Many candidates don't plan to run for office. In some cases, they get fired up about something that's happened in their community right before an election and decide to throw their hat in the ring. In other scenarios, they might be recruited (sometimes reluctantly) to step up and run for office by other city leaders. In those cases, there isn't much time to prepare. These efforts can often be successful, but preparing your campaign for office just months before the election is definitely the path of most resistance.
So what if you thought you might run for office one day, but weren't particularly in a hurry to do so? Or you knew that the seat you want to run for won't be open for a few years.
This article is written from that perspective – it's a guide for those who have time to prepare and are willing to put in the work to do so. I initially conceived of this as a "five-year plan," but it can probably be executed over the course of a couple of years or could take longer than five.
There are probably steps you can take that I've forgotten to include – and some of these steps may not be entirely necessary. But I hope this serves as a helpful outline for those who want to start laying the groundwork to run for local office someday.
Basic pre-requisites to run for office
Before deciding to run for a local office, there are a couple of qualities that I believe need to be in place to put you in a much better position to win.
First, I think you need to have lived in the jurisdiction where you plan to run for a decent amount of time before taking the overt steps to run for office. There are instances where people have moved to a new city and were elected to office shortly after (such as within just a couple of years), but such occurrences are rare and create numerous challenges.
Living in the jurisdiction you plan to run in for at least several years offers several benefits. Even if you have no plans to run for office at the time, you'll still get a good pulse on the issues the city is facing, how the community feels about those issues, and the most influential people in the community when it comes to addressing these matters.
Years later, when you talk to voters, you'll have a stronger foundation of knowledge about what the city has been dealing with. Those specific issues may not be as relevant anymore, but they may still linger beneath the surface.
For example, constructing a large housing development might make residents less supportive of new developments in the future as they continue to process the impacts of the initial development. Even something seemingly minor, like the first large big-box store moving into a city, can profoundly impact the way residents view their community.
As alluded to, you'll also gain a better understanding of which residents tend to assume formal or informal leadership roles and those who play a significant role in civic affairs. You'll need to be observant to notice this, but understanding the influencer landscape will provide you with an initial set of people to connect with should you decide to run for office one day.
The most effective way to gather all this knowledge is to attend City Council meetings. You'll gain a direct perspective on each issue that comes before the council and see who else shows up to speak up on issues – and which of those people the Council actually listens to.
If you're busy and don't have the time to carve out a few hours every couple of weeks to watch a City Council operate, at least take the time to read through the Council's agenda and browse through supporting documentation for more important issues to gain more background.
Building a list of 100 lawn sign locations
Suppose you've made the conscious decision that you might want to run for local office. Even if you aren't 100% sure, it's better to prepare and not pull the trigger than to avoid preparation, only to find yourself regretting the fact you didn't better position yourself.
As you embark on this five-year journey, I would set a goal to ensure you have at least 100 addresses – ideally residences – that would be willing to display one of your lawn signs on the day you announce your campaign (or at least the day the lawn signs are delivered to your garage).
If you're a regular reader of this blog, then you likely know my position on lawn signs: I don't think they are a great voter communication tool, but I do think they are a good organizing tool. In this context, we're using them as an organizing tool. I care less about the lawn sign itself and more about the gesture it displays: a willingness by a voter to promote your candidacy to their neighbors and friends.
It's also a bit depressing to have 250 lawn signs gathering dust in your garage because you didn't have any supporters lined up. The emotional boost that posting 100 signs on Day 1 provides is critical to fuel the rest of the campaign, and can also have a psychological effect on potential opponents.
The danger in generating this list is that you might overstate their willingness to post a sign. It's not a perfect science. It also depends on who else is running in the hypothetical campaign of the future. If someone has to choose between two candidates they like, they probably won't commit to either.
You shouldn't expect to be 100% accurate with this list. That's why the number is 100 – it's higher than what's probably necessary, but even at a 75% success rate, that's still a decent number of signs to start with.
More importantly, by aiming for 100, it will force you to do a lot of the networking and voter interaction work you'll need to lay a foundation for a campaign down the road. That's the crucial part. In order to reach that list of 100, you'll have to have reasonably meaningful conversations with many more than 100 people. And depending on the size of the district you're running in, this portion of the citizenry could be significant.
Keep in mind, that list of 100 probably won't remember you as well after a few years. So "contact maintenance" is essential. Checking in with people occasionally helps – just don't be annoying about it. As you check in with people, it will strengthen the odds that they will indeed be happy to place a sign in their yard.
Before you add their name to the list, just ask yourself: "If I were to ask this person to place a sign in their yard, would they immediately say yes?" Keep in mind, a lot of times we want to mentally "round up" to "Yes" even if we might not be quite sure. Try to avoid doing that to ensure your list is as reliable as possible.
Building a $20,000 list
Another goal you should work towards is building a list of donors who, in total, would be willing to contribute at least $20,000 to your campaign during the early stages. The people on this list don't have to live in the city, of course. It will primarily consist of friends and family, but this is also the period when it makes the most sense to start strengthening your connections with political donors. In addition, it's likely that some of the names from your lawn sign list will also appear on your fundraising list.
($20,000 might be too large for some campaigns, or too small for others. But for most local races, it's a reasonable enough figure to ensure you come out of the gate strong as a candidate. If you think that number is higher or lower, you should still set an ambitious goal and work towards it.)
If you haven't yet read my previous article on organizing your initial fundraising list and projecting the amount of money you can raise, I encourage you to read it to get a sense of what might go into such a list.
You might be wondering how to build relationships with political donors – you may even wonder how to identify who the political donors are.
First, if you're active in local affairs, as described earlier in this article, you'll gain a general sense of the political influencers when it comes to money. To some extent, you'll get a feel for these people simply by being around them.
Beyond that, another helpful resource is campaign finance filings. In many jurisdictions – if not most – there is a requirement that campaign fundraising data be made available to the public for transparency and accountability purposes. Included in that data should be a list of donors.
I recommend going through the past few elections in your jurisdiction and examining these lists as diligently as possible. Many names will just be noise – meaning they are friends and family of the candidates, rather than donors who give because they want to influence city affairs. However, you will likely notice a handful of names that tend to give regularly and across multiple candidates.
These are the names you should write down – especially if the sums they donate are reasonably large – and focus on cultivating relationships with them.
Expand your political resume
Beyond simply "getting involved" as described above, I would also recommend trying to put a few tangible achievements or experiences on your resume that show a clear commitment to improving your community.
In some cases, people who want to run for office down the road get appointed to a city board or commission. This is sort of a training ground of sorts for City Councilmembers, as it gives citizens a chance to wrangle with city issues in an impactful way and provides a sense of how local government operates. In many instances, these boards don't have much actual power (yet can often be a magnet for the power-hungry), but still provide a good chance to learn.
They also show voters that you have some tangible experience relating to city issues and have been willing to sacrifice some time and energy on behalf of the city. You've already been willing to make an investment in the community, and you've built up some critical experience while doing so.
Beyond serving on a board or commission, this five-year period also provides you an opportunity to build some tangible political achievements. This could be as simple as working to secure a stop sign for your neighborhood to as ambitious as leading the ballot measure campaign to block a development project or pass a new bond for the local schools.
These latter activities can be significantly beneficial to laying the groundwork for a potential run for office. You effectively pick up campaign experience while working directly with the community and potential donors as well.
It also adds something nice to put on the mail when you do run for office: "Led the charge to ensure our schools had upgraded facilities!"
Additional tasks you can do to prepare to run for office
In addition to the broader topics discussed above, here are some other tactics you can utilize to prepare:
- It wouldn't hurt to invest in a contact management system to help you stay organized as you build up your various contact lists. NationBuilder, in particular, offers a helpful platform geared towards people running for office, and your account can be used to launch your website when the time comes.
- There are likely groups whose endorsements you will seek when you run for office. For example, police and firefighter associations, or the local Chamber of Commerce. It could be beneficial to keep an eye out for any events these organizations put on – they often host events like golf tournaments to support charities – and attend those. It will give you a chance to meet the leadership of those organizations in an informal setting. When the time comes to ask for an endorsement, you ideally won't be walking in cold. This can give you a leg up over potential competitors.
- It could be a good idea to support preferred candidates in the elections leading up to yours and serve as a volunteer on their campaigns. Not only will this help you further make inroads with the city's leadership, but the experience will also train you for your own campaign and give you a sense of what the community is concerned about and focused on. And if doing so can also help you build loyalty and secure an endorsement from a sitting Councilmember (presuming they win), that's a big victory in itself.
One crucial aspect to consider in all of this is the importance of striking a balance between being eager to run for office and not overtly displaying that eagerness in public.
Some people may find it off-putting if it becomes apparent that you are engaging in various activities solely as a springboard for a political run. If not done carefully, these endeavors might be perceived as self-serving.
The key is to ensure that your motivation for running for office is genuine – to make your community a better place. This same intention should guide your other activities in a more authentic manner. When your involvement feels more like a passion than just ticking boxes, you are likely to gain more from the experience. Voters can generally discern between those who are genuinely working to improve their community and those merely seeking a foothold on power.
Remember, having a plan to run for office doesn't make you overly ambitious; it makes you prepared. And there's nothing wrong with being prepared.