Building a powerful Rolodex can take years.
Running for office is a team sport, but for many candidates building that team means drawing upon a lifetime of contacts. So if you are considering a run for political office, how do you take your Rolodex and turn it into the strong backbone of a winning campaign?
First, identify the ways in which supporters can help your campaign. Second, figure out who you know and who you need to meet to accomplish these goals. Third, form an organized strategy for the early coalition building as you consider a potential run.
To understand how your supporters can help, you’ll want to identify the goals of your campaign. Ultimately, campaigns do two things: turn out supporters and persuade undecided voters. In a way, everything you do is a means towards one of those two ends. But the volume of communication that needs to take place will require a large and organized coalition. These supporters can help with the organizing, fundraising, or political operation.
Don’t just focus on the big fish
Prospective candidates often overlook volunteers in the early stages of a potential campaign. It’s easy to focus on high profile connections, elected officials, and potential big dollar donors, but—and I say this as an organizer turned campaign manager—you can’t put a price tag on great volunteers.
Eventually, you will need volunteers to phone bank, knock on doors, enter data, and contribute to a larger field operation. But in the short term, you’ll need someone to house staffers, organize donated office furniture, run something to the post office, or check local papers for community events. If you have a friend who wants to help, even if they aren’t rich and famous, keep them engaged because the best campaigns turn that energy into something directly connected to your goals.
Engage potential donors early
For better or worse, campaigns cost a lot of money and candidates need to devote a lot of time and energy to raising the funds to pay for staff, rent, mailers, advertising, etc. Some donors donate because they are your friends; others donate because they enjoy politics. Some donors are members of the local business community; others simply dislike your opponent. But if there is one thing that all donors have in common it’s that they don’t like to be treated like an ATM.
Build your relationship with potential donors early, long before you ever ask them to write you a check. Identify these supporters early and engage them periodically without asking for money. Ask them for advice on your potential candidacy, and find out what issues they care about the most. For your supporters to invest in you, they need to believe that investment is worthwhile.
Engaging potential donors in your first major decision, the decision to run for public office could be the difference between $100 and $1000. It also might be the difference between making a donation and hosting a fundraiser. Just like with volunteers, you need to capitalize on the energy of your network.
Expanding your political network can pay dividends in multiple ways. Supporters help recruit volunteers and donors, but often their roles become more complex. Political connections are somewhat hard to define. Local activists, county and state party staff and supporters, and local elected officials are all of political importance.
But some political supporters are simply apolitical community leaders, faith leaders, members of rotary clubs and local chambers of commerce, or even members of a local knitting circle or book club. One politician I used to work for said that in every town you need to find the diner where all the decisions are made. This is where candidates can separate themselves through hard work and creativity.
If someone is influential, social, and active then they can be helpful to your campaign. Down the road they can act as surrogates for the campaign both in the media and the community. They can host house parties or even publicly endorse. A lot of the time, these are the people who aren’t naturally in your network and will require some outreach. Just like donors, they will take their endorsement seriously and expect to be treated as an investor in your candidacy. So determine who these community leaders are and find a way into their circle early so that you aren’t immediately asking for something as soon as you meet them.
Build your coalition face-to-face
Now that you understand who to contact, it’s time to piece together an effective strategy to bring them into your coalition. For those in your immediate network, don’t rely on impersonal communication. Take people out for coffee, breakfast, or lunch and ask for their opinion on your potential candidacy. Be prepared to respond to skepticism with confidence.
For those who offer their support, ask for 10 more people to meet with. And when someone offers you support, remember that their energy alone is not enough. You need to figure out how to turn that energy into something productive; whether it is volunteering, fundraising, or political help. And most importantly, keep track of who you have met with, who has pledged their support, and be prepared to follow up.
Part of what makes campaigns so exciting is the community you build around a common goal. The early stages of this process are both crucial and exhilarating. But building your coalition needs to be approached strategically and in an organized fashion. Execute well and not only will every subsequent step be that much more productive, you may even make new friends for life.
Josh Wolf, who recently managed Ami Bera’s campaign in California in one of the most high profile congressional races in the country, currently serves as campaign manager for Massachusetts State Treasurer Steve Grossman’s gubernatorial bid.