How To Take Down an Establishment Candidate

In one way or another, I have been involved in elections of some kind of the past 7 years. Whether these be Student Government, State House, Congressional, or Gubernatorial, I’ve heard every excuse in the book as to why a candidate lost the election. The most common reason given is “The bullying, corrupt political machine took me down.” Now, this political machine could be greek life in a Student Government Election, a County Party in a State House election, or a State Party in a Congressional election. This fiction needs to be put down once and for all: “The “establishment” almost definitely didn’t cost you an election, you did it to yourself.

Political Establishment

The Power of the “Machine” or “Establishment” (or lack thereof)

The machine can also be called “the man,” “the party,” or a number of other things, but ultimately it’s the group who’s currently in power and is trying to maintain that power. Many candidates blame “the machine” for their losses, but in reality, the power is far weaker than you would think. Here are the only real arguments if you lost an election:

  1. The group in power managed to change the rules after the fact to prevent you from qualifying for your election.
  2. The group in power has such a demographic advantage that you can’t win no matter what (think Republicans running in a D+30 district)
  3. The group in power somehow literally cheated and got away with it

Usually, number 3 is a straw-man that is rarely correct and is often a cop-out for a campaign who got outworked.

Number 2 isn’t really a product of the machine, but merely the campaign picking an uphill battle where they don’t match the people they represent. That isn’t something the machine did, this is the campaign choosing an unwinnable battle because their candidate doesn’t truly reflect the views of the people they’re running to represent. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run this kind of a race as the goal of any campaign isn’t necessarily to win, but to maximize your vote total. Winning by 5 in a +30 district is embarrassing, but losing by 5 in a -30 district is a feat.

Number 1 can be legitimate if the powers that be re-draw the population a candidate will represent or disqualify them based on untrue information. This is often a problem for at-risk incumbents in the minority party though, not new candidates who are trying to run for a seat.

The power of the establishment is like the advantage someone who grew up wealthy has over someone who grew up in the middle class. Sure, it helps, but it doesn’t mean hard work and persistence can’t overcome it. If you play the victim though, you will certainly lose.

Commonly, insurgent campaigns will cry wolf at the establishment for other ancillary benefits they maintain and blame those for a loss. Here’s why those are just crap:

“They have more money than me”

Sure, the established candidate will often have more money and resources than the insurgent. The truth of money in campaigns though is that there’s a point of diminishing returns and it’s often a matter of priorities rather than resources. If you are running for office and don’t at least loan yourself some money to start, then you’re doing it wrong. Most people will not and should not make their living off being a politician alone. Raising $50,000 to $1,000,000+ for seats that pay anywhere from $30,000 to $170,000 a year is frankly not worth it from an economic perspective. Especially since you have to do it all over again every 2 to 4 years. If you’re running for office, expect to loan yourself at least 10% of however much you think you will need as an insurgent candidate up-front. You aren’t running for money, you’re running to represent your community and make it a better place. If that’s not your motive, then you shouldn’t be wasting your time because the current person is milking the system well enough on their own.

If the establishment candidate is truly disliked, then they are likely trying to use the money to buy the support of people that they don’t have. The support of people is invaluable and volunteers who are dedicated will always be more valuable than paid staff. If they still have significant support despite being a member of the establishment, then they aren’t beating you because they’re establishment. They’re beating you because they are well liked and they should probably keep their seat. In this circumstance, your campaign shouldn’t exist because there’s clearly not an appetite to replace the existing representative.

“They have more name ID”

This is a highly fixable problem that isn’t usually due to one reason: Laziness. Typically for every dollar you spend on Facebook, you can reach 40 voters. That means in your typical Maryland State House district, you can spend about $1000 and run enough Facebook ads where every relevant voter has seen your name once. That’s just what you can do online too. If any candidate starts playing the blame game on why they lost, the first question I’d ask is: How many doors did your campaign knock on? If it wasn’t at least 25–50% of all likely voters, then you have no one to blame but yourself. Recruiting an organization and reaching out to voters is politics 101. It isn’t just going to a handful of community meetings, complaining to the media, or talking a lot on social media. Surely you can and probably should do all those things too, but they are complimentary tactics to the core point of meeting as many voters as you can. A political campaign is a marketing campaign and you, the candidate, are the product.

Most politicians once they get into office do not knock on doors and put in the extra effort. Here’s a little truth based on personal experiences: In the two years of working for a State House member, if we didn’t do any one-to-one voter contact, we would’ve only spoken to roughly 2,000 voters as an optimistic estimate. Out of those 2,000, 500 don’t regularly vote and still won’t even though we spoke to them. So technically, this House member has the advantage of 1,500 voters knowing their name more than an insurgent. Out of that 1,500, at least 500 are of a different party who will never vote for a Republican. Another 500 vote Republican no matter who’s on the ballot. In this district, a candidate will need a minimum of 18,000 votes to win. You can’t tell me that you can’t overcome 500–1,000 votes as a result of incumbency. Now for this particular House member, he also knocks on a lot of doors, has a huge social media presence, and goes out of his way to talk to voters all the time. That’s what makes him strong, not the power of the incumbency.

This example is spoken from experience. Here was this State House member’s first election I managed in 2014. 2nd and 3rd place were both taken by incumbent Delegates who had been on a ballot at least 3 times. 4th place was taken by a candidate who owns a prominent local restaurant and ran throughout much of the district in 2010 as a county council candidate. 5th place was taken by someone who had also been on the ballot in 2010 for the same seat and 6th place was taken by the Chief of Staff for the most popular politician in the district. Christian was fairly unknown and certainly wasn’t the candidate most people thought was going to win, including the Baltimore Sun. Christian was the most likable candidate and knocked on the most doors though, which is what made the difference. He also picked a message that resonated: “It’s not about politics, it’s about people. We need to work together and get things done.” Whereas the establishment saw the facade, the truth is that most average people don’t know who represents them. If you run a legitimate campaign, then you can change that and surprise everyone.

“The party favored my opponent”

Every political party is different and certainly parties want to avoid primaries so they aren’t spending resources unnecessarily, but in general, parties try to stay out of primary elections. On top of that, the party should be willing to meet with every candidate running regardless of their chances of winning. Obviously, time and resources are going to be dedicated to candidates with the greatest possibility of victory, but as the Political Director of a state party, I go out of my way to try to help everyone. Unless the party is outright denying you any voter data, then you should have what you need to compete.

When the Establishment Went Down

So, if the machine is beatable, there must be examples to point to on how to do it. Well, there are! Here are a few examples:

Donald Trump Campaign

2016: Donald Trump Wins Republican Nomination for President

Donald Trump’s win was the ultimate example of how to take down the establishment. In a national election, his methodology was significantly different than in a local election, but here’s how he managed to do it:

1. He ran against an unpopular “incumbent”

While technically not an incumbent, Jeb Bush was the “anointed one” by the bigwigs and media. He was the candidate that had the most money and was clearly selected by the powers that be. The problem was that Jeb had the Bush name that was now associated with a one-term President and a two-term President who America still had major problems with. Many blame Trump for causing Jeb to be unpopular, but that’s simply not the case. Since 2013, Jeb was viewed unfavorably my more Americans than favorably. Jeb was the only candidate with name recognition to challenge Trump’s in the primary, but he was never well-liked by the base.

2. He had universal name ID

Local candidates have to make this happen through their own efforts, but Trump had the benefit of years of media coverage. Donald Trump went into the race more well known than any other candidate and this is an advantage usually taken by incumbents. This portion of his win can probably never be replicated in any other election by an insurgent candidate.

3. He self-funded most of his race

In the primary election, Donald Trump almost entirely self-funded his race. Doing this allowed him to compete with other campaigns by making appearances at events across the country and being able to hire a staff. It also helped him because it allowed him to stick to a message that was revolved around being the outsider who didn’t have the support of “the establishment.”

4. He picked a message that resonated

Right or wrong, Donald Trump chose to attack the elite who were telling the average person they were wrong. While it may be true that at times they were wrong, this message resonated with people. They were struggling and these “all knowing elite” were telling them they knew the answers, but kept coming up short for everyone but themselves. If you ask most people on the street why they like Trump, the most common answer is “Because he’s not a politician.” What they mean by that is he hasn’t made false promises to them that have come up very short. By keeping it simple and being very different, Republican primary voters moved in his direction.

Elliot Spillers

2015: University of Alabama Student Government Elections

At the University of Alabama, the group of Greeks controlling their SGA is literally called “The Machine.” For many years, challengers to this group claimed they cheated, were unfair, etc. Elliot Spillers lost two elections at the hands of The Machine and could’ve easily quit the 3rd year. He didn’t though. He recognized the fact that if there are 11,000 voters and only a few thousand of those are in Greek life, then there are thousands of more votes he could go after. As a result of his efforts, he won by nearly 20 points in an election that wasn’t even close. Elliot won by combining increased turnout with student frustration against The Machine. It also helped that he was well liked and built a true coalition around his candidacy. While The Machine was exclusive, he built a campaign that was inclusive and literally targeted everyone else in a cohesive fashion. This is a trend that can be identified in most of these examples.

Dave Brat

2014: David Brat Takes Out Eric Cantor in Republican Primary

This is perhaps the most famous example of the establishment getting taken out. Eric Cantor was the House Majority Leader and considered the favorite to succeed John Boehner as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Cantor was hated in Tea Party circles for his being in a leadership that didn’t stand up for what they believed in. David Brat, a professor at Randolph-Macon College, ran on the idea that principles and ideas mattered and that politics had been too dumbed down by partisan infighting. Quite a different message than those who blamed the election on “angry hard partisans!” In his election, Brat had just over $200,000 to Cantor’s $5.4 million. He also beat him by 11 points in an election that wasn’t actually all that close. Brat’s campaign has gone down as a case study in political science. He released a book on the campaign from his viewpoint and his campaign managers released “How to Bag a RINO” on the win from theirs. Here’s a synopsis of how this result went down though:

1. Brat had a hungry team

Congressman Brat’s team was made up of 23-year old Zach Werrell and 24-year old Gray Delany. Werrell led insurgent candidate Mark Berg to a victory in 2013 and was highly involved in college. His profile screamed rising star who just needed to be given a chance. Both Werrell and Delany believe in candidates who stand for something and both have continued their advocacy in politics with Werrell recently leading Tom Garrett’s win in the primary for Virginia’s 5th Congressional District. This team was motivated to take down an incumbent and realized what it would mean for politics in their area as well as their own careers. Without this team, it’s highly unlikely Brat would’ve gotten anywhere close to where he did in his race.

2. Cantor had avoided competitive elections for much of his career

Many establishment candidates avoid competitive elections because they have never lost. This is a false sense of security. Going back to his election history, even in his first election back in 1991 at the age of 29, Cantor was unopposed. Congressman Cantor had only one real competitive election in his career in 2000 in which he won by 263 votes. That was his contested primary against state Senator Stephen Martin. After that election, Cantor was virtually unchallenged by credible threats in a primary and had a favorable district drawn for him in the general.

3. There was a quietly spoken dislike of Cantor in the district

Generally, most establishment politicians who lose are disliked or the public is apathetic towards them. If they’re well liked by the district, then why are you going after them anyway unless it’s your own personal gain? There were signs before the election that Cantor could be beaten. The most obvious one was this PPP poll that showed he was 15 points underwater in his approval rating. With numbers like that, it’s certainly setting up for someone to take him on if they could mount a legitimate challenge. Brat’s whiz kids put together that credible challenge and he was defeated.

4. The Brat campaign built a movement

The Brat campaign went grassroots in their win. They didn’t and couldn’t rely on mass-media advertising because they would always get outspent. By knocking on doors and taking the message directly to the voters, they could do so much cheaper with higher efficacy. This is a common theme among all successful insurgent campaigns. They knock on a lot of doors and/or call a lot of voters and utilize low-cost techniques that are more effort intensive, but cheaper. They win based on their opponents laziness and lack of real support beyond money and the false sense of security.

How to Win as a First-Time Candidate


Think Differently, Work Harder

In the movie “Miracle,” actor Kurt Russell plays coach Herb Brooks. There are a lot of great quotes from that movie that are relevant to a first-time candidate, but perhaps the best one is,

“You think you can win on talent alone? Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.”

The other good one is “Play your game.” Together, both of these quotes highlight the fact that if you play into your opponents hands, you will lose. Every time your opponent launches a mailer or makes a fancy advertisement, you can’t respond the same way. When your opponent has 2 or more times the money that you do, you have to work smarter and harder. You can’t launch a retaliatory mailer just because they released one. You will have to use digital and utilize as many volunteer and other resources you can find to reach every voter. You will have to recruit more volunteers, knock on more doors, and push the envelope.

People vote for a message and a story. They vote for someone they can believe in and it needs to be beyond the boilerplate “I will lower your taxes and will create jobs!” Every politician promises that and they’ve heard it before. If they’re going to vote for you instead of the person they’ve been voting for over the past 15 years, you better give them a damn good reason. Specifically, it helps to find a particular issue that touches a nerve that your opponent has the wrong position on. This can range from a specific tax increase they voted for to their position on a particular social issue. Finding that wedge can be important though since you’re looking for a reason for

Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance

There are a number of questions you should know when you’re starting a campaign. Here are a few of them:

  • How will you recruit the volunteers you need to win?
  • Have you written down how you expect to raise the amount of money you think you will need to win?
  • Have you created at least the outline of a budget to get an idea of how much you will be spending on yard signs, mailers, online advertisements, etc?
  • Have you created a calendar to get an idea of when you need to spend that money?
  • Do you know how many voters are likely to turnout in your district?
  • Do you know how many votes you will need in each precinct in your district to be on the path to victory?
  • What media outlets can you utilize to help spread your message?

Early in my marketing career, I learned about quant-based marketing from Noah Kagan. Kagan was employee #30 at Facebook and was actually fired before landing as the Marketing Director for Mint. He also happens to be probably one of the top 10 marketing geniuses in the world. Quant-based marketing essentially states that any goals you set should be broken down and be able to be defended by numbers. So, if I’m planning to acquire 20,000 votes, I should be able to say where those voters are coming from (by precinct). Typically, you want to multiply what you need by 1.25, so you should be focusing on 25,000 voters. I should then be able to explain how I’m going to be able to reach those voters by marketing channels, door-to-door contact, etc. It’s actually far easier to market for politics than a business. You know way more about your universe in politics due to the voter file and consumer data whereas your guessing who your audience is in the private sector. The idea though is that you should have a very specific plan on how you’re going to win an election. For example, you should lay out your door knocking goals week-by-week in terms of doors knocked and number of voters reached. This plan will help you stay on track and show donors you’re serious about winning.

Stop Complaining, Stop Making Excuses, Start Doing

Far too often, voter fraud or cheating are used as an excuse for not putting in the work. I’ve heard it in Student Government elections up to President of the United States. There are certainly circumstances of cheating or voter fraud, but far more common is the fact that a campaign just didn’t put in the work. The most frustrating thing anyone advising a campaign can see is a candidate that asks for advice and then you see them spam social media groups instead of going out and knocking on doors. Political campaigns are hard. They are B2C marketing and outside sales all rolled into one. If you want to win, build an organization and do the hard work. If you won’t do it yourself as the candidate, you certainly can’t expect anyone else to.

Originally published at Patrick O’Keefe.