In general, when thinking about political campaigns, people are mainly thinking about the general election. The public usually has high awareness of the strategies attached to winning the general election, such as persuading swing voters or running large-scale partisan turnout...
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The only goal when running for office is winning. Every dollar raised, every door knocked, and every press release issued all serve a singular purpose: earning more votes than your opponent. Your campaign strategy will change depending on whether you’re in the primary or general stages of the election cycle. Understanding how to use your resources efficiently is the key to understanding how to win a political campaign.
Primary election campaigns are different from general election campaigns, for a simple reason—your opponent happens to be of the same party, so little difference likely exists between your policy positions and your opponent’s (outside of a few circumstances).
But there’s another significant consideration that makes a difference in primary campaigns: whether or not the general election is competitive. Suppose you’re running in a competitive general election district. In that case, your campaign strategy will often focus on why you’re a stronger choice for the general election based on whatever factors apply to your race and your district. If you’re running in a primary in a safe Democratic seat, you will likely battle it out on the issues and why you’re a better fit for the district than your opponent.
Other factors that affect your campaign strategy in a primary election will be based on who is currently representing the office you’re seeking. You could be facing a number of scenarios—from running to fill an open seat to challenging an incumbent of the same party, to challenging an incumbent of the opposing party.
Running for office in a competitive primary election for an open seat is one of the most common situations you’re likely to find yourself in as a candidate. In this case, both parties will likely be hosting primaries based on the expected competitiveness of the general election. It is up to each campaign to stand out and demonstrate why a candidate is a better fit for the district and why they are most likely to win come November. In this case, your campaign will not have an incumbent to establish a contrast against. You’ll also likely contrast with your primary opponents in a way that will still make you competitive in the general election.
Alternatively, suppose you find yourself in a primary for a seat currently occupied by a member of the opposing party. In this case, you should focus on why you’re running for office and why you’re a better choice than not only the incumbent but also your primary challengers, making it more likely your party can flip the seat.
Finally, the last circumstance is running against an incumbent of the same party. This type of race is the most challenging primary to run, and you will likely face an opponent who enjoys all the benefits of the full support of their party apparatus. These primary elections are often bruising and engage heavily in issue contrasts between candidates. Outside of a few notable wins, these races almost always end in defeat for the challenger, even if you are running a successful campaign.
The Competitiveness of the Election Cycle
Candidates often have primaries where they’re the clear frontrunner and won’t have to spend their campaign budgets on defeating their challengers. If this case applies to your race, be respectful of your challenger while focusing on preparing for the likelihood you’ll be advancing to the general election—meaning you need to get ready for fundraising, building your campaign staff and volunteer capacity, and creating messaging that gives you the best shot at defeating your general election opponent. Spending too much time focused on a non-competitive primary challenger can severely disadvantage you after becoming the nominee. Avoid that by putting your focus in the right place.
However, when facing a competitive primary challenger, you must treat primary election day with the same urgency and focus as you would the general election. In a competitive primary, you will have to adjust your messaging, target your voter contact program (phonebanking, door knocking, etc.), and invest heavily in endorsements and courting key stakeholders and community leaders. These steps apply for challengers and incumbents alike.
The Campaign Issues—Why Are You Running for Office?
The issues you choose to highlight while running for office come from many places and may be one of the biggest reasons you decided to start a political campaign in the first place. Most candidates usually form their campaign issue positions inside the general structure of their party’s platform and then make adjustments based on local considerations. In a primary, the contrast between you and your opponents will be much smaller than with a general election opponent of the opposing party. For this reason, you should try to take the temperature of your district and adjust accordingly along the margins of major issues (Medicare for All is a great example).
However, when distilling your message for a primary campaign, of greatest concern is what makes you different from your opponent in a way that will potentially earn you more votes. For instance, how does your previous experience or demographic make you a better choice? As a candidate, you should also consider your district’s specific needs. For example, should you call for placing additional offshore drilling regulations if you’re running in a coastal California district? Remember, you’re trying to appeal to your own party’s primary voters—voters who have very different and more specific concerns than a general election voting base. That dynamic affects your strategy, messaging, paid media, and more.
Once you have advanced to the general election, the issues you highlight are more likely to contrast with your opponent after you’ve adjusted to appeal to a larger voting bloc to put you in the best position to win more votes than your opponent. These decisions should be informed by polling and supporting state parties, state legislative caucuses, or committees.
Campaign Staff for Primary vs. General Elections
The organization of your campaign staff will differ in primary versus general elections. When running for office in a primary election, you’re unlikely to benefit from the support of your state party, caucus, or any national committee, so you will need to build your campaign staff accordingly. In contrast, in general elections, committees and parties are likely to support your candidacy with field, data, communications, and digital support. But during the primaries, before you become the party nominee, you are mostly on your own.
Most primary campaigns will have fewer resources than campaigns that make it to the general election, but you’ll still need to run a competitive program. Aim for your staffing to cost under 10% of your overall campaign budget so that you can afford crucial paid media programming in the weeks leading up to election day. Campaign managers can often fill the shoes of communications directors and sometimes political directors.
There is one main difference in staffing, though, and that’s when it comes to field campaigning. Primary campaigns do not enjoy state parties’ support or coordinated campaign field campaigns, so you’ll have to run an in-house field operation in the primary.
During a primary campaign, fundraising comes more from your network and background than the Democratic donor base that may hold out until you’re been selected by voters as the nominee for the general election. To fundraise, candidates prospect their networks to identify likely donors to call or invite to fundraising events (learn more about call time and fundraising events). Fortunately, political campaign tools help you, as a candidate, and your finance staffers look up the donor history of your networks to quickly identify who in your extended network has given money or is likely to contribute to your race.
If you’re a primary candidate, you’ll need to be creative and assertive to raise from those you know. In contrast, once you’re a general election candidate, you’ll benefit from the extended Democratic donor pool when running a competitive campaign—especially if there’s a chance to flip a seat. Primary campaigns usually raise much less than general election campaigns since you don’t yet have access to the party’s full support. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule. For instance, organizations that wade into primaries (e.g., EMILY’s list, Justice Democrats, LGBT Victory Fund, etc.) can help expand your campaign’s reach to new donors.
How to Allocate Resources in a Primary vs. General Election
Primary election campaigns usually have fewer resources than general election campaigns. There is a smaller pool of people to raise money from, and as a primary candidate, you don’t yet have the support of your party as a whole. So how do you plan and run a campaign with minimal resources? First, the good news is that all of your opponents are likely to have the same exact issue. Second, primary campaign strategies follow the same basics as a general campaign but targeted to a different set of voters. Instead of targeting persuadable swing voters, you’re trying to convince high turnout party stalwarts. You still need to run ads on social media and television, build a robust GOTV program, and fundraise.
If your campaign is like most primary campaigns, you’ll also rely on staff filling multiple roles and getting creative as there’s less of a tried-and-true playbook than a general election. You should still hire a campaign manager, finance director, and field director (if funds permit), but scale back, if not forego, hiring a ton of supporting staff that provide a marginal return on investment during a primary campaign. Once you make it to the general campaign, your campaign staff will scale. You may even experience quite a bit of turnover as new talent becomes available that has the experience to plan and manage your growing campaign.
Your general election campaign can also join a coordinated campaign to fold your own field campaign under the state party umbrella to turn out Democrats on behalf of the entire ticket. Joining a coordinated campaign can significantly lessen the staff load and cost, allowing you to focus on raising for your paid media mix to deploy in the weeks leading up to election day.
Depending on your race, your political consultant team can stay the same or change after advancing through to the primary. Whether you choose to add or replace consultants depends on whether you hired a full team in the primary and whether you need to hire a full team in the general. Also consider how your consultant team is working together. Advancing from the primary to a general election is a natural breakpoint to adjust if things aren’t working out. If something’s broken, fix it—if not, carry on.
Political endorsements are a crucial part of any primary campaign. To secure the party nomination in a competitive primary, as a candidate, you need signals to validate your candidacy to primary base voters who are more likely to value the official endorsement of a well-known group, community leader, or elected that they know, like, and trust. By earning an endorsement, your campaign borrows the trust and legitimacy of the endorser. Endorsers also serve as powerful surrogates that can stand in for you— the candidate.
Not to mention, endorsers can increase the visibility of your race through earned media and your fundraising potential. In general elections, endorsements still matter but are rarely game-changers (unless you secure significant non-party related support like a local newspaper or community leader). Political endorsements are about validating your candidacy to persuadable voting blocs, the press, and Democratic donors.
If I Win My Primary Election, What Changes or New Support Can I Expect?
Once advancing to the general election, you can usually expect the formal and full support of your local party apparatus. Of course, the level of support depends on how organized your party may be and the number of resources it has to aid candidates.
If you’re running for a state legislative or another state office, your state Democratic legislative caucus or state party may be set up to support your run with paid media, staffers, fundraising, and voter contact help. For instance, state parties frequently form coordinated campaigns that build large statewide field campaigns to turnout democrats for the entire ticket. To join a coordinated campaign, you may be asked to “buy in” to help fund the program. That way, all state campaigns pool their resources to run one coordinated campaign to enhance their collective effectiveness. Joining a coordinated campaign is almost always more cost-effective than running your own field program.
Similarly, there are national party committees set up with the sole purpose of helping elect Democratic candidates to certain offices. For instance, the DCCC helps congressional candidates, DGA helps gubernatorial candidates, DLGA helps lieutenant governor candidates, and DAGA helps attorney general candidates.
What are the differences in how to run for office in the primary vs. the general elections?
Your campaign strategy during the primaries will depend on who else is running for office against you. You could face opposition within your own party and need to adjust your messaging to stand out from the crowd. How you frame your campaign issues and the types of voters you’re trying to reach with your message will also differ depending on whether you’re in the primary or general stages of the election cycle.
What changes should I expect to my campaign staff after the primary elections?
The staff for your primary campaign will be smaller and often built from within your personal network. Once you advance to the general, a bigger pool of political consulting firms, campaign managers, communications directors, field organizers, and volunteers becomes available to you, as do more contributions from the party. Turnover is normal during this transition.
What are the best political campaign strategies for winning the primary so that I can move on to the general election?
Build a campaign staff that can scale well when you move from the primary to the general election phase. Use political consultants to help you assess your competition and gather political endorsements to help voters know that others in their communities share your vision.