It’s another Sunday, so for those who tune in, welcome to another discussion of the Nuts & Bolts of a Democratic campaign. If you’ve missed out, you can catch up any time: Just visit our group or follow the Nuts & Bolts Guide. Every week I try to tackle issues I’ve been asked about. With the help of other campaign workers and notes, we address how to improve and build better campaigns, or explain issues that impact our party.
When you are running for a local or state race, and a presidential, governor, U.S. Senate or U.S. House seat is on the ballot, you can feel as though your small race just can’t gain any attention. Everyone focuses on the big race and they forget everything else. No matter how much barking you do and how much you try to talk to voters, no one will pay enough attention to your race to move votes.
I hear there’s a game on today, so let’s get right to it.
Show love for your staff.
Have you ever wondered where campaign workers come from? Do they go through complex university programs in political science, then graduate programs on how to run a campaign? While some are political science grads, and a smaller number have gone on to graduate degrees, most gain their campaign experience by just doing it. Large campaigns can very quickly suction up the tried and true talent in an area, but there are always opportunities for a campaign to reach out to new campaign workers who want to get involved. This is where you, a small campaign, can make a huge difference in the way your party grows in your state and district.
This is a message I cannot reiterate enough. Some of the most talented Democratic campaigners in the party come from states that are not bright blue. This is where your small campaign matters. If you are in a red state that is unlikely to be heavily contested by a presidential or Senate campaign, support these young staffers. That doesn’t mean just helping them find some pay during the election cycle, it means building a network of Democrats who help them find opportunities in the off-cycle. The more we do to make it financially possible for people to stay active in learning about campaigns, the more we build institutional knowledge. This also helps grow our party network. Think about this as fractal growth. A campaign worker is part of a campaign for the local city council. That race, win or lose, provides the experience. It also helps connect them to a jobs network, which builds support among their friends and family, showing that we are a party that doesn’t just make paper promises, we actually deliver on them.
You can learn a lot in an election loss. We can also give our young campaign workers more time to learn; too many finding themselves quickly leaving their home state in the hope of opportunity. Build your local knowledge base. You don’t have to be the big campaign to get a lot of love from voters for doing the right things by the members of the community. Helping to build up your base among Democratic business owners—that matters.
Small is big.
National races are going to talk about big, overarching issues. Your local race doesn’t have to, and likely shouldn’t, spend a lot of time talking about these issues. Voters won’t believe they are issues you could resolve even if you do spend a lot of time talking about them. The Republican messaging machine at all levels is the same: Guns, God, Abortion. That’s it. Throw some money in there now and again, and you have the entire playbook. Democratic voters and unaffiliated voters, however, want to hear you talk about goals they believe you can actually accomplish. Are you running for city council? Adding a stoplight, adding a fire truck, offering more swimming classes, these are all issues that voters are going to believe you might actually get accomplished. If you don’t actually care about the issue, that will prevent voters from believing that you will effect change. Find something you, in your heart, care about. Find groups around you that support the issue, well ahead of any election, and work on it. You may have to work on it for more than one election cycle. Build up your name identification. When you run, everyone will know “Oh, that is Kerry Washington, she really cares about an extra ambulance.”
When you campaign for your election, your advocacy on that issue will be genuine because you believe in it. People around you have heard from you about your beliefs. They will be your greatest surrogates. Not just because they trust you on the issue, but because you will have something presidential and statewide races have a hard time building: real friendships that go beyond the election. These voters will talk to their friends not just about your politics, but how much they personally like you, and well, that can’t be underestimated.
Your money won’t spend the same.
National and statewide campaigns will run television campaigns, digital campaigns, and mail campaigns that can drown out most of your messaging in an even-number election year. Off-year elections have some benefits, but if you are on the ballot at the same time as a federal race, people will pay attention to the big national issues.
The trap is that many around you are going to tell you: Spend, spend, spend. Do not get me wrong, you will need to spend on your campaign. You’ll need to spend to get your message out there. But it isn’t what you spend, it is how you spend the money you have. When I see a race for statehouse or city council pay to get an advertisement on television that will only run at odd hours because that is all they can afford, I have to say that the campaign might as well have put that money in the center of a room and lit it on fire.
Don’t spend money just to spend money. You also don’t need to do exactly what everyone on a large national campaign is going to do in order to win. Many small races are going to be governed by just the ability to provide walk cards or palm cards to their door knockers and help fund a coordinated campaign.
The end goal of what you spend is to gain votes and raise your name identification. It is not about just doing what every huge campaign does in their race.
And now, I’ve got a game to watch.
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