So you’ve decided to run for office: you did your soul search, talked with your family, and you know you need to take this step into public service. Now you need to assemble a team that can help you win.
This guide will outline key roles and responsibilities, as well as tips on how to prioritize the many competing needs which will come up during your campaign.
Politics is not magic. Anyone who comes to you saying they have some opaque, complicated always-winning “secret sauce” is lying. Achieving success in politics is actually pretty simple: it’s about reading the emotional needs of large numbers of people and giving them satisfying solutions to those needs. That’s a universal human ability we can all nurture in ourselves.
Anyone with good people’s skills can pick up on this stuff pretty quickly. As a candidate, you’re going to get a lot of advice, and professional guidance and sophisticated tactical assistance can be extremely helpful in making decisions and carrying out your plan. But when in doubt, trust your own gut.
With that in mind, let’s discuss your most essential needs on a campaign. To address each need, I’ll include a description of the relevant traditional campaign “roles” which get hired on most campaigns.
Your first needs: money and information
At the beginning of your candidacy, you have two immediate needs: money and information.
Early money is essential. You don’t need to be a millionaire or have millionaire friends before you decide to run, but if you want to win, you will eventually need to raise a lot more than you can right now. In order to build the machine you’ll need to raise that large sum down the road, you’ll need to have a nest egg ready to invest as soon as you announce.
In fact, the need for this initial nest egg is so universally acknowledged by political professionals that one of our most prominent political organizations is named after it! The EMILY in EMILY’s List isn’t a person — it’s an acronym. It stands for: “Early Money Is Like Yeast”, which in this analogy leads to rising “dough” (your winning campaign).
For this reason, a Finance Director is often one of the first hires on campaigns, often before a campaign manager!
Finance Directors are in charge of helping the campaign raise money. They help the candidate identify potential donors and draw up a finance plan predicting revenue growth, they sit with the candidate and assist with “Call Time” to help meet those revenue goals, and they organize the highest-performing networks of donors to start soliciting donations on your behalf both person-to-person and at fundraising events.
In a Finance Director, the most important quality is a great network in and cultural affinity with the donors who are most likely to fit your profile and message. For example, if your core campaign message is about using innovative technology to solve social issues, you need a Finance Director who can talk easily with people in the technology sector. If your core campaign message is about workers’ rights, you need a Finance Director who can talk easily with people in the labor movement. A Finance Director needs to be good with people, organized enough to keep you on-task to meet your fundraising goals, and diligent about following up leads with potential donors.
NOTE: If you are running for federal office (U.S. House or Senate), you will also need to hire someone to handle your FEC compliance. There are many firms based in D.C. who make it their professional business to file the appropriate reports with the FEC, and it’s probably easiest for you to hire them as consultants. An experienced Finance Director will have recommendations for who they like to work with; however, be aware that sometimes the Finance Director and compliance team can be at odds. To succeed at his or her job, the Finance Director is incentivized to maximize revenue from any source, while the compliance team will be watching for red flags which could violate U.S. election law, and might push the campaign to return suspicious donations. If there’s a dispute, consult election lawyers and make your own decision based on risk.
The other early need for your campaign is information, which you can get with an investment in both “self-” and “opposition-research”, as well as public opinion research (polling).
“Self research” is research done into your background by a member of your campaign staff looking for potential stories that opposing candidates can tell to sow doubt about your trustworthiness among voters. Performing a self-research vetting is absolutely essential. If a member of your staff can find a piece of damaging information, your opponents can, too. You need to know what’s coming so that you can prepare answers to the inevitable attacks, and so the positive message you want to communicate doesn’t accidentally interact with something from your past record which can make you look like a hypocrite and undermine trust with the public.
I don’t want to include any specific examples of how this has blown up in the past because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but suffice it to say that it happens all the time, and you as a candidate are often too close to these stories to accurately recognize what could be a problem. Watch out.
“Opposition research” is research done into the backgrounds of your opponents so you can effectively draw a contrast with them and burnish your credentials as the best candidate to fight for the interests of your voters. And unlike a lot of the roles and responsibilities in this guide, research is actually more relevant and effective in local races because in a small, tight-knit community, a single rumor traveling neighbor-to-neighbor can quickly define a candidate’s reputation without being hampered by pushback or countervailing information.
One good example of opposition research in a recent election is how the Bernie Sanders campaign kept a consistent drumbeat in the press demanding that Hillary Clinton release the transcripts of speeches she gave to prominent members of the banking industry. Bernie’s core campaign message was that the poor and middle class are getting screwed by wealthy elites, and his team recognized that getting those speech transcripts made public would draw a helpful contrast in the minds of voters.
Your whole campaign message, from every press event you organize, to what your canvassers say on door knocks, to every advertisement and mail piece you commission, will be informed by this research. That’s why one of your first hires — sometimes even before a Communications Director! — should be a Research Director, or at least someone put explicitly in charge of research duties as a top priority on their agenda.
Research Directors are in charge of the process for both self and opposition research. They will request your past tax and business records, public statements, legal records, and more, to compile a full look at your past. They will also start researching your opponents so your team can craft a campaign narrative that contrasts well against the biographies of the candidates you’re up against. Once your campaign is underway, the Research Director will work with the communications team to respond to rapid-response opportunities and threats, and to fact-check all the advertisements and campaign materials (mail pieces, door-knock literature) that you produce.
If you’re on a smaller campaign, rather than hiring a dedicated staffer you might want to make research duties part of a combined portfolio for a staffer. If you do, understand that effective research requires both a high level of skill and finely-tuned political judgement. You don’t want to give this to some college kid and just hope it turns out ok. One more option to consider is hiring a consultant to work on your campaign part-time. If you hire a consultant for a limited number of weekly hours, you might be able to get away with hiring that college kid to operate under the guidance of your skilled research consultant.
If you’re working closely with an endorsing organization, you can sometimes get additional research resources from them, but don’t count on it. When you run a campaign, ultimately it’s up to you to pull yourself across the finish line.
One other type of information you need to consider is public opinion research (polling), though you should probably have a strong communications adviser on board before you commission a poll.
NOTE: The other type of information you need to think about is policy information. On larger campaigns, you can sometimes afford to hire a Policy Director and staff, but on most campaigns the details of your policy positions are less important to winning than the broad-strokes vision which you articulate to appeal to the emotional needs of your voters.
One important and time-consuming duty that warrants a dedicated Policy Director is filling out the myriad questionnaires submitted by potential endorsing organizations such as NARAL, the Sierra Club, the Alliance for Retired Americans, etc. etc. etc. Keeping up with these questionnaires is important because endorsing organizations can be extremely helpful in supplying volunteers, donations, and other resources, but they take a lot of time. It’s also important to keep good internal records of the positions you’ve taken. If you win, you’re going to need those records…badly.
If you can’t hire a dedicated policy staff, and you feel comfortable folding yourself under a larger ideological umbrella, you can get volunteer policy help from endorsing groups. Just know that when you do so, your policy positions will not look as independent and carefully-considered to close watchers of the election, such as reporters. If you’re running in a “red” state, you might open yourself up to charges of being a “liberal,” which you might or might not care about. Something to consider.
Second-round needs: field, communications, digital, management
These needs are essential, and you should hire staff to address them as soon as you have the funds — before you make any public announcement of your candidacy, if possible.
Field and grassroots organizing
Field is the heart and soul of your campaign — it’s how you build your base of support, it’s how you engage most of your volunteer energy, and the feedback you get from its performance is how you know that you are on track to win. Field is important in elections of any size and scale.
If you’ve got the budget to hire any staff, you should consider hiring a Field Director a top priority. And if you’ve got any more budget and want to make a serious investment in field, you can let the Field Director hire his or her own staff to scale up the volunteer or paid canvass program.
With enough motivated volunteers or paid canvassers, they will do your communication for you, person-to-person, getting the word out and pushing back on smears. They will share your ads online and, depending on your target audience, through their sharing they will lower the cost-per-impression of your paid media.
Most importantly, through phone banks and door knocks they will let your campaign know how much progress you’re making toward your “Win Number” (the number of votes you plan to drive to the polls so that you ensure your win).
On larger campaigns, you should consider hiring a dedicated Data and Targeting Director to do some sophisticated analysis for your field program. You can also hire a consultant to do this work, though they can be expensive.
Field can be expensive, and since you’re hiring multiple salaried positions, if you suddenly run out of money it’s hard to scale your program back down. If you’re worried about making the investment early, you can always wait until closer to Election Day — just know that a field program grows in strength over time, so the earlier you can afford to make the investment, the more likely you are to build something powerful which carries you to victory on the crest of a wave.
To build grassroots energy around your campaign and attract volunteers, you need a strong message, and a way to reach people with that message. And if you win the primary, you’ll need that primary election message to easily fit a general election audience, as well.
A strong Communications Director will take your input (your answer to the “why are you running?” question), self and opposition research, and any polling or public opinion research that you have available. Using this information, the Communications Director will draft a message document and communications plan with a specific, practical schedule for getting “Earned Media” (free attention), building your “Name ID” (how many voters have heard of you), growing your audience, and hammering home a brand which presents you as the candidate best positioned to lead.
Traditionally, communications plans have been focused on newspaper and television reporters, and old-style press is still an important conduit to reach the voting public. But a modern communications plan also includes outreach to other influencers who have built audiences using new platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. If you’re running a local municipal race, turning someone with just 1000 Twitter followers in your area into a supporter and engaging them with your content can reach more potential voters in your universe than putting the same time into relationship building with more traditional journalists.
If you have a large enough budget, your Communications Director can hire a Press Secretary and a Press Assistant to do all the execution necessary to carry out the communications plan. In addition to reaching out to traditional and non-traditional media, the communications team will also work with you to draft your campaign speeches.
On larger campaigns, if the people you hire to do your fundraising, field, and communications lack the right expertise, it’s important to hire a Digital Director to make sure that digital tools are used effectively in all areas of the campaign. If your Finance Director, Field Director, and Communications Director have all received extensive training and experience in digital AND have the proper consultant or volunteer support to carry out the digital pieces of their programs, you might not need to hire a Digital Director.
Regardless, the best way to build an impactful digital campaign is to tap an extensive network of well-trained and motivated volunteers. The best digital campaigns will build a robust content production operation just like a media company, publishing custom content on a daily and weekly basis and filling out their publishing schedule using third-party content curated from other sources. But if you wanted to hire experienced professional designers and video editors in-house, the cost could be prohibitive.
If you don’t have the volunteer resources to do most of your digital labor, you might consider hiring consultants to perform execution on the most labor-intensive digital aspects your campaign, such as the content production example listed above, as well as web design, coding, SMS mobilization, and the email fundraising program. You can negotiate your contract with these consultants to cover an agreed-upon number of hours, or an agreed-upon number of content pieces included in the retainer.
NOTE: If you are running for federal office and you ask a volunteer to give their time performing a task which falls under their primary career skillset, such as a professional photographer volunteering their time to take photos for the campaign, that can be considered an in-kind donation which must be reported to the FEC.
Any campaign veteran will tell you that the most important campaign resource is time. If you use your time well, you can raise more money, hire more staff, run more ads, knock more doors. All of the pieces we’ve discussed so far deal with things you can do with the limited time available to you as a candidate. But without strong central management, none of these component pieces will work together well enough to produce the right work product you need to win.
For this reason, a Campaign Manager is broadly considered an essential hire. On the smallest races, the Campaign Manager might be the only staff you hire, and in that case he or she will wear many hats. On larger campaigns, the Manager will have purview over an extensive budget, make hiring, firing, and disciplinary decisions, strive to reach strategic consensus among your many advisers, and serve as the “buck-stops-here” final authority bad cop telling people “no” when they need to be told “no.”
On larger races, the Campaign Manager will have to delegate some of these duties. To help manage important relationships and incoming requests from allies, you can hire a dedicated Political Director. To help manage human resources and office logistics, you can hire an Operations Director. To help with personal logistics on the road, you might consider hiring a Body Person.
But the most important part of the Campaign Manager’s job is managing your schedule. As the candidate, your time is the most precious commodity of all the precious commodities on the campaign. And every day, the Campaign Manager has to decide how you will spend the limited time available among all the competing priorities on the race. To help manage this process, on larger races the Manager might hire a dedicated Scheduler to keep things on track.
Other needs and roles
The above material covers the core functions of the campaign, but there are a number of other needs which any candidate should consider. You can read about them below.
IT and information security
In recent years, campaigns and political organizations have been the target of hacks, undercover stings, and more. You should consult with an expert on information security to make sure that your internal network and the policies you put in place to vet volunteers and visitors are airtight.
Polling and focus groups
Getting regular information on public opinion is essential, and in larger races you should be ready to spend some of your budget on polling and message testing as mentioned above. This opinion research will help inform your communications strategy, and if you run polls consistently you can track changes over time.
If you’ve got a ton of money to burn, you can also run focus groups on your advertising creative, but you can probably get similar information for cheaper by running A/B tests and content treatment tests out of your digital advertising budget.
Speaking of advertising, if you’re running a race with a budget of approximately $300,000 or more, you will need extensive help from experts who know how to design and run sophisticated advertising campaigns. The most skilled political advertising experts usually work at firms as consultants you can hire on retainer. They will also charge a percentage fee on top of all advertising you do through their firm — usually seven or ten percent.
Initially, most of your advertising should probably be geared toward “acquisition,” meaning you want to “acquire” new subscribers to receive content from you on social media, email and SMS. Because most money raised online is raised over email, most campaigns emphasize email acquisition first and foremost. But after you acquire a supporter’s email, you can convert them to follow you on other channels, too.
For persuasion and turnout, you first want to test creative content, and then put your advertising dollars behind the content that tests the best. So when selecting an advertising consultant, make sure to work with someone who will give your campaign the individual attention it needs by developing creative tests to run and optimize your campaign.
Regarding television advertising: It’s expensive, and if your opponent is spending a lot on TV, you’re going to need to get in the game, too, unfortunately. You don’t want to get outspent more than 5 to 1. It’s virtually impossible to win at that ratio outside of a presidential race. To be safe, you really should try not to let it go above 2 to 1 if you can help it.
If you’re the one with the most money, it can make sense to advertise on TV to push them to spend their more limited budget on TV, as well, but this strategy will only work if you have an overwhelming fundraising advantage.
Find a television advertising consultant who will work with you to develop the strategy you need to win, not line their own pockets by maximizing your TV budget.
Paid mail pieces are still effective at raising name ID, especially in local municipal races. You’ll probably want to hire a consultant to do your mail, rather than a full-time staffer.
To avoid breaking election law, you’re going to need to have campaign lawyers on retainer, especially if you’re running a federal race. Be very careful how much you use them, however — their hourly rate can eat a hole in your budget if you don’t watch out.
In addition to these skilled roles, think about product vendors:
- Voter contact database
- Additional targeting data
- Mass mailer and text message organizing
- Email database
- Donor database
- Donation processing solution
- Campaign merchandise design and online storefront
- Social media management, monitoring and analysis
A final note about consultants: When placing your trust in a consultant you’ve hired, be extremely careful. Many of the best political professionals operate as consultants, so you shouldn’t rule them out as valued advisers. However, their financial incentive is to craft a strategy around the service their firm provides. Don’t tempt them by placing absolute trust in their visions for your campaign. Educate yourself and craft your own.
If you’re overwhelmed, stop worrying.
This is a lot to take in, it’s true. But you don’t need to have all the answers as soon as you begin. Start talking to good people and they will bring in more people — in the end, the team will come together.
Right now you only need to worry about the next task in front of you: Filing for office.
Read more about that here: https://medium.com/nextdems/running-for-office-filing-requirements-and-deadlines-d1919ae43510#.33426cxw4