hate to hear: “I’ve got a buddy who’s good at that. Can we get him a job on the campaign?”
The reality is that you’re paying consultants good money to help you get elected, so don’t call your pal from high school to design your website. Their willingness to help is great, but you’re better of trusting the professionals. That is, unless your friend is a political consultant, in which case, you should take advantage of that.
Don’t try to be the direct mail expert, pollster or media consultant, either. Just because you’ve watched television for 40 years doesn’t mean you know how to make a political spot. Putting together a film shoot takes time, and even if it moves swiftly it doesn’t mean it didn’t take hours of work to prepare the set. When you arrive for a shoot, don’t suggest changing things at the last minute. And, no, you can’t shoot the ad outside just because it’s a nice day.
Same goes for an ad script, say media consultants. Sometimes last minute creative changes occur and they might work. But if your media team has the script set, don’t rewrite it on the way to the shoot. It could end up being more self-serving (something that consultants account for when writing the first draft). Remember that the race is about the voters, not you.
Discipline is just as important in other areas of the campaign. When you’re speaking to potential supporters, make sure you stay on message. Presumably you’ve paid for good polling and you and your team are in agreement on what to emphasize and what issues to stay away from. Keep in mind that your stump speech is actually one of the few areas of the campaign a consultant has little-to-no power over. No matter what the script or the teleprompter says, the candidate can say whatever they please after taking the stage.
Don’t go off message on a whim. With five extra seconds of thought, you can prevent a mistake that might bring down your campaign. In today’s campaign environment, trackers are everywhere.