Political campaigns need to raise money, and fundraising can seem like an overwhelming task, especially with COVID-19 changing the landscape of how we interact with each other. Even with all the safety precautions in place, there are still plenty of...
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The two most important metrics for success in a political campaign are money raised and votes received. If you are serious about running for office, you need to be serious about fundraising.
How much you need to raise depends on a lot of factors, including the size of the voting population for the office you’re seeking, the most effective media options available for promoting your campaign, the costs associated with running your campaign, the number of candidates running and whether there is an incumbent or it’s an open seat.
Some candidates may benefit from Independent Expenditures, or IEs, primarily in state and federal races, but they are becoming more common in local races as well. These are mailers, social media or TV ads paid for by groups that support a candidate. Campaigns cannot be directly involved in any aspect of the IEs, which can advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. They may be funded by political parties, advocacy groups, labor unions or other interest groups.
As a candidate, you can raise funds that are solicited directly and controlled by your campaign. You can also receive goods and services as “in-kind” contributions. All direct donations and solicitations are subject to strict campaign finance laws and contribution limits for the office sought and the jurisdiction in which you are running.
Campaigns are getting more expensive at every level of political engagement. Historically, people entered politics at the local level and worked their way up. Now it is quite common for candidates to run for state or federal office without any local government experience.
You have to work your networks and to put every relationship you have on the line to generate campaign donations. The quality of your donor lists, your pitch and your commitment to call time will directly impact your fundraising success. Evaluating the capacity of your prospective donors is something you need to assess when considering a run for public office. Political fundraising is part art and part science. It takes confidence, courage and commitment to raise what you need in an ever more competitive political environment. And it’s not just about other people’s money. You should also be prepared to seed your campaign with a personal loan. It’s hard to ask other people to invest in you if you are unwilling to put skin in the game.
Here’s the good news. The skills you develop as a candidate — including the essential skills to be a successful fundraiser — will serve you in every aspect of life, both in and out of politics.
Political Glossary Of Terms
Bundler — Bundlers organize and collect campaign contributions from other donors. The checks are often delivered to the campaign in a bundle — hence, the name.
Candidate — A candidate is any individual who runs for a public office or party position, whether they ultimately appear on the ballot or not.
Cash on hand — The amount a campaign has remaining in the bank
Contribution limit — Restrictions on the amount of money that any one individual can contribute to a campaign. These limits are typically dependent upon the office the candidate seeks and the specific requirements set forth by the relevant jurisdiction.
Dark money — “Dark money” refers to spending meant to influence political outcomes where the source of the money is not disclosed.
Disclosure — To ensure that campaign contributions comply with the campaign finance laws set forth by the relevant jurisdiction, specific, legally mandated requirements exist for disclosure and reporting of these contributions.
Election Cycle — The applicable time period in which elections occur, as well as, in campaign finance terms, the period during which candidates can receive contributions for a specific election—primary or general—the contributions will count toward.
Electioneering communications — broadcast ads (television or radio) airing within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election that mention or refer to a federal candidate and are aimed at 50,000 or more members of the electorate of the office the candidate is seeking.
Exploratory committees — An exploratory committee is an organization established to help determine whether a potential candidate should run for an elected office.
Federal Elections Commission (FEC) — The mission of the FEC is to administer and enforce the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) that governs the financing of federal elections. The FEC has jurisdiction over campaigns for the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, the presidency and the vice presidency.
Filings — Campaign disclosure forms filed by candidates early in their campaigns.
Filing deadline — The legally mandated schedule when candidates must disclose ALL of the receipts and expenditures of his/her political campaign including the candidate’s own money.
Filing fees — The fee a candidate must pay when he/she files a notice of candidacy for the office sought.
General election — A political voting election where generally all or most members of a given political body are chosen.
Hard money — With this kind of spending, donors must be disclosed, contribution limits apply and organizations are allowed to coordinate their efforts to help elect a candidate.
In-kind contribution — A non-monetary contribution consisting of goods or services offered to a campaign at free or at less than the usual charge.
Independent Expenditure (IE) — An independent expenditure is an expenditure for a communication that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate and which is not made in coordination with any candidate, or his or her authorized committees or agents, or a political party committee or its agents.
Joint Fundraising Committees — Joint fundraising is election-related fundraising conducted jointly by a political committee and one or more other political committees or unregistered organizations.
Leadership PAC — A leadership PAC is a political committee that is directly or indirectly established, financed, maintained or controlled by a candidate or an individual holding a federal office.
Nomination papers — Nomination papers are the forms on which you will obtain valid signatures, that is, signatures of registered voters who are eligible to vote for the office that you are seeking. In order to be on the ballot, you will need to obtain a specified number of valid signatures on your nomination papers. All candidates running for federal, state and local public office need nomination papers.
Outside spending — Political expenditures made by groups or individuals independently of, and not coordinated with, candidates’ committees. Groups in this category range from conventional party committees to the more controversial super PACs and 501(c) “dark money” organizations.
PAC — Political committee organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates.
Party committees — The organization that by virtue of the bylaws of a political party or by the operation of state law is part of the official party structure. It is responsible for the day-to-day operation of a political party at the level of city, county, neighborhood, ward, district, precinct or any other subdivision of a state.
Personal finance disclosure — Annual public disclosure reports filed by candidates and public officials that provide details on their personal finances.
Petitions-in-lieu — The process by which some jurisdictions allow candidates to collect a specified number of signatures from registered voters to offset campaign filing fees.
Primary election — The process by which voters can indicate their preference for their party’s candidate, or a candidate in general, in an upcoming general election.
Public financing — A system in which candidates can accept public money for his or her campaign in exchange for a promise to limit both how much the candidate spends on the election and how much they receive in donations from any one group or individual.
Section 527 groups — The term “527” refers to political organizations as identified in their tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service. The number “527” refers to the section of the tax code that governs such entities. These groups are typically parties, candidates, committees or associations organized for the purpose of influencing an issue, policy, appointment or election, be it federal, state or local.
Soft money — Sometimes referred to as independent or non-coordinated spending, this refers to political spending made by organizations and individuals other than the candidate campaigns themselves.
Statements of Economic Interest —
Super PAC — Super PACs may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates. Unlike traditional PACs, super PACs are prohibited from donating funds directly to political candidates, and their spending must not be coordinated with that of the candidates they benefit.
Vendor — A party in the supply chain that makes goods and services available to a political campaign.
It may seem like you’re the “star” of your political campaign. After all, it’s your name on the marquee. In reality, your primary role is the “producer.”
Simply put, your job, from the time you launch your campaign through election day is to produce capital (campaign contributions) to fund your campaign and win votes. Every penny you raise — and more — will be invested in hiring staff and producing campaign materials for all types of media. For many candidates, the fundraising continues after election day, win or lose. Debts must be paid, and candidates are personally liable.
Raising money and running an effective campaign requires sufficient lead time, especially if you are a new, unproven candidate. Most candidates pace themselves so their fundraising significantly outpaces expenditures for as long as possible You want to hold on to as much of your money as possible for as long as you can. The two metrics your campaign will be measured by is dollars raised and “cash on hand.”
Considerable sums of money are often raised and spent in the span of months. The pace at which you spend is your “burn rate.” Donors care about the efficiency of your campaign infrastructure as much as they care about your message. To maximize every solicitation, every donor opportunity must be identified and pursued. Think of it like you are building a house brick by brick. Your early donors help strengthen the foundation of your campaign. Sharing the strength of that foundation through metrics and fundraising anecdotes helps build your credibility as a fundraiser and a candidate. Your job is to leverage the story of what you’ve already achieved to interest new investors.
Your fundraising targets should be built around a realistic campaign budget. Initially it’s just about raising. You’ll need a professional treasurer. Campaign finance is complex and carefully scrutinized. Failure to track and report campaign contributions and expenditures in the manner legally required can get you in a lot of trouble. It’s not just about the legal and financial consequences, it’s also about your reputation. If you don’t want your name in the paper for all the wrong reasons, hire a treasurer who specializes in political campaigns.
Hiring campaign staff is neither cheap nor easy. Hopefully you have a mentor who has run a campaign or a political party organization that can help you identify quality staffing options. Remember when hiring staff and campaign consultants, you’ve made a legal and financial commitment to compensate them for their services, and these folks are getting paid whether you win or lose. That’s why it’s important to choose wisely, and time your hires for when they are most needed.
For example, there’s no reason to hire a field director 18 months before an election when your field operation won’t be activated until a few months before Election Day. Worse still, you don’t want staffing costs to consume so much of your available funds that there’s nothing left for voter engagement. That said, you also don’t want to DIY a campaign because the right staff support will absolutely help you build your profile, your relationships, your skills, your messaging and your capacity to raise.
Trust and confidence are factors to consider when selecting a campaign or finance manager, or a field director. They need to be solidly in your corner, and you need to largely defer to them and value their expertise. If they give you cause to doubt their competence, you need to address those deficiencies and evaluate the pros and cons of making changes. The closer to Election Day, the higher emotions run. Since you are the only one who can do the fundraising and voter engagement, having a team that supports your success in those two areas is critical.
Campaign work is not like other “jobs.” Your options might be limited. How to help candidates win is not learned in the classroom. It’s learned from experience, in the trenches. Someone who may have volunteered on a statewide or federal campaign just a couple years earlier might now be marketing themselves as a campaign manager. They may in fact be great, but do your homework, talk to their references, try to get a read on their strengths and weaknesses.
Since you’re obligated to pay your bills whether you win or lose, building a campaign team that respects you as a candidate, believes in your vision, will help you maximize the impact of your campaign budget and works well with others is important.
Reference: What campaigns cost
Aim For The Goal
How much do you need to raise? Just like a marathon runner, you need to focus on what it will take to get across the finish line a winner. While many candidates jump into their first campaign without understanding anything about how much a winning campaign will demand in time, energy and financial resources, we recommend you do your homework.
“I raised too much money,” said no candidate, ever. Your fundraising goal should be based on real numbers including the anticipated cost of staff, supplies and media, mail and collateral for voter engagement. Build in a reserve. Look at what the previous winning candidate spent to get elected to the office you are running for. It doesn’t hurt to look at what candidates who lost raised as well. Campaign filings are public records. It’s easy to see what other political candidates raised and spent. While there are no guarantees when it comes to the outcome of an election, you never want to wake up the day after the election and second-guess whether you could have raised more, should have spent more or failed to do everything necessary to help you win.
Rely on those with experience. You may want to discuss your interest in running with local party leaders to get their input on recommendations for a reliable and respected campaign treasurer or campaign/ fundraising manager. Many campaign managers will recommend a treasurer they work with and trust. They may have people they employ to support call time and fundraising events with a candidate. In some cases it’s more efficient to hire a firm that can serve both as a campaign manager and fundraising team.
Your campaign manager or finance director will take the lead in building your budget. They should have a good working knowledge of what things will cost. A local campaign can often do more with less, especially in a smaller city or district, but “penny-wise and pound foolish” decisions can wind up costing you more when you focus more on cost than quality.
To run for a state or federal office,, you will need a campaign manager, a finance team that includes a treasurer and one or more fundraising professionals, a communications director and a messaging team that includes a mail consultant to create and coordinate distribution of mailers and collaterals and social media support. A lot of candidates think a professional fundraiser will make the calls for you. That’s not their job. They can, of course, help you identify prospects and help you target opportunities for institutional support, but mostly, they are your support system, your accountability manager and your collection agency to help you build your call lists, be disciplined about call time and chase down the money if someone has pledged support.
There is no “one size fits all” in campaign finance. These days you can get a lot of information online. When running for local office, candidates can pull papers through the City Clerk or County Registrar of Voters. If you’re running for statewide office, you will file with your Secretary of State and if you are running for federal office you will file with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). Filings are public. Financial information is generally posted online. Your life is an open book.
Start With The “Low Hanging Fruit”
Political campaigns are basically relationship-building on steroids. As with all outreach and engagement efforts, start with friends and family first. Before launching a campaign, some candidates form an exploratory committee. This is a way to gauge support among prospective donors, endorsers and supporters before filing to run.
Your objective is to turn friends into funders. Doing this successfully requires you to first create lists of all your family, friends and close business associates. Before reaching out, create a pitch that can be personalized based on who you are speaking with. Just because people like you or are related to you doesn’t mean they will automatically donate. It’s your job to create a compelling story about why you are running, what you will do once elected into office and how your campaign can win.
One of the easy ways to increase the fundraising potential of a solicitation is to invite both members of a couple to donate. Just by letting your prospect know that “husbands and wives can both contribute,” you can double the amount contributed with one call. Adding “I can make this easy and take your credit card information right now” can turn a pledge into money in the bank. For these reasons and more, being prepared for how to most successfully solicit before you make the call can greatly impact your prospects for success.
As we’ve mentioned, your two main priorities as a candidate are raising money and earning votes. While you can only earn votes from those registered voters in your jurisdiction, you can raise money from anyone as long as they are a U.S. citizen over the age of 18. That means your out-of-state relatives, former college friends, the folks you work with or participate in religious or social events with, business associates around the country or anyone else you have a connection with is a potential donor.
Starting with the people who know you, like you and respect you will allow you to raise your initial campaign funds more rapidly. By generating a significant number of donations from your friends and family network, you can demonstrate your capacity to fundraise and your viability as a candidate to other prospective donors. People are more likely to give when they see that others have given. Since you will be publicly filing a record of your campaign contributions and expenditures quarterly, you will be building a story about the strength of your campaign through the success of your fundraising efforts. The more you raise, the more others are inclined to donate. The success of your fundraising will also influence endorsements which can lead to significant institutional support from political parties, advocacy groups, professional organizations and labor unions in both direct donations and independent expenditures.
While large donations are always great, every donation counts, and no fundraising opportunity ends with your first ask or even their first donation. Whatever amount a donor gives, once they’ve bet on a horse — metaphorically speaking — they’ll pay attention to the race. That’s good for you, and for our democracy.
Leveraging Your Networks
In political campaigns, who you know matters. Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about our personal and professional networks in the aggregate. That will change when you become a candidate.
To effectively leverage every opportunity to fundraise and secure votes, you need to understand who your universe of prospective donors and voters are, and how you can strategically engage both to run for office and win.
You might think of yourself as pretty popular and fairly well known, but you’ve never tested those relationships the way you will through a campaign. Asking someone for a favor is different than asking people to take a chance on you as a candidate. People who like you personally may be of a different political party. That can be a challenge to overcome even when you are running for a local, non-partisan office.
Our advice is to consider everyone you know as a donor prospect. Candidates can undermine their own success by making assumptions about who will and won’t support their campaign. No friendship or family relationship was ever lost because a candidate reached out with an appeal for support. On the other hand, elections are routinely lost because candidates did not raise the necessary funds to fully implement their campaign, reach voters with a compelling message and run an effective field operation to get out the vote.
As you start to create lists of prospects and map out your fundraising plan, always think not just of who you know, but also about the multiplier effect of getting your donors to reach out to their networks on your behalf. For example, if a donor who contributes $1000 can get 10 friends to donate $250 each, that’s another $2500 raised without you making a single call. If 10 of your most enthusiastic donors did the same thing, you’ve raised another $25,000. Obviously your appeal as a candidate will have an impact on how willing others are to extend their credibility on your behalf. When you ask for a donation or an endorsement, that’s what you are asking people to do. Your job is to never make a donor, and endorser or a voter regret their decision to support you.
Putting Skin in The Game
No candidate should expect other people to invest in their campaign if they are unwilling to do the same. The amount you put in is up to you. When you loan money to your campaign you can be paid back, if you raise sufficient funds to do so. It’s never wise to pay yourself back before the end of the campaign, and it’s advisable to ensure that all your debts to staff and vendors are paid first.
Since there are filing deadlines when campaigns publicly raise what they have raised and their cash on hand, some candidates who have the means may put a considerable amount of their own money into their campaign to make themselves look like they are in the strongest position to win. Candidates may be willing to spend that money which is the only way it actually contributes to the success of their campaign. Others may seek to reserve it and are not willing to risk that it will be paid back. That kind of mindset can often undermine the quality of the fundraising ask because you are focused on the negative consequence of losing your money rather than the positive interest of winning the election. The bottom line is that if you do not see yourself as a good investment, it’s hard to make a case that other people should.
A strong campaign begins with a compelling narrative. Typically, when telling people who we are and why they should care, we think in terms of a resume. I grew up here, I went to school there, I earned these degrees, I’m working for this company, etc.
In political campaigns it’s all about what your life has provided by way of experience and perspective that will make you effective in whatever office you are seeking. Building your narrative will require you to inventory your life through a social and political lens. You also need to sharpen your understanding about the office you are running for, the communities you are representing, the demographics of your city, state and district. It’s important to understand the issues voters are concerned about and your track record for getting things done.
If you are running against an incumbent, it’s good to identify the ways in which their performance inspired you to run and to clearly articulate what you will focus on that they have not prioritized. This is how you contrast yourself, and since there’s a good chance voters don’t know much about the people currently representing them, it will be your responsibility to artfully educate them.
To win, people have to like you more than they hate your opponent. It’s your job to earn the interest, respect and support of donors and voters. Developing a compelling pitch and messaging that speaks to the interests and priorities of the electorate is how candidates win. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about what you will do to positively impact the lives of the voters who hold your fate in their hands.