How to Run a Political Campaign for Local Office

by A Manly Guest Contributor on January 20, 2010 · 14 comments

in Money & Career

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Phil Van Treuren, a city councilman in Amherst City, Ohio.

The concept of a man’s civic responsibility, while not conceived in ancient Rome, was certainly popularized there.  Contributing to society by becoming a responsible and productive citizen was a hallmark of manliness, and running for elected office was considered the pinnacle of civic responsibility (as long as you were of the proper class to do so).

When the United States Constitution was ratified in 1787, it became the most important assertion of civic responsibility that democracy had ever seen.  Our Founding Fathers knew that democratic government both benefited from manliness and refined it, crafting better men and a better country through public service.

Today, running for elected office is still one of the best ways that a man can contribute to society. There are a lot of men these days that complain about government and lament that the only people holding office, from the local level to the national, are a bunch of lousy, corrupted bums. But it will stay that way if good men confine their political activity to ranting on the couch. Start making some changes, even small ones, by running for local office.

While being a candidate in a local political campaign can be physically and mentally challenging, it is also a personally rewarding opportunity to become more involved in your community. But if you’ve never been involved in a political campaign before, launching your own bid for city council or the local school board can initially be a bit intimidating.  As a recently elected city councilman, however, I can tell you that if you are a practitioner of traditional manliness, you already possess most of the qualities that a successful political candidate needs.

While political acumen is important to a local campaign, it isn’t nearly as important as hard work, good planning and a genuine desire to make your community a better place to live.  Here are a few tips for kicking off your campaign the right way and making victory more likely on election day.

1.  Your Family Is The Most Important Part Of Your Campaign

The first and most important step in launching a successful campaign for local office is discussing it with your family.  Even small local political campaigns can be demanding and stressful, and you need to honestly educate your family about the sacrifices that might have to be made during the election season.  Your wife and children will be most affected by any decision you make to run for office, and you need to get their input and consent before making the plunge into a campaign.

A political candidate’s family is his greatest source of support, inspiration and constructive criticism on the campaign trail.  Making them feel like contributing members of your campaign team–and not just observers on the sidelines–will make your effort more inspired and successful.  Just remember: a man’s family is far more important than his political career.  Make sure you keep your priorities straight.

2. Consider Getting Involved In Local Party Politics

While winning as an Independent candidate is possible, you’ll find that running a successful campaign is immeasurably easier when you have the help of an established local political party.  Building likely voter lists, finding volunteers and soliciting donors can be a tall order if you’re mounting a campaign by yourself, but local political parties already have the resources to immediately provide you with much of what you’ll need to launch a successful effort.

And don’t think that choosing one political party or another necessarily means that you’ll have to run a negative or partisan campaign.  While partisanship might have a greater influence on statewide and federal races, the outcome of local campaigns aren’t usually as affected by party affiliation.  The amount of work you put into campaigning is far more important than the letter that appears after your name on the ballot.

3. Put Together an Aggressive Fundraising Plan

The candidate with the largest donor base usually wins the race–not only because it allows him to spend more on the campaign trail, but because it’s a good indicator of how much local support he has.  Raising money might be a distasteful part of campaigning for new candidates, but it’s a necessity if you can’t afford to finance your campaign from your own wallet.  Even if you’re a first-time candidate, though, you can still raise a good deal of campaign cash if you put together a good plan and practice aggressive fundraising.

One of the first things you should do before launching your campaign is make an extensive list of potential supporters and donors (yet another task that is made easier with the help of a local political party).  Plan on sending out an initial donor request letter to provide “seed money” for your campaign, as well as scheduling one or more local fundraisers during the election season.  Remember: people who donate money to your campaign–even if it’s only a few dollars–are certain to vote for you at the polls.

4. The More Difficult It Is, The Better It Works

You probably already know the value of hard work when it comes to other areas of your life, and political campaigning is no different.  Campaign tactics that are the most physically and mentally demanding are also the most effective.  People like to vote for candidates who work hard, and showing them how much you want the job is a great way to gain their trust and support.

Buying an ad in the newspaper is easy; sending hand-written postcards to every likely voter in your district is difficult. Wearing a campaign t-shirt at the county fair is easy; knocking on every door in your city to meet the voters is difficult.  Reminding your friends to vote is easy; calling hundreds of voters to ask for their support is difficult.

You may be a novice at political campaigning, but you aren’t a novice when it comes to the manly attributes of working hard and taking pride in all of your efforts.  Let that guide your campaign strategy, and the voters will see that you’re the best man for the job.

5. Sometimes You Have To Lose In Order To Win

While hard work will make it more likely that you’ll win your race, you need to accept the possibility that you might not be victorious in your first campaign.  In fact, some of the most successful politicians in history have one thing in common: in spite of losing several elections, they never gave up.  Tenacity is the most valuable trait to have as a political candidate.

If you’re running against a popular incumbent or in a district that isn’t perfectly tailored to your political message, then it might take more than one try for you to win a seat.  Losing an election can be a demoralizing experience, especially if you gave it your all on the campaign trail.  But by making an effort to learn from your initial campaign mistakes and getting back on the horse after it bucks you off, you’ll be much more likely to win the next time around.

City Councilman Phil Van Treuren writes about non-partisan political campaign tips on Killer Campaigning.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Philip January 21, 2010 at 1:14 am

Thank you for this post. The most important point is how there are more options than to simply sit on the couch and complain. Citizens have more influence in local voting, yet in non-Presidential elections voting rates drop, especially odd year campaigns. Voting and running locally can give a man more power to positively influence his community.

One thing not mentioned that could help is that many successful local candidates build their name up before they run by getting involved in their community in other ways. These can involved local school organizations, charity and service boards, churches, etc. Involvement in those organization also help to ground the candidate and expose him to a wider section of the constituency he desires to serve.

2 Playstead January 21, 2010 at 3:35 am

I think fund raising would be the toughest part. I can’t imagine constantly asking for money. I also agree with Phillip, getting your name out there in all different aspects of your community and building your “brand” would be vital. People like what they know.

3 Tyler Logan January 21, 2010 at 3:55 am

Interesting post. Nothing I’d ever consider doing, but none the less – always interesting to read. I agree with Playstead – fund raising would probably be the hardest part.

4 Richard | January 21, 2010 at 4:22 am

You always get the feeling that local politicians care more than big ones because they are more involved with the people and haven’t been in the sleazy environment for years. Fund raising would be difficult unless you’re rich though.

5 Sarah Joy Albrecht January 21, 2010 at 9:42 am

What an encouraging post.

When Ron Paul was running for the Republican Primaries, I served as a precinct leader. I took all five of my children with me, pushing the youngest two in the stroller, and went door to door in my neighborhood handing out fliers. ( How exciting it was to see the children make a connection between the work they had helped to do in our neighborhood and then going to the rally in Philadelphia with thousands of other supporters. )

During nap time, I’d call down a list of Republicans in my area and ask for them to consider voting for Ron Paul.

While it wasn’t me _personally_ running for a campaign, it felt good to back someone that I firmly believed would make a difference in our lives as US citizens. If a mom with five kids (all born after 2001) can help out with a campaign, anyone can.

I still wish Ron Paul would have won…. but like you said, “sometimes you have to lose in order to win.”

Thanks again.

6 Dr. Rod Berger January 21, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Very good and practical advice for those interested in pursuing such endeavors. I wonder if John Edwards will take the advice to get his career off of life support? Thanks for the post!
Dr. Rod
check out my blog post from today that talks about the “campaign” in a different light…
Rod Berger, PsyD The Normal Male

7 Tom Smith January 23, 2010 at 12:46 pm

I was on a local school board for eight years. The best way to win is to go door to door and meet people and ask for their vote. Look them in the eye and give a good hand shake. It required very little money and it appears that folks were satisfied enough to not oppose me the second time. While considering a third term, a gentleman approached me and said that if I was not going to run again that he would like to serve and even asked for my help. It worked. We talked about the position and he took a similar stance on most issues and I was happy to let him have a go. I learned a lot about myself. Being watched by the public will cause you to examine yourself and be principled in your actions.

If so inclined you might just approach someone that has an elected position about 2 years before the term is to expire and talk with them.

8 P. M. Montgomery January 23, 2010 at 6:44 pm

This is a great article. My father held local political offices for 12 years and these are very true. My only negative comment is that partisanship can have a significant affect depending on your area. My father recently lost in the 2008 election. He raised several times as much money as the opposing candidate, received the endorsement of the local paper, and in general ran a much better campaign, yet lost as a Republican due to significant straight-ticket voting in favor of Democrats.

9 Paul DiMarco January 23, 2010 at 6:55 pm

This is a great article. After serving on the local planning board for 5 years, I decided I would run for a seat on the Town Council in my town in New Hampshire. The time commitment can be difficult but I am very glad I did it. I also am a strong believer in term limits, and will self-impose that on myself and only serve one term.

I have one piece of advice to any potential office seekers, especially at the local level. You have to let the criticism roll off of you. No matter what decision you make, there will always be a significant number of citizens who disagree with you, and make sure they let you know. Another modern attribute of our society is the “blog”, where people can post anonymously. People who lack civility wil personally attack you without giving their name. Don’t let any of that discourage you. Follow your heart and do what you feel is right. You will not be disappointed.

10 Dano January 28, 2010 at 5:14 pm

“Once, gentlemen sought public office in the hopes of ensuring order and the public good, while knavish men sought the same in their lust for power. The politicians of today, meanwhile, are of neither inspiration, but rather seem all too often to have engaged upon the ‘career’ of ‘public servant’ because they lack any of the skills necessary to succeed in any real, productive employ or station.”

– Andrew Cusack

11 Chad April 15, 2010 at 2:16 am

As a man who plans to run for political office eventually, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this article. I learned a great deal just from reading this.

12 Lema May 2, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Great article. The tip about talking to your family is so very true, yet so often overlooked. I also love the tip about not giving up. Reminds me of a quote– “Success is falling down seven times and getting up eight.”

On a random note, as I’m assuming many reading this will be running or know someone running for election. As simple as it seems, paired with the important tactics like meeting as many voters as possible, a good campaign sign that stands out from the rest and concisely tells what you’re about can really help swing voters who haven’t had the time to research in-depth but still want to vote. A friend of mine found great lawn signs for his campaign at Super easy to customize and reasonably priced. Hope this helps. Best of luck to all.

13 Drew March 15, 2013 at 4:33 pm

I’m looking at running in a local/state level eleection. It will be my first election as a candidate (I’ve worked as a politcal staffer for a few years). What I want to know, is what kind of groups I should be joining to gain local recognition? The election is a few years off and I wanted to know what would be recommended to get more involved (in a meaningful way) in the community?


14 Jim Weston March 21, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Running for office is one of the manliest things you can do in my opinion. Serving your city, state, or even country politically isn’t easy, and it is a fantastic way for a man to contribute to the world that has given him so much!

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