1. Have a good reason to run.
The single most important factor in the success or failure of a political campaign is the campaign’s message. In other words: why are you running? The most important factor in creating a strong message is: do you believe it yourself? Are you passionate about it?
If it doesn’t matter to you, it isn’t going to matter to anyone else. If this reason to run is connected to your life, your neighborhood, your district — it’s stronger. If it is a broadly shared concern in your community, stronger still. If it is a problem people believe you can solve, even stronger.
So, for example, “I am running for school board because great schools and teachers made a difference in my own life — and I know they can make a difference for thousands of other children in this community. As an educator, I have helped thousands of kids succeed and on the school board I will bring this passion and experience to help tens of thousands more.” That’s a good start. Something like “I want to serve” (and the many variations of “I just want to serve”), can fall flat, or seem self-serving. The research shows that most voters don’t really care about you. We care about our own families and our own kids, and are interested in you if it connects to how you can help us. So, tell us how you can make a difference on an issue we care about.
2. Think it through.
“People tell me I should run for political office. But I am not sure. What should I do?” The answer to this question is: if you are not sure, don’t run. There are many good ways to serve your community other than running for office. If you don’t want to speak in public, ask other people for money, give up family and personal time, and ask friends and strangers for help, then you should not run. Just say no. You will be happier.
Campaigns are not for everyone and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. As political consultants, we talk with dozens of potential candidates every year. We always ask them, “Are you sure you want to do this?” If they hesitate at all, we politely decline to take the race and usually encourage them not to run.
3. Get your elevator pitch down.
If you are going to run for political office, you must be able to explain your reason for running in a few sentences. As a candidate for office you will be asked again and again why you are running, who you are, and why your race matters. Start mastering this important step right now. Write down in 250 words why you are running and what you want to accomplish. (Please keep it for the history books or the scrap book. It will be valuable to you and maybe others someday.)
4. Make sure your family (and your boss) is with you.
If your spouse or partner hates the idea, please don’t make yourselves miserable. If your kids are really young and you, and only you, can take care of them, it is okay to wait a few years. If your boss isn’t going to give you a little leeway and you need your job, get a new job or wait awhile until you launch your political career.
The point here is running is already hard; don’t make it impossible because you can’t give it the time it takes to run a successful political campaign.
5. Make a list of everyone you know.
If you don’t know 100 people whom you think might help you, you might want to consider waiting to run until you do. Good political campaigns have good lists. You are already “campaigning” when you make this list, so take it very seriously. A legal pad is fine, but better to start with Excel and include basic fields—First Name, Last Name, Street Address, City, State, Zip, Cell Phone, Home Phone, Email Address, and a Notes field where you can write down how you know them.
If you’re thinking of running in a few years, starting this list is the best thing you can do right now for your future campaign.
6. Give your campaign enough time to succeed.
The story you might have heard about the person who decided to run at the last minute and overcame the “powers that be” is a nice story, but it almost never works out that way. It is a whole lot better to have six months to get your message out than 90 days. It is even better to have a whole year. In other words, within reason, earlier is almost always better. Give yourself time to win by launching your campaign as early as possible, particularly if you are a first-time candidate.
7. Consider joining some appropriate organizations.
We are not recommending a resume hustle here—people will see through that. But if you are a female candidate, you probably do want to become a member of EMILY’s List and apply for an Emerge training (link). If you want to get the Sierra Club endorsement, you should be a member. Don’t go overboard—but selectively joining the right five or six organizations as soon as possible will help.
8. If you are still some time away from your own race, volunteer on another political campaign of a like-minded candidate.
You will get a sense of what to do (and probably what not to do). To the extent you can, walk your own precinct and neighborhood—it is a great way to introduce yourself to your own neighbors and build your own “base.”
9. Check the list of supporters you made earlier. Did you find everyone?
Go get the old high-school yearbooks. Ask mom and dad for their holiday card list (you probably know most of those people also). Were you in a sorority? Math club? Softball league? Brainstorm here and ask for help—you need to make a list of everyone who might possibly remember your name. If you are a member of an organization, you might not know everyone in that organization but work to get those lists if you can and connect with those folks on your shared interests.
10. Do your homework.
To be a good candidate, you need to know what you’re talking about. To be a good office holder, you need to know what you’re talking about. Please don’t skip this step. If you are running for school board, attend four to five meetings. Read the agenda packages for the last ten meetings (which you will almost certainly find on the website of your local school district). Spend a weekend reading the last 25 articles published on the school district. Go to the websites of respected organizations following these issues and read their position papers.
11. Talk to ten people who know what they are talking about.
If you are running for school board, talk to current or former school board members. Talk to teachers. Talk to the most active parents. Ask them what they think and what they think needs to be done. And always, always make sure to thank them for their time, guidance, and insights.
In short, running for political office isn’t the best fit for everyone. And if it’s not the right fit for you —we’d absolutely encourage you to become involved in your community in another impactful way — through a local organization or volunteering your time. If you think you might be ready to run in a few years, the very best thing you can do today is start on that list of everyone you know, and continue to build it over time.
And, if you’re ready to run now – the next step is to visit your local elections department website and get a list of all the key dates and tasks (like filing deadlines for candidates to express interest, fundraising reporting deadlines, and more).