Working in the business, we see a lot of great campaigns – and even more bad ones. Asking around to friends on both sides of the aisle, we’ve come up with some of the top mistakes political campaigns make … so you can avoid them on your campaign.
Spreading your media dollars too thin
This is a common mistake: Campaigns will send out one direct mail piece, take out a few newspaper ads, run a radio ad and spend some money on social media. They do this in the belief that the more outlets they try, the better their chances of reaching the correct audience. Wrong! There are two principles of advertising – reach (how many people see your ad) and frequency (how often they see it). A successful ad campaign has both. Advertisers price their offerings based on reach, and you have to spend enough to obtain frequency. If you get offered “a really good deal” – it’s because nobody is seeing your ad, or it’s on a platform like the Internet that requires more frequency than others.
One mail piece is not an advertising campaign! We strongly that recommend campaigns achieve coverage using one channel before adding in a second, supplemental channel. For smaller campaigns, you may only have bandwidth for one channel – and for small campaigns, that most likely will be direct mail.
Running on the issues
Of course issues play a part in campaigns. However, campaigns aren’t only about issues – you want to connect the candidate’s qualities and experience to the voters’ needs. Think of issues like ornaments on a Christmas tree. They make the tree more festive, but no matter how many ornaments you have, without the tree, you have nothing to hang them on. The candidate is the tree; the issues can only be put on the tree after you establish who the candidate is and why he or she is running – and connect the candidate to the voters.
So, on your campaign, don’t lead with your 10-point plan. Lead with a story that introduces the candidate to the voters in a relatable way.
Storytelling has been used by human beings for millennia to convey values. For some great reading on this, try “Don’t Think of an Elephant” by Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff or “The Political Brain” by Emory University psychologist Drew Westen.
Being unwilling to do (enough) call time
If you want to run for office, you have to raise money. The most efficient way to raise money is to call donors on the phone. If you’re not willing to do that, don’t run for office.
How much call time is enough? Simply track how much you’re raising an hour on average, and then align it with your budget. Make a weekly goal that fits what you need to raise on your campaign.
Worrying too much about attacks that don’t sway your voters anyhow
For example, if you’re a liberal Democrat running in Seattle, don’t worry too much if the Seattle Times faults you for wanting to raise taxes. Your voters don’t care! Another example: In all the polling I’ve ever seen, few voters care about residency issues, so don’t worry about yours.
Not having/following a written plan and budget
Believe it or not, we’ve walked into campaigns that have raised and spent $1 million without having a budget – or anything to show for the spend. Money management is key to winning elections. Don’t spend your budget on unnecessary stuff, like a band at your kickoff, knickknacks with your logo on them, T-shirts, balloons, etc. If direct voter contact is the top priority of your campaign – and it should be! – make sure that’s reflected in your budget.
Thinking that you can change the electorate
It’s possible to change the electorate – just ask Barack Obama or George W. Bush. Both of them successfully attracted new voters to turn out and vote, which was integral to their electoral successes.
However, they were running successful, well-funded campaigns that had strong messages, good communications and strong ground games. If you’re running an underfunded campaign for city council with no media and no volunteers, you’re going to have drastically different results.
Thinking your campaign for state house is going to reinvent how elections are won
We see this most often with candidates who struggle with fundraising, but it’s not limited to them. Deciding you’re going to win your election by putting all your money into billboards, yard signs or your latest campaign flavor of the month is crazy. Also, you’re not Barack Obama/Donald Trump/Howard Dean. Just because they raised a ton of money online doesn’t mean you don’t have to do your call time.
Focusing too much on yard signs
We’ve worked on campaigns from president to governor to Congress to state legislature where more time and energy has been wasted on one thing over all others – yard signs. The myth that yard signs win elections has been perpetuated throughout the grassroots wings of both parties.
Your campaigns need to have some yard signs, if only because your supporters will give your campaign and candidate too much grief if you don’t. And, contrary to popular belief, testing shows the signs do have a very small effect on boosting name ID.
There are three variables in any campaign: people, time and money. Of these, time is the most important, as you can’t make any more of it. It’s the only fixed variable in your campaign. The candidate must be focused on one of two things: raising money and talking to voters. Anything beyond those two activities MUST be outsourced to other people.
Not spending enough time laying the groundwork for your campaign
If you want to run for office, don’t get in on the last day of filing and announce your availability to the world. The best candidates lay their groundwork months and even years ahead of time by being involved in local organizations; getting to know political players; conducting research on themselves, their voting records and what’s available online; and having a well-established fundraising base. Many campaigns are won before they even start!