So you’ve decided to run for office. But are you truly prepared for everything that comes along with it? Most prospective candidates would probably say yes. Many of their consultants end up wishing that were true.
Too many prospective candidates simply assume their families are ready for the sacrifices and the scrutiny. Too often, they also assume they’re ready for the endless fundraisers and the toll of a lengthy and potentially nasty campaign.
To get a sense of the questions people often fail to ask themselves before deciding to run, C&E quizzed several GCs and media consultants about their experiences with clients who simply weren’t prepared for the campaign spotlight.
We came up with 10 questions that consultants wish their clients had really thought about before deciding to jump into the lion’s den.
1. Is my family on board?
Your spouse is the last person you talk to before you go to bed at night. (And if they aren’t, you might want to really think about whether to put your personal life on the public stage.) They should have a lot of sway in the decision-making process, so he or she needs to be on board early. If your significant other has doubts or concerns about a campaign, don’t brush those concerns aside. When the going gets tough in the heat of a race, a candidate will need to be able to count on their spouse to be supportive, especially when the demands of the campaign mean lots of time away from home and away from the kids.
Along those same lines, the personal dynamics of politics can hit very close to home. To the best of their ability, candidates need to understand what negatives the other side is likely to hit them with and think about the impact on friends and family.
Bottom line: If you have any doubts as to whether your family is behind your campaign, or can withstand the scrutiny, you shouldn’t be running.
2. Are my finances sound?
Full-time candidacy isn’t a career. It doesn’t pay the bills, and depending on your personal financial situation that may not be something you can ignore. At the very least, you will need to pour some minimal resources of your own into a campaign. It may not come in the form of self-funding, but if you’re a small business owner, the responsibilities of a campaign are likely to take you away from your business more than you’d like. If you’re supporting a family and running for elected office at the same time, this consideration is even more important.
Bottom line: Calculate the personal financial cost of running for the office you’re considering, and make sure you have a candid discussion about it with your family.
3. Do I have the stomach to ask for the cash?
Many qualified candidates are unsuccessful because they’re simply uncomfortable or unwilling to ask friends and family for money. In fairness, it’s harder than it seems. But those two groups should be your bread and butter when it comes to raising campaign cash, so you’re going to have to ask and then you’re going to have to ask again. If you’re a first-time candidate who doesn’t have the means to be a self-funder, it’s going to take massive amounts of time and energy to build a fundraising base. This means hours upon hours on the phone, and it often means working hard to convince potential donors that they should invest in your candidacy.
Before you dive in, you need to appreciate what it will take to meet your monetary goal on a practical level. Good campaigns raise thousands of dollars a day, and a good campaign team will lock you in a closet from 8am to 3pm to make fundraising calls and let you out to meet with voters—seven days a week.
Bottom line: Don’t delude yourself into thinking money will come easily. If you’re not willing to spend the next year or more prodding people to open up their checkbooks, this might not be for you.
4. Do I have the stomach to go negative?
For most candidates, this isn’t typically a problem. But in some cases, playing it clean may not mean the same thing to you as it does to your campaign team. As a candidate, you’re going to be expected to draw a contrast with your opponent—in some races aggressively so. If you can’t get tough and “approve this message” then perhaps some races aren’t for you. In fact, campaign politics in general might not be for you.
Bottom line: Winning in politics doesn’t necessarily mean playing dirty, but these days most campaigns tend to get ugly. Before you commit, consider whether you have the stomach for contrast.
5. Do I understand my own values?
This might sound like the easiest question in the world: Why are you running? But not everyone has an answer for it. The vague and rambling response the late-Sen. Ted Kennedy offered during an interview in 1979 to the question, “Why do you want to be president?” helped doom his campaign before it began.
When you run for office, every issue group under the sun will send you a survey with questions that will deter mine whether or not they’ll support your candidacy. You need to be reading, thinking and writing about your core principles—articulating them in a productive manner. In short, know why you’re running and be able to explain it without a moment’s hesitation. Don’t just study your own positions though. Take time to look into opposing arguments in order to understand where your opponent is coming from, as well as their character and belief system.
Bottom line: A candidate who is able to articulate his or her value set, and connect those values to issues important to the electorate, stands to make fewer mistakes on the campaign trail and avoid the traps that will be set by opponents or ideological groups.
6. Do I understand my constituency?
Candidates need an understanding of the area they’ll be representing, its geography and its regionalisms. Even if you’ve lived somewhere your entire life, you still might not be familiar with certain areas of a given state or district. This knowledge will give you an idea of where you should be spending your time on the campaign trail and, more importantly, it will give your candidacy an air of authenticity. If you’ve just moved into the district or you and your family spend a lot of time elsewhere, that’s something your opposition is likely to use against you.
Bottom line: Even if you think you already do, spend some time really getting to know the geographic and demographic makeup of the area you want to represent.
7. Can I really win the support?
In preparing yourself for the scrutiny of a campaign, don’t assume too much or lie to yourself about who will support you. It’s not enough to expect to have a voting bloc’s votes; you have to know. First, you’ll need to come up with the magic number of votes you need to win. Next, make a list of supporters who will be donors or help with grassroots organizing. You can do these things early on, but you have no business running without this understanding. Also know surrogates who are inside the party structure and will meet with you, as well as potential defectors outside the party structure.
Bottom line: Never allow yourself to say, “I’ve got those voters in the bag.”
8. What if my opponent finds out about…?
If you’re going to put your reputation on the line to run for political office, be honest with yourself about what your opponents might dredge up on you and be prepared for it. The landscape is much different today than it was even just four years ago. Super PACs are increasingly involved in races from the top of the ballot on down, and they specialize in digging up dirt to fuel negative ads and mailers. Mainstream and online media criticism is intense. Personal and financial records often become public, as does the home life of your family and even your parents.
Know everything that’s in your public record and be prepared for it to all be unveiled to your friends, family and the general public. If you’ve been arrested for a DUI or other offense, have ever been late paying taxes, hit with a restraining order or endured acrimonious divorce proceedings, you can be sure it will become part of the campaign narrative in some form.
Bottom line: If you have a skeleton in the closet, assume that it will come to light over the course of a hard-fought campaign.
9. Can I trust a campaign manager?
Campaigns often live and die on the bond between candidate and campaign manager. If it breaks down the campaign breaks down. Trust between the two is important, and you need to be able to work together in any business setting. Not all candidates are comfortable with the idea of having such a close relationship with someone who isn’t friend or family. If that’s you, then you need to seriously consider how to structure the campaign manager role or who to bring on for the position before you decide to launch a campaign.
The person needs to be someone you are comfortable having in your home and discussing important life decisions with because such decisions are bound to come up over the course of a campaign. Above all, you need to know they have your best interest at heart, won’t get you in trouble and can manage staffers and other vendors while remaining your advocate.
Bottom line: Be honest with yourself about how you work best and the types of people you’re most comfortable around.
10. Is the timing right?
Timing is a good chunk of success or failure in politics. Just because a seat is open doesn’t mean it’s time for you to make a run at it. Consider your motivations; are you simply a bored empty-nester? Or do you feel as though the country is in crisis, and you can’t sit on the sidelines anymore? Perhaps your local politician isn’t representing you how you’d like and you’re convinced you can do better.
There are also more pragmatic issues at play here. At a particular moment a district’s demographics, party’s politics or opponent’s approval ratings might not work in your favor. In those instances consider playing the waiting game.
Bottom line: Plenty of candidates who look great on paper seal their electoral fate by choosing the wrong time to run.