Can You Raise Enough Money to Run for Office?

Three fundraising questions to ask before launching a campaign

Since the 2016 election, at least once a month I’ve been asked some version of the following question: “Hey, Gina, I’m thinking of running for elected office, but I’m intimidated by the fundraising aspect of a campaign. How do I know if I’m capable of raising money?”

People considering a run for office know that campaigns are expensive, and they’ve usually done some preliminary research to ballpark the cost of their race. What they’re not as certain of is how they’re going to pay for it.

I assess a candidate’s ability to raise money by asking her a lot of questions. Below are the questions I ask first, and, depending on the candidate’s answers, they may also be the last:

  1. Why are you running for this office?
  2. How much time can/will you devote to fundraising?
  3. What does your network look like?
  4. How many yard signs are you planning to buy?

Okay, that last one is an inside joke for seasoned (and cynical) campaign fundraisers. But questions 1–3 are legitimate, and the answers to them are crucial to figuring out a candidate’s fundraising capacity.

Let’s take them one at a time:

1. Why are you running for this office?

If I were in the market for a new car, a good car salesman could tell me why the car he’s selling is the only car for me. Moreover, he’d do his damnedest to paint me a picture of what I’d look like in that car and how much better my life would be if I owned it.

Now imagine he has to sell me the car and the lifestyle that comes with it, but he can’t ever let me take the car off the lot — even after I’ve paid for it. That’s the challenge every candidate faces when fundraising.

As a candidate, you’ll need to convince people to spend money for nothing in return. More than that, you’ll need to convince them to financially support you even though there’s a 50% (or greater) chance that they’ll get less than nothing in return — they’ll get the opposite result of what they were spending the money to achieve.

“Why are you running for this office?” seems like it should be simple to answer. It’s not. It’s incredibly difficult. When asked why they want to run for office, most candidates lead with “I.” Many answer the question like they would an application for a job.

Running for office isn’t an interview at a company that has a vested interest in filling an open position. It’s not the same as explaining to a Human Resources Director or a hiring manager — whose job it is to take the time to learn more about you — that you’re well-suited for the role. You’re not going to have an hour with each donor to explain yourself, and your resume alone is not a compelling reason for a donor to part with their hard-earned money.

Your ability to articulate why you want to run for office is the most significant determinant of your ability to raise money. You need a clear motivation for running — a problem or set of problems you’d like to solve — that resonates with donors and voters alike, and a personal story that demonstrates to supporters that you understand their needs, fears, and hopes. You must be able to paint a vivid picture of how you’re going to make the lives of your future constituents better.

If you can’t answer the question, “Why do you want to run for this office?” in a clear, concise, and compelling manner, you’ll have an incredibly difficult time raising money.

2. How much time can/will you devote to fundraising?

If you’re running for office for the first time, your race is competitive, and you’re not independently wealthy, you’ll need to spend at least half of your waking hours fundraising. That’s a conservative estimate.

In addition to the time you spend at your day job, tending to family obligations, and doing all the other things a campaign will require of you — voter contact, events, speeches, developing a policy platform, endorsement sessions, etc. — you’ll need to set aside at least four hours a day, every day, to call donors, hold in-person meetings, and attend fundraisers.

After “Why?”, “How much time do you have?” is the most critical question you need to ask yourself. If you can’t (or won’t) devote the time necessary to fundraise, you’re not ready to run for office. Take a step back. Re-evaluate your priorities and ambitions. There’s always another election cycle around the corner.

3. What does your network look like?

More often than not, people who run for office are political. They work in government, or they donate time or money to political campaigns, or they travel in circles that afford them direct access to politicians. Pay attention and you’ll notice the same names showing up on lots of host committees for elected officials’ fundraisers. These people are thinking of running for office and they think this is a smart way to develop a donor base.

But unless they’re hoping to be appointed to a position, this is actually a terrible strategy. It’s a terrible strategy because all of their opponents are doing the same thing and all of them will ask the same donors for money, especially in regions where everyone who has a chance of being elected are all members of the same party, i.e., city liberals or rural conservatives. (I discuss this issue in more depth in another blog post. Link below.)

Candidates who exceeded fundraising expectations against establishment politicians did so by spending time cultivating a unique base of support and relying heavily on non-traditional donors.

In 2004, Howard Dean’s campaign pioneered online fundraising and set a fundraising record for the time. He raised money from people all over the country who were unafraid to label themselves “liberal” and liked what this guy from Vermont was saying, even if they hadn’t heard of him before. Four years later, Barack Obama mobilized the support of two largely untapped donor pools: African Americans and Millennials. (To be fair, he also raised a ton of money from traditional donors, receiving an early boost from top-tier Chicago donors, but had he only focused on those donors, he would have neither kept pace nor exceeded Hillary Clinton’s fundraising.) Eight years after that, Bernie Sanders’ campaign became a grassroots fundraising juggernaut, raising hundreds of millions of dollars in $27 increments from more than 2.5 million donors, many of whom had never before donated to a political campaign. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, raised money in $2,700 chunks from traditional donors with the ability to write “max out” checks. But even with all those big bank accounts behind her, Sanders’ fundraising kept pace with Clinton’s right up until he conceded the nomination in July 2016.

Source: InsideGov.com

My point is: If you’re thinking of running for office, spend some time diversifying your circle of friends and acquaintances. Cultivate a network that is unique to you. Start playing intramural sports. Get involved at your children’s school. Join a bunch of MeetUp groups for whatever hobbies pique your interest. Ask your friends who sit on boards to bring you as their guest to their organization’s annual gala. Join the boards of organizations yourself, especially ones with chapters across the country.

At some point, yes, you’ll need to start making the rounds on the political event circuit, but top-tier donors will want to see organic support before they’ll invest in your race. Moreover, if traditional donors are your only base of support you’ll have no discernible advantage over other candidates, and/or your campaign may not rank as a priority among a sea of other campaigns. In any case, it’ll make meeting your fundraising goals that much harder.

Bottom Line

The difference between a candidate who raises money poorly and a candidate who raises money well is determined by 1.) how compelling her story is, 2.) how much time she devotes to telling it, and 3.) how many people hear it. By these measures, assess your fundraising capacity accordingly.

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Gina Natale raises money for causes and candidates she believes in. The opinions, snark, and bad jokes expressed in this blog are hers and hers alone. They do not represent the views of her current employers, any former employers, or any political party.

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