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. ;)