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 programs. Comparatively, people tend to think of the primaries as mainly a time for U.S. voters to decide who will be running for president.
While that’s technically true, the primaries are much more than that. And for you, as a first-time candidate, the primaries are an important part of the election process. Here’s just a few of the things you should ideally achieve in the primary election cycle:
- Distinguish yourself among your peers
- Refine your messaging
- Build real momentum for your campaign.
As a first-time candidate, you might not know what kind of strategies to use for a primary election. But worry not—we’ve got you covered! This post will explain some of the key primary election strategies you need in your arsenal, how these tactics differ from general election strategies, and how the primary election helps you build momentum for the general election.
Table of Contents
Let’s start with the basics.
What is a primary election?
A primary election involves a pool of candidates competing to determine who will run in the general election. Such elections usually occur along party lines, but some states have different types of primaries (which we’ll discuss more in a bit).
When is the primary election?
When primary elections occur depends on the state. Usually, state-level primaries are held in conjunction with federal primaries, but the two aren’t always aligned. Primary elections are most commonly held 6 months before the corresponding general election, but this timing will vary based on the state.
Local primaries can be a bit more chaotic depending on the county or municipality.
To learn more about when primaries are held in your state, look for primary election schedules online. For example, the National Conference of State Legislatures has a 2022 State Primary Election schedule showing the primary dates and filing deadlines for each state.
You can also find election information through your state’s Secretary of State website, an election board website, if relevant, or other state government websites.
How many main types of primary elections are there?
Each state determines what kind of primaries it will hold and what the rules are for each primary. Some states will allow people to vote in primaries for multiple parties, while other states will require people to be affiliated with a specific party before voting in that party’s primary.
Below are the four main types of primary elections:
In open primaries, voters are not required to be affiliated with a party to vote. Voters may declare an affiliation with a party before voting or affiliate themselves with a party on the day of the vote. They may also switch their affiliation on the day of the vote if they were previously registered with a different party.
Through the open primary system, voters can vote in both the Democratic and the Republican primaries within their state.
A total of 21 states utilize this type of primary for at least some of their state and federal elections.
Only 15 states use the semi-closed primary. In these primaries, voters can vote only in the primaries for their affiliated party, but can usually declare their affiliation on the day of voting.
However, some states have rules that limit when a voter can switch their affiliations with a party. For example, in Idaho, voters who are unaffiliated with a party can register on the day of the primary. But voters who are already affiliated with a different party must disaffiliate from the other party by the 10th Friday before the primary election.
With closed primaries, voters must be affiliated with a party before the primary election. In many of the states that use this kind of primary election, the parties decide for themselves who will run in the primary.
Just 14 states participate in this kind of primary election, as does the District of Columbia.
Nonpartisan primary elections mean the candidate isn’t required (or sometimes allowed) to affiliate themselves with a political party. In such primaries, candidates usually appear on the ballot without any political affiliation listed alongside their names.
The two candidates with the clear majority of votes then go on to the general election. So depending on the primary election results, two candidates from the same party could face off in the general election.
California, Washington, Nebraska, and Alaska are the four states that hold nonpartisan primaries.
What’s the difference between open and closed primaries?
As the details above show, the main difference between open primary states and closed primary states are the rules associated with voting in the election. Specifically, can voters affiliate themselves with a party before the primary? Can voters choose their affiliation on the day of the election? What are the rules around switching affiliations leading up to primary election day? The answers to those questions underscore the differences between open and closed primaries.
As a candidate, you must know if your state will hold open primaries or closed primaries. Your strategies as a candidate will ultimately differ depending on the type of competition you’re facing. Will you be competing in a closed Democratic primary, where your message will need to stand out among many like-minded voters? Or should you tailor your message to reach a more nonpartisan crowd that spans Independent, Republican, and Democratic voters?
Other aspects of primary elections will also shape your strategies for winning. With that in mind, let’s dive into what other factors can impact an election and what strategies you can use to address those factors.
Is the primary election competitive?
You will sometimes be the only candidate from your party running for a particular seat. Other times, several other candidates from within your party could be vying for the same seat. For example, the 2021 primaries for mayor of New York City had 13 Democratic primary candidates and the 2020 presidential election saw 28 Democrats competing in the primary election. In other words, it can get pretty crowded out there.
If you’re running a primary race with a lot of competition, then the primary election day will be as important to your campaign as the general election day. Accordingly, your campaign will want to focus on a few key strategies:
- Raising as much money as early into the primaries as possible. Starting the race out with solid backing shows potential supporters that you have a strong campaign.
- Finding ways to shape your platform so that you stand out from the crowd. Running against people from within your party means that much of your messaging will be similar, so you have to show why you’re a better fit for the office than your peers.
- Investing resources (staffing, funds) into targeting voters through field, phonebanking, and doorknocking.
- Making strategic use of paid media (i.e., mailers, digital social media ads, television, radio, etc.) to expand name ID before your opponents can catch up, if funds allow.
- Seeking out endorsements from local leaders and organizations that can add credibility and fundraising potential to your campaign.
When you’re running with little to no competition in the primaries, your focus will shift away from votes within the party. Instead, you’ll focus your campaign efforts solely on building momentum leading into the general election. It’s also a great time to vet your staff for the general election, increase fundraising potential, and prepare your messaging.
Is the general election competitive?
Not all general elections are equally competitive, but the estimated competitiveness of the general election will also impact your campaign’s primary election strategies.
For example, when running against an incumbent, you’re running against a person who likely has the full backing of the party. Incumbents have already gathered the votes they needed to win, and their fundraising potential is secure. This reality raises the bar for how your campaign will need to perform to be competitive. Thus, you’ll want to spend part of your primary energy on building a robust voter outreach program to take into the general elections.
Running for an open seat? Then your strategy will focus less on keeping up with an incumbent and more on winning voters over in the general election. Voter registration records will help you determine how competitive the general election will be. And past election results and turnout data will shape your voter outreach programs and fundraising goals.
How to use your resources for primary vs. general elections
In general, primary elections require smaller budgets than general elections. You also gain a strategic advantage by keeping your budget as bare-bones as possible, even during competitive primaries.
One key way you’ll show potential supporters that you’re a good fit for office is through your campaign’s finances. The primaries are a prime time for you to establish a solid trend, both in fundraising and expense management.
Minimize your expenses by keeping your staffing costs low. Also be strategic in how you hire your staff. For instance, a non-competitive primary race means you’ll be okay with just a finance director or consultant, campaign manager, and treasurer on board. For a more competitive primary, however, you’ll also need a field organizer and some volunteers to help with voter outreach. Still, even those added expenses should be weighed carefully against their return. Sending three people into the field to do what two people could accomplish will chip away at your finances and siphon resources from potentially needed paid media programs near primary day or a competitive general election.
For local races, you can even save money by doing some of the work yourself. Roles in some state and local races can often be combined. A campaign manager could organize fundraising and voter outreach, for example. It’s also common for campaign managers to work part time during non-competitive primaries, especially for local and some state races.
Either way, wait to hire your full staff until the general election if possible. Only in the most competitive primaries should you consider hiring a full staff before you know that you’re advancing to the general election.
Another way to maximize how your resources work for you is with quarterly reports. You must show early on that you have high earnings and high cash on hand in these reports. So push to schedule fundraising events leading up to the report deadline. Delay acquiring expenses until after the report is in. Some debt is expected in a political campaign, so it could also be wise to schedule some of the campaign’s payments for after the quarterly report is due.
You can also time your campaign announcement right after a quarterly report is due so that you have a full quarter to fundraise before you have to fill out your earliest financial disclosures.
However you approach things, showing potential donors that you can raise money and spend it wisely will go a long way in generating future support and fundraising. Doing so may even deter potential competition from entering the race in the first place.
Using the primaries to build support/momentum for the general elections
Another way to use the primaries to appeal to potential supporters is by collecting endorsements. Endorsements are more impactful during the primaries because you don’t have the full support of the party (voters included).
Endorsements from within the party are the most impactful during this time since your primary goal is to attract the support of the voters, donors, and organizations affiliated with your party.
Seeking endorsements from individuals can help lend your campaign credibility and provide opportunities for more fundraising. An endorsement from a local leader, for instance, will help sway some undecided voters your way. Similarly, a local leader hosting a fundraiser helps get you introduced to a new group of people and opens up new connections for your fundraising network.
Courting endorsements from organizations (e.g., labor unions, PACs, non-profits, newspapers, etc.) that frequently endorse candidates can also come with added fundraising potential.
However, be mindful that endorsements from organizations take more time and energy to secure than asking individuals. Many organizations make you fill out questionnaires and go through interviews, attend forums, and so on. You must screen these organizations and invest your resources only into the organizations whose endorsements will bring your campaign the most benefits (and those you actually have a shot at securing). These benefits can come in the form of volunteers, financial support, increased networks with fundraising potential, and earned media, to name a few.
Ultimately, the attention you generate for your campaign during the primaries—whether from endorsements or clever financial reporting—will raise your campaign’s profile in the general election.
How these strategies help you in the general election
Entering the general election with endorsements and strong fundraising puts you on a path to success. A strong performance during the primaries not only shows people that you can run an effective campaign but also lets you exhibit the leadership qualities needed to be a public servant.
The bottom line: During the primary, you want to raise your campaign’s profile with the public, and the primary election strategies outlined in this post will help you do just that.