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.
Lastly, consultants know you have strong opinions about how the campaign should run. If you don’t, you probably shouldn’t be running in the first place. So make your point known, but it’s critical to trust in your team. And don’t go behind the back of your campaign manager or a senior staffer to make even small changes. Would you rewrite a legal agreement that your lawyer wrote for you? Not likely. Your consultants just want the same trust in their expertise.
4. You don’t tell the full story
If you have something in your past that might come out over the course of the campaign, make sure the most senior people on your campaign team are aware of it. Even if you’re convinced that skeleton in the closet won’t be revealed, you’d be monumentally stupid to not give some thought to what happens if it’s uncovered. Don’t underestimate your opponent’s research team, and make sure you give your own team the information it needs to do the job.
At the start of a campaign, no matter the scale of the race, sit down with your team and go over everything that comes to mind. When you leave consultants in the dark—personal history, financial history, etc.—they can’t help you prepare for the fallout, and that has sunk countless campaigns.
Given that politics isn’t exactly an angelic business your strategists have likely had some significant crisis management experience. So if you’re straight with them ahead of time, they can probably soften the blow; it’s their job to tell you whether or not the skeletons can ruin you.
But even worse than hiding something altogether is offering half-truths to your consulting team. It’s great if you’re up front about your first DUI, but it gets much worse when folks find out you hid the second. The bottom line is that you rely on your staff to communicate a message, so you must be honest about your own past.
5. You think you’re Jed Bartlet
Anyone who’s ever been to the West Wing of the White House knows it’s not nearly as chaotic as the iconic TV show made it appear. Staffers aren’t always running breathlessly through the hallways, lurching from one crisis to the next. So don’t expect your campaign office to resemble anything you’ve seen on TV. It won’t.
Just because staffers are sitting quietly at campaign headquarters, doesn’t mean they’re not working hard. Progress and motion are two completely different things. It’s a reality some candidates just don’t grasp, say consultants.
Recognize the level of the office you’re running for and adjust the scale of your thinking accordingly. If you’re running for local office your campaign headquarters may very well be an old restaurant or retail space with wires hanging from the ceiling and bugs huddling in the corners.
Also, make sure you’re in tune with the reality of holding elected office. If you’re running for state legislature or for a Congressional seat, it’s likely your job will not be nearly as glamorous as seven seasons of “The West Wing” may have led you to believe.
6. You’re just too busy for this
Increasingly, campaigning is a full-time job. As a candidate, you need to put your social and professional life on the back burner. Depending on the scale of the race, you might have to be a candidate, and nothing more, for eight months to a year of your life.
It really comes down to a matter of math. If you’re involved in something outside of the campaign that takes a chunk of your time, the number of contacts you can make gets smaller.
Just like candidates who talk a big fundraising game and then don’t want to pick up the phone, consultants can’t stand candidates who tell them to pack their schedules with fundraisers and meet-and-greets, only to constantly have personal obligations trump the campaign trail.
It is important to make a living and to have time with your family, but you should have fully considered the time commitment before running for office. That’s not to say you can’t win a race while devoting time and effort to something else, but it certainly makes it harder on everyone else involved if your family or your employers are fighting the campaign for your time and attention.
Campaigns take work. You can’t expect to show up one day and just win an election. You need to take the time to make the calls, shape the strategy and work with your staff to execute. You can’t do that very easily if your real focus is somewhere else.
7. You think your locale is different
Want to see a political consultant’s face contort into expressions of pain and horror? Ask them how many times a candidate has said, “That’s just not how we do things here.”
Yes, geography is critical in every race, and it’s important to appreciate the nuances of your state or district. But in just about any area where you might run for office, your constituents are often concerned about the same things: the future, their wallets and their jobs. No locale is so different that a consultant should throw away everything they’ve ever done on previous races.
You may think consultants don’t understand your town, county or district well enough, but don’t take that as license to dismiss their advice. Sure, your district may be a friendly place where voters complain incessantly about negative ads. That still doesn’t mean voters won’t eat up a well-crafted negative spot aimed at your opponent.
Ensure that your consultants are aware of local history and local traditions that may be important to voters in your region, but understand that consultants have observed far more local politics than you have.