Running for Office: Expectations vs. Reality

At the start of every campaign, the candidate and the people close to them have expectations about what the campaign will be like, how much work it will involve, and how running will impact their personal lives.  Although some aspects of campaigning are what you would expect them to be, other elements may come as a surprise.

In this post, we draw upon the experiences of Victory Guide’s CEO, Julie Palakovich Carr, who is herself a three-time candidate and local elected official, as well as other candidates for office from across the country.

Workload

Running for office is hard and practically no one jumps into a race not expecting to work a lot.  But not all work is created equal.  The golden rule for candidates is that they should be spending their time talking to voters and raising money--everything else can and should be delegated to other people.  But that’s often easier said than done.  People on your campaign team may try to draw you into decisions and activities that are not the best use of your time, such as finessing the language on a blog post or posting frequently to social media.  Enable your staff and volunteers to make small decisions themselves and to only go to the candidate for bigger issues.

For many candidates for local or state office, an important activity will be knocking on lots of doors.  As a three-time candidate who has won all of her races, our CEO Julie has found it invaluable to create a weekly schedule through her Victory Guide dashboard for when to go canvassing.  In terms of expectations for door knocking, there will be a lot more rain and mosquitos than you anticipated and a lot less shade than you hoped for!

All of this outreach to voters can be draining for an introvert.  Initially, Julie dreaded knocking on doors.  She worried what people would think of her and was concerned that they would ask tough questions.  But she quickly realized that most people didn’t want to talk for long.  These are typically interactions of one minute or less.  When voters did want to engage, they were genuinely interested in having a conversation about a topic that mattered to them personally.  Julie found it incredibly rewarding to connect with other people on this level and to help them solve real problems.  After going knocking a few times, she started to enjoy it.  Three campaigns later and she is a little addicted to door knocking.

Many candidates expect their campaigns to get busier as Election Day draws nearer, so some might be surprised at how time-consuming the campaign can be intermittently throughout the campaign, not just in the final stretch.  Some of the biggest time crunches come when a campaign is creating a new piece of literature.  Drafting, revising, and reviewing the piece takes multiple iterations over the course of 5-10 days.  And that is in addition to continuing to knock on doors, raise money, attend debates, etc.  Similarly, getting a fundraising letter out the door or making arrangements for volunteers to work the polls on Election Day may also require more of your time than you anticipated.

Family Life

It’s important to be on the same page as your spouse and family about your expectations for each other during the campaign.  Be frank about how much you expect your spouse/partner to knock on doors or attend events.  Even if they don’t want to be involved publicly, they may be willing to take up more household responsibilities, such as childcare, cooking, and running errands.

One candidate, who is the mother of a young child, spoke to us about the strain on her family.  People were very encouraging of her running, but she later realized that none of them had young children.  As her campaign progressed, she realized that she was missing important milestones and experiences with her child because she was campaigning every day.  Although bringing your children along to knock doors may be an option, it’s not always possible.  For instance, if the weather is very hot or cold, kids shouldn't come along.  Other times you just may not want to be slowed down by having your little helper with you.  (No judgement--we've been there!)  Try making arrangements for a family member to come to visit for a weekend.  Julie’s son loved having his special visits with his grandmother when Julie went knocking.  Others have advised blocking off specific times of the week that are dedicated to family time.  It could be as simple as having breakfast together certain days of the week.  Julie also made a point of getting home in time to put her son to bed at least three nights a week; having time to read books and to snug was greatly valued by both of them.

Support from the Democratic Party

Many candidates we’ve heard from have been surprised at how little support they’ve received from their local/state Democratic party.  One candidate asked her local party about resources for candidates, such as checklists, calendars of events, etc, but the party hadn’t developed these resources.  Another candidate expected to be able to access a fundraising database or lists of people who could volunteer, but those weren’t available either.  Yet another candidate advised to not expect any financial assistance from the party.  “It’s all on you,” she said.

Other Lessons

Some candidates may be surprised at the extent that people outside of your campaign, such the Democratic Party, unions, and endorsing organizations, will judge your success based on the amount of money you raise.  Other factors like volunteer time and commitment, are not considered.  So if your campaign bank account balance is anemic, your campaign may be under judged as well.

Another expectation is that your friends and people who encouraged you to run will volunteer for your campaign and will give money.  They usually don’t unless you ask them (repeatedly).  Just keep following up with them until they do; someone isn’t a ‘no’ until they tell you ‘no.’

And to end on a lighter note: the lessons learned are not always so significant.  A candidate for state senate learned that she hates participating in parades. ;)

Where to Get a Voter File for Your Campaign

Getting a list of the registered voters in your district is one of the essential things that every political campaign needs to do.  Without a voter file, you can't target the right voters.

There are a variety of options of where to obtain a voter roll, including your city/county/state government or a commercial data vendor.

Regardless of where you get the data from, be sure to request the voting history for each registered voter for at least the last three comparable elections.  For instance, if you are running for city council in 2019 and elections for this office are held every two years, you would want the voter history data for 2017, 2015, and 2013.  Although these records don't tell you how a voter voted--the ballot is secret after all--this information is vital in determining which registered voters actually vote.  That's especially important since only roughly 40% of registered voters vote in mid-term elections (e.g. 2018) and the turnout is even lower for primaries, special elections, and odd-year municipal elections.  For instance, turnout of 20% or less is not usual for local elections.  

Board of Elections Voter Data

Many candidates who are running for local office may think of going to the government entity that manages voter registration and elections in their jurisdiction.  Whether it's the city clerk, Secretary of State, or county Board of Elections, these government agencies are usually required to make voter information available to political campaigns, usually for a small fee.

Pros:

The file is usually low cost; some agencies charge as little as $2, although $25-$100 is more typical.

It's usually fairly easy to get a copy of the voter file, so long as you are able to go in person during business hours to request and pick up the file.

This is usually the most up-to-date file option since these government entities maintain the official voter lists.  Most jurisdictions will update the voter list once a month to reflect new registrations and removal of voters who moved away or died, although the frequency of updates varies by jurisdiction.

Cons:

You may receive a physical CD with the data on it, so you'll need a CD-drive on your computer to read it.

The files may be in a format that is difficult to work with or analyze, such as a PDF.  Alternately, if an Excel file is provided, it may contain so much data that you can't work with it in Excel, as the software has a maximum limit on the number of rows of data.  Older versions of Excel have a maximum of 65,536 rows; if you see this exact number of rows in the file you should check to make sure that it is the full data set and that it was not truncated by Excel.

Some useful types of data may not be included, such as voter gender, date of birth, or voting history.  Additionally, some jurisdictions do not collect phone numbers as part of voter registration or may not release voter phone numbers to candidates.  Be sure to check the file before you leave the Board of Elections office to ensure that it contains all of the information you requested.  Frequently some requested field is left out.

This may be your best option if you don't have free or subsidized access to VAN (see the next section) and you need to get the file fast.

VAN (aka VoteBuilder)

VAN is a voter data service available only to Democratic candidates.  Access to the platform is controlled by your state's Democratic Party.

Pros:

Voter information is standardized and contains all of the fields of information that a campaign may need, including voter phone numbers.  Plus the data is automatically updated periodically.

Some state parties allow candidates to access proprietary data, such as predictive modeling scores about voters' likelihood of voting for Democrats.  Not all states, however, allow this information to be shared with candidates.

The VoteBuilder platform provides tools to search and filter the voter list, so it's possible to create a highly customized list of voters to target.

Cons:

Because each state party controls access to VAN, they can decide which candidates get access.  So if you are running for a non-partisan office, you may not be able to get access.  Moreover, there have been cases reported in the media of Democratic candidates being denied access to VAN by their state party.

The price for VAN access varies dramatically from state to state.  In some states, access to VAN is highly subsidized by the state party, but in other states, it can cost thousands of dollars--far exceeding the budget for small campaigns.

Lastly, VoteBuilder is a powerful platform.  Because it can do so much, there is a learning curve.  Many users report needing significant training before they can use it on their own.

This may be your best option for voter data if you have free or subsidized access to VAN through your state Democratic party.  (Note: you don't have to use VoteBuilder to manage your canvassing and phone banking operations.  You can export the voter data into another platform like Victory Guide to run your campaign.)

NationBuilder

NationBuilder offers a free option for any candidate, elected official, or political advocacy organization to get a voter file.

Pros:

It's free and convenient!  You can request your file online by filling out a short form and receive a digital copy of the voter file in .csv format.

Cons:

It takes about a week to receive your file.

You can only get one voter file per primary and general election cycle.  You cannot receive any subsequent voter updates, such as newly registered voters.

In a handful of cases, we've seen voter files that were missing the most recent election cycle.  In most cases, however, the files are reasonably up to date.

This may be your best option if NationBuilder can provide you with an up-to-date voter file and you don't mind waiting a week.

Commercial Vendor

Several commercial data vendors offer voter data for a modest fee.  TargetSmart, L2, and Catalist are a few examples of these firms.

Pros:

The data is standardized, complete, and relatively up to date.

These vendors often have more up to date phone numbers for voters, including cell phone numbers.  It's also possible to purchase only phone numbers and/or email addresses to supplement the voter file that you obtained from another source.

Cons:

Although vendors only charge a few cents per voter record, these costs can add up quickly, even for a small campaign.

Getting access to some of these commercial vendors can be difficult for individual candidates.  (Victory Guide has standing contracts in place with several vendors and can procure data on your behalf, thereby cutting out any potential frustrations for you.)

This may be your best option if you want the most accurate phone numbers for voters and don't mind paying extra to get them.

Next Steps with Your Voter Data

Once you have a voter file, you need a way for your campaign to identify and reach your target voters.  Victory Guide is a one-stop-shop for Democratic, progressive, and left-of-center candidates to run winning campaigns for local, county, or state legislative office.

The Victory Guide mobile app to make voter outreach easy through door knocking and phone banking.  The app shows exactly what doors to knock and which voters to talk to, and allows you to take notes on each conversation.

Notably, Victory Guide works with all of the above data sources.  As a new customer with Victory Guide, we take care of importing your voter file into our system and creating a target universe of voters who meet your specifications, such as a certain party affiliations or voting frequency.  We then map all of that data into our canvassing app so that you can easily knock on the doors of your target voters.  You can monitor your voter outreach progress from your campaign's dashboard.

Schedule your personal demo of Victory Guide.

Door Knocking Made Easy with Smart Walksheets

We're delighted to announce a major new feature in Victory Guide: the ability for a canvasser to pick their own walksheet in the area of their choice.  It's like being able to cut turf on the fly from within the Victory Guide app.

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A user simply pans to the part of the district that they want to knock in and taps the smart walksheet button.  The system will recommend clusters of doors in that area that are actually walkable--no crossing busy roads or impassable barriers like waterways.  If the user doesn't like the first walksheet that was recommended, they can preview other walksheets in that area.

Each smart walksheet is customized to the canvassing schedule of the user.  If a user is scheduled to knock for 1 hour that day they will see a smaller walksheet than someone who is scheduled to knock for more time.

As always, doors that have already been knocked by the campaign won't be included in a walksheet nor will doors that another canvasser selected for the day.

Want to see smart walksheets in action?  Contact us for a demo.

Interview with Our CEO

Victory Guide CEO Julie Palakovich Carr was recently interviewed by IdeaMensch as part of a feature on social entrepreneurs who are working to improve the world through their work.

They define social entrepreneurs "people who establish an enterprise with the aim of solving social problems or effecting social change."

Victory Guide definitely falls into that category. Our team has a goal of making it easy for any progressive candidate to run for elected office and to win. We created this software in order to help other progressives with the drive, passion, and motivation to serve their community as an elected official.

Read the interview.

Victory Guide Wins CampaignTech Award

Campaigns & Elections has recognized 12 companies with 2018 CampaignTech Awards. Victory Guide won for "best down ballot technology solution."

The winners were recognized at an awards ceremony in Washington, DC on April 26 and represent "truly exceptional" political campaign technology, according to Campaigns & Elections, the leading trade publication for political campaigns.

Among the winners were two other companies that were part of the Higher Ground Labs startup accelerator with Victory Guide. Congratulations to MobilizeAmerica and Tuesday Company on their wins!

How to Hire Campaign Staff 101

How to Hire Campaign Staff 101

Your campaign is ready to make the leap and to hire paid campaign staff.  Whether you are making your first hire or staffing up your campaign, here are some resources to help you.

Assess Your Campaign’s Needs

The first step is deciding what help your campaign currently needs or will need down the road.  Ideally, you should be looking to fill a core campaign need(s) with the person you hire.  What are the duties that you as a candidate are struggling with?  Is it formulating campaign strategy?  Is it staying on track for fundraising?  Whatever it is that you need help with, make a list to include in the job description.

Check out this example of a job description for a campaign manager.

Be aware that prior campaign experience is helpful, but not always necessary.  Finding someone who is enthusiastic, self-motivated, and eager to take on new tasks is just as important, if not more so.

Knock, Knock: Why Canvassing is the Best Way to Reach Voters

As a candidate for elected office, it can be overwhelming to try to figure out how to best reach voters.  Should you spend your time knocking on doors or calling voters?  Is attending community events worthwhile?  Maybe it’s better to focus on fundraising and to spend the money on direct mail?

You may also be getting conflicting advice from your campaign advisors, from other people who have run for office, and from vendors.  Each person has their “war story” of how they won an election using some particular tactic.

But how do you know what strategy really works?

How to Knock 10,000+ Doors Without Breaking a Sweat

If you are running for state legislature, county or city council, or school board, you will need to personally talk to a lot of voters. These races for lower levels of government are not big, impersonal machines like presidential or congressional campaigns are. Down ballot races are won and lost by the outreach their candidates personally do.

The science is clear that the best way to persuade voters is to talk to them in person, especially by knocking on voters’ doors.

I know what you’re thinking: knocking on doors takes so much time. And that’s true. But there’s an easy way and a hard way to do door knocking.

Upcoming Webinars

We're holding two webinars in March.  Join us for these free events.

Webinar: Jump Start Your Political Campaign

MARCH 6, 2018

8-9 PM (EASTERN)

If you are running for office this year or considering it for a future election cycle, this webinar is for you. Learn how to get your political campaign off on the right start and find out the five biggest mistakes candidates make.

https://www.victoryguide.us/webinar-jump-start-your-political-campaign

Webinar: Best Practices in Voter Outreach

MARCH 14, 2018

4-5 PM (EASTERN)

Learn the best ways to persuade voters and to get them out to the polls. This webinar will cover the efficacy of various methods of outreach by campaigns and will provide guidance on how to target voters.

https://www.victoryguide.us/webinar-best-practices-in-voter-outreach

Free Training for Democratic Political Candidates

Whether it’s your first time running for office or you are an experienced candidate, it can be helpful to brush up your skills on how to run an effective campaign. Luckily, there are plenty of options available for progressive and left-leaning candidates, many of which are free.

For All Democrats

Wellstone has been the major player in this space for years. Camp Wellstone teaches practical skills to candidates and campaign workers. (Note: this program charges a fee to participate.)

The National Democratic Training Committee offers free online training for any Democrat running for any office in the U.S. They cover everything from calculating your win number to writing a fundraising plan to organizing get out the voter operations.

Understanding Campaign Finance Laws

Campaigns need to thoroughly know and understand the laws regarding campaign finance. Nothing can get a campaign into trouble like running afoul of campaign finance laws. The candidate, campaign treasurer, campaign manager, and anyone else who is helping with raising money or involved with spending money needs to know these rules.

Campaign finance laws differ in every jurisdiction. Even two candidates in the same state may have different sets of rules. For instance, a candidate for city council may adhere to the rules created by the city government, whereas a candidate for state legislature follows state laws.

Before we go any further, a general word of caution: consult your local board of elections for the applicable laws in your race.

Find a treasurer

Most campaigns are required to have a treasurer. This is the person who is officially responsible for the campaign’s money and who prepares and files the required campaign finance reports to disclose donors and spending. Your treasurer doesn’t necessarily need to be a bookkeeper or account, but the ideal pick will be someone who is detail oriented and very organized. They are going to need to track every dollar your campaign receives and every cent that the campaign spends.

Technology for Political Campaigns and Movements

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The 2018 election cycle presents new opportunities to engage voters through online and digital means. Whether you're trying to help inform voters about candidates or ballot measures, mobilize political volunteers, or make your canvassing operations even more efficient, new technologies can help your campaign or grassroots organization achieve its political goals.

We're hosting a free webinar on February 22 to discuss the changing political tech landscape. Learn about the cutting edge technologies that are available to help progressives during 2018 elections and beyond.

PANELISTS:

  • Shola Farber is Chief Operating Officer for Tuesday Company, which is bridging the gap between digital and field organizing. She previously worked with the Obama Administration’s National Economic Council, POLITICO, and was a Regional Director for the Clinton Campaign in Michigan.

  • Alfred Johnson is the co-founder and CEO of MobilizeAmerica, a platform that allows progressive organizations, volunteers, and Democratic campaigns to connect and win. Alfred previously worked on President Obama's '08 campaign, in the Treasury Department, the White House, and in technology and finance.

  • Alex Niemczewski is CEO and co-founder of BallotReady, an award-winning voter guide to every race and referendum on the ballot. She was recognized in Crain’s Chicago Business “20 in their 20’s” list, Techweek100, and as a Bluhm/Helfand Social Innovation Fellow.

  • Julie Palakovich Carr is CEO and co-founder of Victory Guide, a digital campaign manager for down ballot candidates. Julie is the youngest woman ever elected to the Rockville City Council in Maryland and is currently serving her second term. She is also a candidate for the Maryland State House.

Register for this free event: https://www.victoryguide.us/webinar-technology-for-political-movements.

15 Questions All New Candidates Should Ask

You’ve decided to run for office. Congratulations! But now what do you?

One of the first steps you should take is to research the rules, regulations, and laws that govern elections in your jurisdiction. The best place to start is with the Board of Elections or City Clerk, County Clerk, or State (depending on what level of government you are running for). Take a look at their website or give them a call. They likely have a resource packet for candidates.

Some questions you should ask:

  • When is the filing deadline?
  • What paperwork do I need to complete to officially file as a candidate?

Basics of Running a Good Campaign

There’s both an art and a science to running a good political campaign. Although many aspects of your campaign will depend upon your particular race and your district, there are many core concepts that apply to all campaigns. These recommendations are based on industry best practices, many of which are backed by evidence-based research.

Rule #1: Use a candidate’s time effectively

A candidate should spend their time talking to voters or raising money. Anything and everything else can and should be delegated to other people. If the campaign can’t afford to hire staff, find volunteers to take on some tasks.

Rule #2: Target the right voters

The most efficient way to get votes are:

Jump Start Your Political Campaign

Congratulations on making the decision to run for office! Politics is a difficult—but rewarding—endeavor. With these seven steps, you can get your campaign off to a successful start.

  1. Are you ready to run? Before you throw your hat into the ring, think hard about your decision to run. Talk to your spouse, family, friends, and key people in your community about whether or not to run. Be sure that you have their support and their commitment to help with your campaign. Make sure that you can take time off from work for your campaign; at the minimum you may need time off for debates and Election Day.

  2. Fill key roles. Determine who will play a central role in your campaign. You need to line up a campaign manager, a treasurer, and a "kitchen cabinet" of advisers. You’ll work most closely with your campaign manager to develop your campaign strategy and to execute this plan. (A word to the wise: Your spouse will most likely NOT make for a good campaign manager.) Your treasurer will handle the financial parts of your campaign. Although a background in accounting could be helpful, it’s not necessary. A good attention to detail will suffice. Your kitchen cabinet will be the backbone of your campaign and will provide you with advice, funds, and volunteer efforts.