Periodically I’m asked by candidates to offer advice on running a campaign. This isn’t because I have campaigned brilliantly. At least, that’s what I think. It’s because I’ve run campaigns for other people, and learned a few things along the way.
I meet with any candidate who asks to talk, whether I can vote for them or not. I meet with folks I’d never support, and folks I hope will be elected. This courtesy is valuable to me; other elected officials met with me when I first ran for Council.
Each candidate asks for something different. Sometimes the candidate just wants my support. Sometimes the advice asked for is very detailed campaign organizational information, sometimes it’s about the background to specific issues. But here’s the advice I want to give:
1. Constituents aren’t the same as voters. The people you meet while campaigning may vote in the election, and they may not. But if you are elected, you represent non-voters and those who voted for your opponent. Your task is to listen to constituents so you can represent them.
2. Today’s issues might not be issues you get to vote upon. Look at the issues as a way to demonstrate your values, not as a predictor of your specific behavior. You don’t have to talk about your global vision, but you have to know what it is.
3. When you can, moderate your positions. Don’t run against your opponent (this forces you to polarize your positions). Run for the office. Talk about what positive changes you might effect, with support from others. Research all of the issues the elective body has discussed in the past two years, and talk about how you would have voted the same way as the majority — and why. You gain fewer points by appearing to reject everything that’s already been done.
4. Remember that each encounter with a constituent is a short job interview. The voters have the opportunity to hire you. Few employers would hire someone who appears to be unable to control their temper, difficult, opposed to everything or hostile. While your (prospective) co-workers on the elective body might bring their own issues with them, don’t show your (prospective) bosses that you have issues, incompetencies, or inadequacies. Tell the truth as you know it, and don’t overpromise, either. You won’t (singlehandedly) make government better serve the public. You can only do that if you are able to work with others and get them to see the opportunities for positive change that you bring.
5. If you are elected, no one cares how many people voted in the election or what percentage voted for your opponent. You don’t have a mandate to go do something; you have an opportunity to do something. But because you are running to be one of many, you also have to be able to do something. Don’t burn bridges before you cross them; don’t make enemies of other elected officials. You don’t demonstrate independence of thought just by opposing; bring something positive to the table, and do it over and over again.
6. Tell the truth, but be able to discern when information is ready to share. At some point, information is just gossip; at another point, it’s stale. Figure out the difference and decide what needs to be in the public arena, and when. As a candidate, you will be urged to tell everything; you will also fear giving too much information. Appearing to hide information will make people suspect that you are ashamed of the truth. Telling everything will make it appear that you are not discrete. Balance is everything. Above all, do not exaggerate your importance, your background, or your relationships with others. Be yourself, and be consistently yourself.
7. Like it or not, we’re known by the company we keep. As a candidate, you may want to pile up a big list of endorsements. The folks who are political are also likely to be polarized. If you can, be careful to meet with and get the support of people on both sides of any issue. Most of us (your voters) aren’t going to be consistently on one side of all issues, but we’ll respect someone who’s thoughtful, open to new ideas, willing to hear us be passionate about something — and willing to NOT share our passions. If all of your supporters appear to be from a small group of family and friends, it indicates weakness, not strength.
8. Finally, develop a thick skin. None of your (prospective) colleagues is your friend, although some may become your allies. Your friends would never betray you by publicly supporting something you oppose. Your allies will share your support for an issue, and oppose your position on another issue. Respect that and use it for yourself; don’t ever let your feelings be hurt. And that goes for your time campaigning. Some of your opponent’s supporters may believe that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” So they’ll work to ensure you lose. They may say things about you that obscure or manipulate the truth about who you are and what you stand for. That’s life — you won’t be able to change their views, and you won’t benefit from letting those views change you.
Campaigns for State Senate, State Representative, County office, County Commissioner, and — yes — even Mayor and Council all use the same techniques (mail, advertising, door-to-door, volunteer events). But if I’m going to hire you to represent me, I want to make certain you understand — it’s a job, and how you conduct yourself matters to me.