Those who have read the Art of War by Sun Tzu will remember that he spoke of winning wars before they are fought. Today I’m going to show you one of the ways to win an election before a political campaign is waged, and how you can do it even if you have never run for office before.
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I’ll start with this truth. Even times of turmoil, upheaval and shifting political winds, most of those elected win by comfortable or lopsided margins. Even in big wave election years like 1994, 2008, 2010 and 2018 when the party controlling Congress switched, fewer than 15% of the seats changed hands. Of the thousands of elections held every year, only a small fraction of the primary and general election contests are truly competitive. In fact, the outcome of most elections is a foregone conclusion before a single vote is cast. So how do candidates win an election before they’re waged?
They develop a strong network of stout supporters before their campaign begins, people in their jurisdiction who are influencers, opinion leaders, political party leaders, those in their jurisdiction with a large following who influence the way rank and file voters think and the way rank and file voters vote. These influencers and opinion leaders come from places where you should look for support if you hope to gain traction in your campaign.
The place to start is with people you already know. What I’ll call your network. It is easy for you to find them.
Start by looking at the people in the contact list on your cell phone. People you know to be respected and influential in your state or community. There are also other places you should look for the names of people you know. LinkedIn Connections, Facebook Friends, high school and college yearbooks, people you know from places you’ve worked or served with in civic and community organizations, your customers, suppliers or church membership list.
Your network is the first place you should look for support. It’s a source of volunteers, contributors, endorsements, plus people you know who may be able to connect you with important you don’t know.
Once you have inventoried the people you know, construct a list of people you need to know but don’t. These influencers will come from five very distinct communities. Political party leaders. Elected officials of your party. Leaders of important interest groups, civic and community leaders, and those who lead important ethnic groups.
I’ll go through each group and explain why they are important, starting with political party leaders.
If you are seeking the nomination of a political party, you should seek the support of those who lead it. You may not get it, especially if you are challenging an incumbent of the same party in the primary, but you should at least have a courtesy call the with the chairperson, those who have influence over the endorsement the party makes or which candidate the organization decides to support.
What do you get out of doing it? In some cases you may actually win the support of party leaders. Better to have it than not.
Even if the party organization decides to support your opponent, you may be able to establish strong relationships with some of the party leaders who regard you the better candidate – – people who may of help to you even if you don’t get the party endorsement.
If you ignore them, if you are a stranger to them, or proclaim at the outset that leaders of your party are the enemy, they will make you the enemy. Many candidates have learned the hard way that those who control the levers of power inside political parties have ways of making life very difficult for candidates who scorn or ignore them. In some states, party organizations have the power to prevent people they don’t like from getting on the ballot.
I’ll share one story that helps illustrate the point. It’s the story of Steve, who decided he wanted to challenge an entrenched incumbent for his party’s nomination in a race for County Executive.
The nomination was to be decided by 200 delegates at his party’s convention. When the chairperson of the party refused to meet with him, Steve embarked on a different strategy. Over a period of seven months, he met with, dined with, had coffee with more than 150 of the rank and file delegates who were eligible to vote at the party convention. In each meeting he made his case, articulated his agenda, and explained why he would be a better candidate than the incumbent.
His efforts paid off. A week before the convention it became apparent that when the votes were counted that the rank and file delegates were going to overrule the wishes of the party chairman, and that Steve was going to receive a majority of the delegates. Rather than face the humiliation of losing the convention vote of his own party, the incumbent announced that he was dropping out of the race and would not seek reelection.
Steve won the convention before the votes were counted because he quietly courted the influencers and opinion leaders who mattered. He became the nominee of his party, and was easily elected County Executive in the November election.
The second community of influencers you should speak with are elected officials of your party.
They too are worthy of a courtesy call to win an election, and the really important ones a personal visit. I recently spoke with a young candidate in the mid-west and helped him make his list. On it were members of the city council, the Mayor, the Sheriff, the state representative, state senator and a Member of Congress. On his very first visit, one of the office holders put him in touch with other influential people in his own network, and offered to help mentor the candidate during his campaign.
There are other reasons to visit with the elected officials of your party. Some may want to endorse you. Many will have great suggestions on putting together your campaign, because they’ve done it before. If they are willing to open up, you learn important information about who you can trust and who you can’t, who has power and who doesn’t, and minefields to avoid. And even if they are not willing to endorse you, you may find they are willing to help you behind the scenes.
There is another truth I should mention about why this is important. Lack of familiarity breeds suspicion. If none of the elected officials of your party know you, have never met you, never heard of you, they are not going to take you or your campaign seriously. If you have been a stranger to them, they will be a stranger to you.
The third community of influencers you should seek to court of the leaders of important interest Groups.
What are they? They are organized groups that get involved in campaigns by promoting certain candidates to their members, making campaign contributions, and in some cases making independent expenditures on behalf of their chosen candidates.
Some are extraordinarily powerful. Teachers’ unions, Civil service employees, health care workers’ unions, trial lawyers, right-to-life and pro-choice groups, the NRA, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, anti-tax groups, Tax fairness organizations identity groups, in some states the farm bureau and the chamber of commerce.
This is not an exhaustive list. Nor can I give you one for your community. Nor can I tell you which ones you court without knowing more about your campaign. The larger point is that interest groups are a very important source of support to win an election, and whose support is often very important in both primary and general elections.
As you talk to party leaders and elected officials, they’ll be able to tell you which ones have real influence in your jurisdiction, and which ones you should be courting.
At the start, I mention there are five communities of influence that you should court before your campaign begins. So far I’ve talked about party leaders, elected officials and interest groups. There are two others important to you. Civic and community leaders, and those who lead important ethnic groups.
Who are Civic and Community Leaders?
In your community it could be prominent ministers, the head of United Way or the Salvation Army, the President of the Chamber of Commerce, people who lead the Rotary or Kiwanis Club, or those who lead important community service organizations, civic institutions, or ones that promote popular causes like Mothers against drunk driving. Often these organizations are run or headed by pillars of a community, people who have enormous influence, and people who know a lot of other people you don’t.
You’ll find your campaign easier to wage, and your efforts to network with important people easier if you take the time to meet important civic and community leaders in your jurisdiction. And even if they can’t endorse you, they will know people who might be able to help you . Furthermore, they are likely to know those in your community who are people of means. You’ll find it hard to raise money and win an election if you don’t know anyone who has it.
How do you find these organizations and their leaders?
Party officials and office holders will be able to tell you.
There is another way as well. Go to Google. In the search bar type Civic and Community organizations in your community. You’ll be surprised what shows up, and chances are you’ll easily spot those which are prominent in your jurisdiction.
I’ll illustrate why this is important with a story about Mike. Mike woke up one day and decided he wanted to be Mayor of a city in southern Illinois. Because he was running against the incumbent Mayor, he knew that he would not get much support from party leaders. But what he did have that the Mayor didn’t was a strong relationship with many of the city’s civic and community leaders, thanks to his years of service in many charitable causes. He spent hours on the phone and in meetings seeking the support of these influential people. When he announced his candidacy, more than 400 attended his announcement speech. Nearly all of them volunteered in his campaign, shared information about him to their network, and connected Mike to other influential people they knew.
Mike used his support from this influential group of civic and community leaders to get his campaign off the ground. They proved a far more potent force than the political party establishment. On election day, he defeated the incumbent Mayor in a landslide.
The fifth and final group of influencers I shall mention are those who lead ethnic groups.
They are especially important in urban areas. America is a tribal nation. We tend to live in neighborhoods where others look like us, think like us, talk like us. And we have a habit of voting for candidates that fit that description. That is especially true in urban areas. Each ethnic group has its set of support organizations, leaders who advocate on their behalf, celebrate their history, or help members of their tribe with special needs, whether they be housing, health care, jobs, or economic support. It is the support of these ethnic group leaders that you need to court if they have a sizable population in your jurisdiction to win an election. Often you’ll find their tribal bonds are stronger than their bonds to a political party.
These are the five distinct community of leaders that can make or break your campaign.
Must you have support from all of them? No. In fact I’ve helped many candidates overcome recalcitrant party organizations, corrupt party leaders, or the opposition of special interest groups. I can also say it is imperative that you look for early support from at least one of the groups I have mentioned. They are your source of early funding for your campaign, the infrastructure that you need to get your campaign off the ground, and an important means of influencing the behavior of rank and file voters, and the decision they make in the voting booth.
The more time you devote to this task in the early stages of the campaign, the more likely it is that you’ll win an election and be smiling on election night.
If you plan to run for office someday, and are looking for some help to guide you through this process, or prepare for a campaign, I’d be happy to speak with you.
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Political consultant Jay Townsend works with smart, passionate candidates who want to run for office, win elections and make a difference. He has successfully helped candidates learn how to run for the U.S. Senate, how to run for Congress, how to run for Mayor and develop a winning campaign marketing strategy.
How to win an election:
Running for office and knowing how to win an election is a challenge, especially for first time political candidates just learning how to run for office. Discerning the fine points of how to campaign, raise political contributions, and execute a political campaign strategy often requires the help of someone who has served as a political strategist or who has experience as a political consultant.