Running for office requires a lot. A lot of research. A lot of organization. A lot of planning. And campaigns – especially at the federal level – often even build their own campaign management tools and materials. Sounds like a lot...
When deciding to run for office, most people can name elected offices on a federal level—president, senator, congressperson. It’s not as easy to name local offices. Sure, more memorable positions, such as mayor, come to mind pretty quickly, but the types of offices you can run for vary from state to state at both the state and local levels.
When you’re a first-time candidate, local office is a great place to start. The budget and overhead costs are lower than for higher levels of office, which lessens the pressure on you to fundraise. Plus, the fundraising you do for a smaller campaign can help you build a stronger support base for later, larger campaigns.
Still, even local campaigns can prove challenging. It’s not always easy to identify which offices are available and up for election. All political campaigns—including yours—should start with extensive research geared toward building a successful campaign. Such research will tell you the best office to run for based on your experience and support.
With that in mind, this guide will help you find your place in local government. We’ll show you where to look to find the region-specific information (elected offices, campaign costs, contribution limits, etc.) you need to build the foundation of your political campaign.
Let’s get started!
What local offices can I run for?
Technically, you can run for any local office for which you meet the qualifications. The better question is, what local office should you run for? The answer depends a lot on your personal experiences, which will play a major role in determining what office you choose to run for.
For example, are you better suited to the state-level executive or legislative branch? Or to an even more local position, such a town council or school board? Your goals for the community will also play a role in helping you make that decision. But whatever the case, you first need to know what local elected offices even exist around you
How do I find what local elected offices are in my area?
The best place to start looking is online. However, the type of website you’ll look for will depend on your state. Some states have election sites, while others store information about local political offices on the relevant Secretary of State website.
Here are a few examples of where to access information in a few states:
- Texas has an extensive collection of candidate information/resources on the Texas Secretary of State website. There, you’ll find that the local government holds municipal elections, school district elections, and other district elections (e.g., for water and hospital districts).
- Florida has a Divisions of Elections that has information about state and local elections. Each county in Florida also has its own elections site to access information even more specific to your area. These websites will help you find the county, city, and district offices up for election.
Both states have abundant campaign resources to help you research, qualify, and apply for your campaign. However, the resources are collected and structured in entirely different ways.
You can use these local websites to find information for many aspects of your campaign. For example, you can find the information below:
Who are my locally elected officials?
Your state and local websites will have contact information for elected officials in your area. These details are often early pieces of information that help you determine the political ecosystem of your area. You’ll want to know:
- Who is the local incumbent?
- What party are they affiliated with?
- How long have they held the office?
- Are they running again, or are they retiring?
State and county websites will also feature pages that help. Here are a few examples:
- Contact pages
- Election result archives
- Election calendars
- Upcoming election pages
- Lists of candidates in current elections
How do people in my area tend to vote?
Some of the pages that helped you learn about current officials can also help you understand how people in your area are voting. State and county election sites often have collections of voter and population data, and that data can show you voter registration, voter turnout, and the competitiveness of the district.
Information about voter demographics, voter turnout, and voting histories will let you know how many votes you’ll need to win and what kind of canvassing and Get Out the Vote strategies to use.
How much does it cost to run for a local office?
You can get a better idea about the amount you will need to raise by checking the financial reports for candidates in past elections. As one example, see the screenshot below of the Maine Campaign Finance website.
Just on this one page, you can find total contributions for the year (a running tally that will update quarterly with fresh reports), see who is contributing, and see how much they’re contributing. There’s even a way to look up candidate data by office and by county. You can sift through committee data and finance disclosures as well.
California’s campaign finance data is presented differently, however—highlighting how information can vary in presentation across states. There are links to information about top contributors, filing requirements, campaign finance activities, and lobbyists. See the screenshot below from California’s Secretary of State website:
On the site, a Power Search feature also allows you to look up information about ballot measures and independent expenditures. Want to search for data by election cycle? You can do that too.
The lesson here is that every state will have a different way of organizing and presenting this data. But however the information is presented and organized, you want to find the overall budget range for the office you’re running for. Then look through the fundraising and expenditures of your competition to get the best picture of what it’s going to take for you to mount a serious campaign.
Building a campaign budget
Local office is generally the least expensive office level to run for (barring larger metropolitan areas). Still, you likely need to raise thousands of dollars to compete.
Once you put together a basic overview of the amount of cash you need to raise, it’s time to build a budget for the campaign. Here’s what your budget will need to consider:
- Staffing costs
- Political marketing costs (mail, digital advertising, television, etc.)
- Overhead costs (website domain fees, office rent, etc.)
- What you need to spend in the case of a competitive primary
- What field and GOTV programs you’ll need to win
You’ll also want to consider your fundraising potential, which we’ll discuss a little later. For now, let’s focus on how some of these expenses might look for a local election campaign.
In general, local elections are less competitive relative to the top of the ticket. Sometimes, just the fact that you’re running for the office (or that you’ve raised money early in the campaign) is enough to discourage potential opponents from entering the ring.
If you’re facing competition from within your party, however, your budget will have to include more primary election costs than if you were running unopposed. You’ll need to spend more to get an edge against your opponents. These costs can include marketing to get your campaign’s message out among your voters to earn their votes.
General elections will usually feature an opponent from the opposing party. The types of expenses associated with general elections are similar to those in primary elections (marketing, canvassing, staffing, etc.). General elections are normally more expensive than the primaries. You’ll ultimately need more supporters to win the general than you did to win the primary.
What kind of campaign staff do I need to run for local office?
A bid for local office won’t require a large campaign staff. The staff you do hire will likely only need to work part time, given that there’s plenty you will be able to do yourself. Still, it might be helpful to have a campaign manager, treasurer, and finance director (or fundraising consultant). A field director who can coordinate canvassing efforts may also be necessary, especially as Election Day draws near.
Like most political candidates, you can also use consultants to help with your campaign. Political consultants are people who specialize in running political campaigns. Need help with the overall management of the campaign? General consultants can help.
There are also consultants who specialize in different areas of the campaign. For example, a finance consultant would help your campaign raise money. You could also opt to have a team of media (mail, digital, television, etc.) consultants who work together to coordinate all of your marketing materials.
The latter example might not be useful for a local campaign, but using consultants can generally give you campaign expertise while keeping staffing costs down.
Gaining support for your campaign
There are several strategies to use to gain support for your run for local office. Here are a few:
- Voter outreach
- Voter registration
- Get Out the Vote
We’ll briefly review these strategies in this guide, but check out our How to Run for Office and Win guide for more in-depth breakdowns on all of the topics discussed here.
How to get contributions?
You can secure contributions in a number of ways. The first step is to research and compile a potential donor list. Include everyone you know. Yes, everyone. In fact, compiling the list is a great time to reconnect with old acquaintances and colleagues. Dig deep, and create a full list of people who might support your candidacy.
Remember, you’re not asking for personal loans. You’re running a campaign and entering into public service. That notion is partly why candidates kick off their fundraising with personal loans. Investing in yourself shows people that you’re serious about your campaign.
Friends, family, and acquaintances are also the foundation of your fundraising. Your personal connections with them pave way for introductions to other potential supporters. Local elections are ultimately more intimate than state or federal elections, so you can build your network with cozy fundraising events that let you build real connections with like-minded people.
Endorsements from local leaders and organizations are quite helpful in raising awareness of your campaign, too, especially during some of the more unnoticed local races.
What are contribution limits?
Campaigns have limits in the funds they can receive. These limits are defined by state and federal campaign finance laws and define the following:
- Types of funds a candidate can receive (e.g., corporate versus noncorporate)
- Amount of funds coming from any one source
The FEC has a federal contribution limits page, but your state or municipality contribution laws will be what you need to reference when running for local office.
Each state has its own contribution limits that apply to state and local offices, and these laws will vary significantly. Consider these examples: New York calculates its contribution limits based on the relationship of the donor to the candidate (family or non-family) and the population of the area in which the candidate is campaigning. In contrast, Florida’s contribution laws are set amounts that vary depending on the office being sought.
All political campaigns are required to file regular financial disclosures through the state and federal government. Again, your state election website will provide you with the information and forms needed to comply with campaign finance disclosure laws. Some sites even offer informal courses to teach you about the laws.
Another way to ensure you remain compliant with these laws is by hiring a finance or compliance firm. They can take care of all the administrative tasks and financial reporting that make your campaign credible and keep everything in compliance with finance laws.
Interacting directly with the public is an excellent way to raise awareness about your campaign. Especially, taking the time to reach out to voters humanizes you and builds trust. The two main ways to contact voters are by canvassing and phone banking.
Canvassing is done by knocking on doors. This outreach tactic can be used for a number of reasons:
- Grassroots fundraising
- Voter registration
- Political campaigning and persuasion
- Raising community awareness
- Get Out the Vote efforts
- Phone banking (both calling and texting)
These outreach tactics will be used throughout your campaign, with shifting strategies depending on the stage of the election. For example, canvassing will focus more on raising awareness and generating support at first, but will shift toward voter registration and GOTV efforts in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
The more expensive types of paid media or marketing (i.e., television, mail, etc.) are usually inaccessible to campaigns for local office. Most local campaigns instead invest in digital, flyers, a simple website, and yard signs.
A key point to remember is this: voters tend to engage less with local politics compared to federal or national campaigns. For many voters, local office just isn’t as top of mind or as exciting as presidential elections. Investing in yard signs and localized social media ads will therefore be key to raising awareness about your campaign.
Combining such tactics with in-person voter outreach shows voters that you’re invested in the campaign and in the community.
Not to mention, simple marketing can also clue people into you as a candidate, helping them educate themselves on the issues and why you’re the best fit for the job.
Data suggests that, when you make it easier to vote, more people do. That’s why it benefits you, as a candidate, to include voter registration in your canvassing efforts. Taking the time to help people get registered shows voters that you are “in this together.”
Let’s face it. Registering to vote is one of those pesky tasks that can fall by the wayside, especially after disruptive life events like moving or changing your name. Presenting an easy way for your supporters to either update their registration or register for the first time is another way to increase support for your campaign.
Plus, proactively engaging the community to register voters gets younger people more involved in politics. In 2020, more than half of young people (ages 18–29) voted, a trend that may continue with the increased activism seen in recent years due in part to the pressing issues of climate change, police brutality, economic disparities, and the legislative attacks on rights ranging from abortion to voting.
Get Out The Vote (GOTV)
In the days and weeks leading up to Election Day, all of your canvassing and phone banking should shift to GOTV efforts. Your campaign should be calling and knocking on doors to remind people to vote on Election Day or to complete/return their mail-in ballots.
Research shows that certain GOTV tactics, such as disclosing voter participation in a voter’s area, applies a sort of social pressure that increases voter turnout.
GOTV efforts are especially important for lower-profile elections, such as the midterms or elections for local offices. Elections at those levels tend to see dips in voter participation.
If you’re running for local office, a little social pressure on voters to participate in local politics can go a long way for your party as a whole—“Records show that your neighbor voted, what’s your plan to vote?”
After the Election
After Election Day, your political campaign is concluded. If you’ve won your election, it’s time to prepare for your new job.
If you’re interested in campaigning further, there are a few next steps you can take, regardless of whether you’ve won your race for local office. You can start researching the next office you’d like to target. If you won, you can use your time in office to generate further support for future runs.
A lost campaign can also be used to generate more support for the future. It’s not easy to run a campaign at any level, but the lessons you learn along the way will help you refine your approach moving forward. Former President Barack Obama is a good example. He lost his 2000 bid for the U.S. House of Representatives, but then leveraged the support he gained during his campaign to lead him to a U.S. Senate victory in 2004. The way he used his momentum after his early loss also put him on the path to the presidency.
So win or lose, let your run for local office set the stage for shaping whatever future in politics you envision for yourself.