Running for political office is both challenging and rewarding. It also requires a great deal of knowledge that’s difficult to obtain until you’ve been through a campaign.
How to run a successful campaign doesn’t have to be a mystery. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know, from the very first step you need to take to how to manage your money and staff most effectively.
Running for Political Office
What are the steps to run for political office?
To officially begin your campaign, you’ll need to register to run for office. This notifies the appropriate commission of your candidacy and allows you to form a political committee. For federal elections, you’ll file with the Federal Election Committee; for state and local elections, you’ll need to do a quick search to find out who you file with.
Once you’ve registered, it’s time to obtain your Federal Employee Identification Number. Your FEIN is typically necessary to create a campaign bank account.
If you’re going to hire any campaign staff, host fundraising events, or open a campaign office, you will likely need insurance.
For campaigns where you’ll need staff, a finance director and campaign manager will typically be your first two hires. These individuals can help you establish an overarching strategy that addresses your finances and campaign plan. Once you have a strong campaign foundation, it’ll be time to announce your intent to run for office and consider growing your staff.
You’ll then hit the ground running with your fundraising and voter outreach efforts.
When should I fill out my candidacy application?
How long does a political campaign last?
Most candidates start campaigns up to 2 years before an election. In 2016, the average national election campaign lasted 596 days. This period becomes shorter as you move to the state and local levels, with local campaigns typically lasting 3-6 months.
What political office can I run for?
If you’ve never run or been elected before, local elections are a great place to start. Local office helps you build a foundation for bigger campaigns down the road, both in terms of experience and a strong support base.
If you want to run for local office, you may need to do some digging. The types of offices available can vary between states and even cities. To learn what local offices you can run for, look into when the next elections will be held and who your current elected officials are.
Information about state and national offices is more readily available.
Can anyone run for political office?
To run for U.S. Senate, you must be a citizen for at least 9 years and be at least 30 years old. For U.S. Representatives, the minimums are 7 years of citizenship and 25 years of age.
Creating a Campaign Strategy
Just as you wouldn’t bake a cake without a recipe and the required ingredients, a successful campaign demands a comprehensive strategy.
How do you create a political campaign strategy?
A campaign strategy outlines the entire campaign, including a timeline, vote goal, staff, and funding.
The National Democratic Training Committee recommends creating a four-pronged strategy that addresses each of these areas:
1. Communications. How will your team deliver messaging to your audience?
2. Digital. How will your online presence help you gain voters and fundraise?
3. Budget and Fundraising. What are your fundraising goals and what strategies will you use to meet them? How will money be spent?
4. Field. What is your strategy for making direct voter contact via canvassing, call time, and texting?
Addressing each of these departments helps the appropriate staff set goals and plan their next steps.
What makes a good political candidate?
Before jumping into the characteristics that make a political candidate exceptional, it’s crucial to consider the various challenges they may face throughout their campaign and once in office. An outstanding candidate will be adept at addressing every situation with ease.
A good political candidate is:
Competent. This may be obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. They need to understand relevant issues, skillfully handle campaign details, and demonstrate strong leadership and decision-making abilities.
Service-oriented. A good candidate is running with the intent to help others, not elevate their status.
Committed. Campaigning is challenging work. A good candidate is willing to make personal sacrifices for long-term goals.
Articulate. Not everyone will agree with you, but a strong candidate should be able to clearly communicate their stance on the various issues.
How many hours per week will you be able to set aside for campaigning?
For those running for state or federal office, campaigning often becomes a full-time commitment.
Call time should account for 2-4 hours daily, totaling 10-30 hours weekly.
In the month leading up to the election, many weeks may require 50-60 hours of work.
How much money do you need for a political campaign?
The cost of a political campaign can vary wildly depending on the office you’re running for, but the truth is that running for office at any level requires money.
In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a grassroots candidate, raised over $2.1 million, which was modest compared to her competitors. Campaign funding has been reaching unprecedented levels. In 2020, the average Senate campaign raised $43 million, while the average Congressional campaign raised $2.39 million. Joe Biden’s fundraising surpassed $1 billion. Additionally, eight of the ten most expensive Senate races in history took place in 2020.
To learn more about the amount raised for federal campaigns, visit FEC.gov. For state-level campaigns, check your Secretary of State’s website, and for local campaigns, check with your City Clerk.
When drafting an initial budget consider creating a plan for three different levels— best-case, worst-case, and a realistic budget somewhere in the middle. As you jump full-force into your fundraising efforts you’ll have a better idea of which budget is most appropriate.
How can I raise money for my campaign?
Four fundraising methods are typically used during political campaigns.
Call time plays a crucial role in every campaign. You should expect to dedicate 2-4 hours daily to connect with potential donors and build relationships that will generate contributions for your campaign. For guidance on setting up call time, refer to our comprehensive fundraising guide.
- Fundraising events
In-person events allow you to network with donors and ask for contributions face-to-face.
- Virtual events
Online fundraising events widen your fundraising efforts on several fronts. A larger number of people can attend, allowing you to spread your message more effectively. In addition, potential donors can attend from anywhere.
- Grassroots or digital fundraising
These campaigns rely on smaller, recurring individual contributions rather than large, one-time donations.
Are you willing to spend some of your personal finances on the political campaign?
While fully funding a campaign on your own might not be feasible, contributing a manageable amount to your own campaign can be beneficial. By investing in your campaign, you not only demonstrate commitment to your cause but also serve as a constant reminder to believe in your own capabilities.
If you’re not going to fund the campaign yourself, are you willing to ask friends, family, and strangers to donate?
It’s clear that campaigns require funding, but it’s rare for someone to cover all the expenses personally. This is where the support of donors becomes essential.
While soliciting donations from friends and family might feel awkward, consider this perspective: you’re providing them with a chance to contribute to improved leadership and a brighter future for their community. The funds raised aren’t for personal indulgence but rather to support the causes you’re passionate about.
Reaching out to strangers for donations might seem less daunting, as it doesn’t appear to involve the same risks. Utilize call time and fundraising events as opportunities to generate the financial support your campaign needs.
Building a Support Network
How do you build out a support network to help contribute to all of these campaign roles?
People in your network can fall into one of five categories:
1. Personal. Family and friends in your close circle.
2. Professional. People you know from work, community, or organizations you’re involved with.
3. Donors. People who will contribute money to your campaign.
4. Validators. Those in positions of authority or leadership who can support your campaign.
5. Supporters and volunteers: People who may not have the means to contribute monetarily but will knock and doors and make phone calls to reach other voters about your campaign.
To keep track of everyone in your network you’ll need a campaign rolodex— a running record of everyone in your network and the contact information for each. You can organize this on a spreadsheet, but we recommend choosing a software like Numero, where you can maintain network records along with all of the other campaign data you need to track.
The key to expanding your network is building and strengthening relationships. Focus on what you can do for others and weave that into conversations with them. Find ways to personalize your conversations, for instance, keeping a record of birthdays to check in with potential donors or congratulating someone on their child’s graduation. Showing potential donors and supporters that you care and are interested in them can go a long way in strengthening valuable relationships.
Have you discussed a potential campaign with your spouse or partner?
Let’s face it, a political campaign can be draining. It’s not a marathon but a sprint that may require 12-18 months of heavy involvement. While you may be comfortable with the sacrifices that will entail, it’s important that your partner and family are as well.
Are they okay with the time you’ll be spending away from your family? Are they comfortable with the responsibilities you’ll take on if you win? Is your family okay with being in the spotlight at events? These are all conversations you need to have before you ever register to run for office.
Getting Your Message out to Voters
How many voters are there in your community?
Typically, your Secretary of State’s office will supply current information on voter registration and the total number of voters in your district at regular intervals. The US Census Bureau also provides information about voter registration every two years after national elections.
To find more specific information regarding your state, search registered voters + [your state name]. For example, a quick search for Kentucky reveals the number, gender, and parties of registered voters for county, precinct, Congressional, Senate, House, and Supreme court elections.
How many voters do you need to contact in order to reach your vote target?
1. Determine your vote goal by researching a recent, similar election to identify the voter turnout percentage.
2. Find the current number of registered voters in your district.
Calculate the expected voter turnout using this formula:
Voter turnout percentage x total number of registered voters = expected turnout
To find your vote goal, multiply the expected turnout by the percentage of votes you need to win. If you’re running against one other candidate, you’ll need at least 51% of the votes. However, if there are more candidates, the required percentage will vary.
Keep in mind that not every voter you contact will support you, and some people will vote for you even if you don’t directly engage with them.
What are ways to get your message out to voters?
Engaging with voters often involves a combination of face-to-face interactions, paid and earned media advertisements, as well as communication via phone calls, door knocking, and social media. To extend your reach and effectively convey your message, you’ll require a team of dedicated volunteers.
Consider utilizing the following methods to connect with voters:
1. Campaign events: Organize events such as rallies, where you can simultaneously engage with a large audience and foster support for your campaign.
2. Phone banks: During these events, volunteers call persuadable or low-turnout voters to communicate your campaign’s key message.
3. Door knocking/canvassing: Similar to phone banks, volunteers visit specific neighborhoods to interact with targeted voters at their homes.
4. Paid media: Invest in various paid marketing channels, including TV commercials, online ads, direct mail, radio commercials, and Facebook or other online ads.
Campaign Roles and Responsibilities
What are the key roles in a political campaign?
There are a variety of roles in a political campaign, but filling all is not necessary, especially if your budget doesn’t allow for it. The larger your race, the more people you’ll need on your team.
A campaign manager oversees almost everything that goes on within a campaign. They will supervise the rest of the staff, help you make strategic decisions, work with consultants, manage the budget, and help keep you on track.
You’ll typically hire a campaign manager if your fundraising target is more than $100,000.
A finance director manages everything money-related. Their responsibilities include creating and implementing the fundraising plans. In addition, they conduct donor history research, handle campaign donations, coordinate and manage fundraising events, and organize call time schedules.
It might be prudent to hire a finance director as one of your first staff members, as they play a crucial role in managing the funds vital for a successful campaign. For smaller campaigns, such as local or state legislative races, a finance consultant can fulfill this role on a more limited scale.
A field director manages voter contact, volunteer recruitment, and your GOTV campaign. They are responsible for managing volunteers and field organizers depending on the size of your campaign.
Hiring a field director is typically necessary for mid-level to larger races such as congressional, statewide, and larger state legislative races.
A treasurer is mainly responsible for ensuring your campaign is in compliance with campaign finance laws. The Campaign Workshop recommends hiring a lawyer for this position to be sure they can effectively interpret election law.
A political director works with various constituency groups to arrange their involvement with the campaign. For example, if you’re seeking endorsement from veterans or college students, a political director can be instrumental in engaging them.
Hiring a political director is wise for large city, statewide, or primary campaigns.
A communications director is the bridge between your campaign team and the media. Their duties span a range of tasks, such as managing campaign messaging, arranging media appearances and interviews, as well as crafting press releases and candidate speeches.
A communications director is generally necessary for higher-level races, including those for the US Senate, governorships, or major mayoral positions.
Ready to take your campaign to the next step?
Besides your vote count, money raised is the biggest indicator of campaign success. Going into your campaign with a clear strategy for fundraising and outreach puts you a step ahead of your opponents.
More money means your campaign can have a larger reach. We’d like to help you make that a reality. Numero will organize your pledges, donations, and donors, so all you have to do is make the call.