(Thinking about running for office? RightVoter presents “Campaign Boot Camp,” a series of essential “how to run for office” rules for your campaign. Part 1 is here.)
Starting a campaign is like launching a new business. You need seed capital. Seed capital in a campaign comes in the form of money from donors, volunteer time from activists, and reputation from endorsers.
As we noted in Part 1, your initial round of seed capital should come from people who invest in you simply because you’re the one who asked.
But when you sit down with less-friendly potential investors – a party activist, a longtime donor, or an elected official – the questions will be tougher, the stakes will be higher, and you’re going to need to be able to give some answers.
If you’ve ever watched “Shark Tank,” where entrepreneurs seek capital, the “sharks” – venture capitalists – always ask the same questions. They ask about the product, where it fits into the market, and what success it’s had so far. They ask about the management team, their experience, and how devoted they are to the business. And they ask what the entrepreneur is going to do with the capital – how are they going to use it to grow the business.
Politics is no different. Political investors of money, time, or reputation are looking for three things:
- You as a candidate;
- Your management team; and
- Your plan to win.
First, you as a candidate. As a candidate you need to be able to rattle off your issues, your opponents, your district, and how you’re going to win. Here’s the bad news: Even if you’re brilliant, eloquent, and driven, if you’re running in a terrible district against an unbeatable opponent, you’re not going to have a chance at earning support. Sorry. (You see this in Shark Tank all the time, by the way: “It’s a great product, but the market is too small.”)
Second, your management team. Everything in your pitch (issues, opponents, district, strategy) should be prepared by your management team. But a management team didn’t just help you prepare your pitch, they’re part of the pitch itself.
Experienced donors, activists, and elected officials, along with the people who evaluate campaigns for a living – staff at the NRSC, NRCC, RGA, and your state party – are looking for experience and professionalism. Local knowledge is helpful, but not essential. They’re looking for a team that can execute on the basic blocking-and-tackling of a campaign. So you need someone who is calm and consistent with their strategy. You need someone who understands planning, messaging, budgeting, timing, fundraising, grassroots organizing, media relations, digital strategy, voter identification, persuasion, and get-out-the-vote. And that’s just the start.
How do you choose a team? First things first: You are not your own management team. You are a candidate. Even if you actually are a successful political consultant, the moment you tell an investor that you’re going to run your own campaign, you’ve really told him that you’ve hired an incompetent consultant, because no competent consultant would let a candidate spend his time running his own campaign.
Second, beware of overconfident amateurs. Investors will be listening for certain red flags from you that clearly mark that your campaign is being run by amateurs. If you hear them in a consultant pitch, beware:
- “This race/district/candidacy is unique.”
- “We’re not going to run a traditional campaign.”
- “Tactic X doesn’t work.” (e.g. “Nobody watches TV ads,” or “I just throw direct mail in the trash,” or “Negative campaigning doesn’t work.”)
- “We can do this without a big budget.”
Finally, beware of specialists – someone who’s primarily a television, direct mail, or digital consultant – saying they can “run your campaign.” Have they ever written a comprehensive campaign plan, budget, and timeline? Have they trained staff? Built a grassroots organization? Done debate prep? Dealt directly with the media? When did they last spend time in a campaign headquarters? (Some have, by the way. But be wary.)
Your management team – the people who can actually run your campaign – should be “general consultants.” RightVoter is a general consultant, so feel free to consider this a shameless plug: General consultants start with a winning vote goal for Election Day and work backwards, following a clear strategy, timeline, and budget. We hire and train staff and work with them daily. We do debate prep and rapid response and grassroots training. We put together a team of specialists for things like television, mail, and digital, but we pride ourselves on keeping the client’s best interests and the end goal (winning) in mind. A good general consultant is your advocate, your Sherpa through this process. /shamelessplug
In that shark tank pitch meeting with donors, activists, and elected officials, remember: Are you a viable candidate? Do you have an experienced management team? What is your plan to win?
(We’ll get into that plan to win – your campaign plan, written by your general consultant, by the way – in a series of later posts.)
For now, whatever you do, don’t go into a pitch meeting and tell them that your wife’s friend is a really good designer and is going to be doing your marketing. It’s like declaring you can fix a Camaro because your old man’s a television repairman and has an ultimate set of tools.