Set your priorities
Defining the candidate's priorities begins by acknowledging mistakes candidates frequently make. It is easy for a candidate to fall into the lull of attending Democratic events, KDP trainings, or burning their time away by having conversations with like-minded politicos. While those events and conversations are important, they will not win you an election in Kentucky.
As a candidate, your time should not be spent attending every Democratic event arranged by your local county party. Similarly, you are not running for president or the U.S. Senate, therefore your time should not be spent making "appearances" or hosting "meet and greets." Most districts in Kentucky do not have a pre-existing base of Democratic voters that our candidates can rely on. As such, your priority as a candidate (outside of canvassing alongside your CM and volunteers) is anything that immerses you in the grassroots of your community and makes you seen and heard within it. To be seen, go where people are and work to become synonymous with your community. Attend apolitical functions, community events and gatherings, and volunteer opportunities.
Probably the most common mistake candidates make is failing to articulate what their campaign is about. Your priority must be learning and understanding the issues of your community and being able to translate that information into a compelling platform.
Rather than being merely another pro-education, pro-jobs, pro-worker candidate, be the person who understands what your community needs and speaks to those issues. Be the candidate with fresh, original, attention-grabbing ideas. Give people a reason to vote for you. Give them ideas that tell them how voting for you could make a difference in their lives and that they will subconsciously associate with your candidacy every time they hear about them.
Budget permitting, your highest priority expenditures are the voter file and a campaign manager or lead organizer position. Elections are won by reaching real people, real voters – and recent elections overwhelmingly show that the majority of districts in Kentucky do not have a pre-existing base of voters that candidates can rely on. Candidates must reach new, disengaged, and disillusioned voters. Elections are not won with yard signs, bumper stickers, or shirts or pens or buttons. Those items are secondary luxuries.
Someone with your campaign will need to be the designated organizer with campaign experience (or a willingness and propensity to learn) to whom you can delegate the responsibilities of key tasks such as managing volunteers, identifying canvassing locations, and launching those canvasses.
Beyond delegating those tasks to a campaign manager, you should look to recruit a volunteer with technological savvy and pre-existing knowledge of social media. When you aren't campaigning in-person, you can reach voters virtually through engaging social media posts and digital canvassing. A volunteer versed in this area contributes ideally by developing creative content ideas and producing them or, for a less tech-savvy candidate, educating you on how to use social media effectively on your own time.
Build a campaign that motivates
A key task is to build a campaign that motivates voters to vote for you. How can you do that? Here are some key points for you and your campaign team to remember as you run the campaign.
- Be genuine. No cookie cutter candidates, campaigns, mailers, or messages.
- Show how your campaign is important to voters.
- Share a clear vision/mission statement.
- Create a sensible, concrete plan.
- Ask people for help and advice, “What do you think of what I’ve proposed?”. Always leave space for questions. Consider and include their ideas.
- Frame things in a positive light. Avoid saying anything negative or critical without also providing an alternative vision for how to be successful.
- Help people get to know you and each other with a quick narrative and good intro questions.
- Share your own excitement about how we are changing history together.
Line up volunteers
Another key task for any campaign is lining up volunteers. Paid staff is great, but having volunteers in addition does three things: it extends your campaign’s reach, it builds excitement, and it attracts voters to you as the volunteers share about their experiences with their friends and neighbors. (Assuming, of course, that their experience is a positive one!)
As you work to build your volunteer base, be sure to reach out to the established political volunteers in your district, but also think outside the box. Pre-teens and pets are charming. High school students have lots of energy. Senior citizens have the value of life experience and connections.
Some people say that endorsements don’t have the power they once had. Even so, having a strong list of endorsements can persuade some voters to consider you as someone they could vote for. So, make a plan to seek endorsements that will matter in your district.
Obviously, you should begin with the groups and organizations that normally do political endorsements in your district: other candidates, the county or state party, labor organizations, and elected officials. But again, think outside the box. Who are the respected individuals in your district or area? Whose word would make a difference?
And by the way, endorsements should be requested in writing. And if received, you as the candidate should write a thank you note for the endorsement. A hand-written personal note will be remembered.
Campaigns cost money, and unless you are self-funding you will need to raise funds. Nobody will do this for you. You must think about fundraising 90% of the time when you start off. Everything should have a fundraising component in the beginning. Going to picnics and dinners and giving speeches is easy, and you can do that closer to the election. Sitting in a room and calling people for money, or going to meet people you don't know that well and asking them for money is hard. Candidates usually hate this part of the campaign, but winning candidates realize how critical it is.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you raise money:
- Build a list starting from the contacts in your phone, and supplement it with names of colleagues, college classmates, relatives, friends, and church parishioners. Start by contacting them and asking them to donate to your campaign.
- Expand your list by thinking outside the box. You’ve got college classmates – how about professors you had, or college organizations or clubs you belonged to? Think about groups and organizations you belong to now. Go back through your initial contacts and think about people they know.
- Use the fund-raising reports from earlier campaigns to find persons who regularly contribute to campaigns, and reach out to them.
- Ask for donations from organized labor, but do it in writing. And be sure to thank them in writing for endorsements and funds contributed.
- Use your campaign Facebook account and your donation link to raise money online, and always include the donation link in any email sent by your campaign.
For larger races, you might want to hire a finance assistant to facilitate your fundraising activities. Fundraising takes up most of a candidate’s time, and having extra help will give you more opportunities to talk to voters. You will not win your campaign without an organized fundraising plan.
Do public appearances
As noted above, these are important to some extent, but are less important than fundraising and meeting voters. Be strategic in choosing your public appearances: how many uninformed or undecided voters will be at this event? If it is a chance to speak, how big will the crowd be? Will there be media coverage?
Some public appearances are required: debates, party functions, endorsement panels. Others are pick-and-choose. Choose wisely.
One of the key tasks of any campaign is getting out into the field and meeting the voters. Depending on the level of your campaign, you may do most of this work yourself by going door-to-door to talk with voters, or you may have a team of volunteers who help you.
Different campaign experts have different approaches to canvassing. Some employ a two-visit approach, with the first visit aimed at introducing the candidate and assessing the voter’s likelihood of voting for or against the candidate, and the second visit aimed at either persuading or confirming that vote. Others focus on turning out persons who don’t normally vote. Some plan for one or more “lit drops” — leaving campaign literature at the voter’s residence — in addition to face-to-face voter contact. And, some use phone calling as an additional way to contact voters.
Whatever your strategy, you will need a way to come up with a list of voters to see on each trip (“cut turf”) and a plan for what you want to accomplish on that visit. Then, you will need to record the results in whatever voter tracking tool you are using, such as Votebuilder.
Be sure to have literature that you and your volunteers can leave, either with the person who comes to the door, or if no one answers, to leave on or in the door itself.
A complete guide to canvassing is beyond the scope of this manual, but here are some Do’s and Don’ts to help you get started.
- Be polite, friendly, and enthusiastic. You should have fun!
- Dress in neat and clean attire.
- Have a pin, hat, tee shirt or something that identifies who you are canvassing for.
- Answer voters’ questions and offer to get back to them if you don’t know an answer.
- Verify and ADD as much information as possible (emails, cell phone numbers, etc.).
- Knock every single door on your list.
- Leave literature at every door on the list and for any voters you talk to.
- Be rude or disrespectful, even if the voter is rude or disrespectful.
- Go inside the voter’s home or stand on lawn or trample flowers.
- Argue with voters.
- Make up information.
- Leave information in mailboxes. (This is a federal crime.)
- Contact voters at government (federal, state, or local) email addresses or offices.
As the candidate, you should insist on reviewing every thing that is sent out in your name or the name of your campaign: every ad, every press release, every public item to which your name is attached. You are the one responsible for making sure that it fits your campaign and your message.
Also, review every in-kind contribution you receive, both to make sure it follows the rules and to make sure you want to accept an in-kind contribution from that person or organization.
Never let a third party, even KDP or the House or Senate, send out a mailer or conduct a poll that includes you until you have approved whatever it is they are doing. (This does not apply to independent expenditures – those are done without coordinating with you, which means you have NO IDEA what they say and no control over them.)
Do your reporting
Make sure you file the campaign financial reports on time and correctly. If you have a question, call KREF or your legal adviser and ask. They want to help you, and the KREF help, at least, is free of charge. If you make a mistake, let KREF and legal know, and file a corrected report. Making a mistake can be fixed. Hiding a mistake can lead to prosecution.
Do oppo research
Opposition research is the practice of collecting information on your political opponent. It is not just about your opponent’s weaknesses or what they have done wrong. It also tells you how they have run past races, and what they might do in this race so you are better prepared to ward off attacks or to counter arguments.
Hone your message and platform some more
Now that you have spent some time talking with actual voters in your district, gather your kitchen cabinet and analyze your message and platform in light of what you have learned.
Have you discovered issues you were unaware of? If so, should you focus on them? What parts of your message is resonating with voters, and what parts are falling flat? Have you found a phrase or talking point that seems to work really well? Should you add it to your message in some way?
If you did a good job of learning the district before you started, and of planning your message and platform carefully, this step should be just fine-tuning what you have already been doing. Be careful of making significant changes, as it makes your campaign look disorganized.
Get out the vote
The final stage in any campaign is GOTV – “Get Out the Vote.” How you do it may vary depending on such considerations as early voting, vote-by-mail, and so on. This is the period where voters are casting ballots, and you want your identified supporters and baseline party registrants to vote. Through paid media efforts, volunteer door-to-door, phone calls and text messaging, the focus is on turning out all the voters who will vote for you.
Allow for mistakes
Screw-ups, errors, and oversights are a part of the human experience, and certainly part of any campaign. You will have many. It is far better to make mistakes and smooth out any kinks in a “pre-campaign” phase where the scrutiny of the media and the political power structure has not yet been aroused. Keep a spirit of experimentation and learning from failure. This makes your campaign much more accessible and friendly to anyone who wants to take part. It also ensures your leadership is just as accountable to the members as the other way around, which inspires a culture of trust and togetherness.
Here is a list of mistakes to watch for. It’s not complete, but paying attention to it and sharing it with your campaign staff and volunteers will lessen the risk that someone will make a mistake unknowingly.
Mistakes not to make
- Breaking any campaign or campaign finance laws.
- Using a spouse or family member as your campaign consultant, campaign manager, or finance person.
- Not registering with KREF
- Not filing KREF or FEC reports on time.
- Accepting cash donations
- Not having a contract with your vendor, supplier or paid campaign staff that specifically states responsibilities, tasks, expenses, scope of work to be provided, and compensation.
- Spending campaign $ on non-campaign items.
- Expecting a PAC doing an independent expenditure (which cannot coordinate with your campaign) to listen to what you want their outreach or mailers to look like. You have no control over an IE contribution.
- Stepping down from a race because there is a primary. Contested primaries are a good thing, increase voter interest, and help refine campaign strategy
- Expecting KDP or the House/Senate Caucus to fund your campaign. They may not have any $ to spend on your race
- Accepting contributions, particularly in-kind contributions, for polling or mailers from KDP or the House/Senate Caucus without reviewing poll questions and mailer content IN ADVANCE. Never let anything go out on your behalf without approving it.
- Not recording your own money that you use in the campaign.
- Not saying “thank you” or expressing appreciation to volunteers, donors, or any voter that you meet.
- Being disrespectful or rude to anyone: volunteers, staff, voters.
- Failing to gather all relevant information related to donors and expenditures.
- Committing to spend more than you have raised.
- Being dependent on the Kentucky Democratic Party or your County Executive Committee to run your campaign or fund your campaign. The campaign is yours. Run it the way you and your staff believe is best.
- Defaming opponents.
- Failing to have a cohesive and realistic campaign plan: finance, fundraising, field, communications.
- Not reviewing all mailers and text or email messages before they go out to make sure that they fit your vision and your campaign, and are free of typos or misspelling.
- Hiring “consultants” and “staff” with any history of: charging high-price retainers or fees, being non-responsive, or exhibiting patterns of unprofessional behavior. Ask for references. Comparison shop for prices. Use in-state staff and vendors where possible.
- Arguing with a potential voter. If you are campaigning door-to-door and a voter appears to not support your platform, simply thank them for their time and move on.
- Providing bad or false information when answering questions you don’t know the answer to when meeting voters or participating in debates/forums.
- Spreading false or misleading information about an opponent without facts.
- Micromanaging every aspect of the campaign.
- Practicing poor time management.
- Thinking organizational or elected official endorsements are very important.
- Putting too much faith in polling results.
- Depending on others to fundraise and/or go door-to-door – the candidate is the primary vehicle for both of these elements.
- Paying too much for printed material or allowing a consultant or vendor to apply a mark-up on prices (unless you have agreed to this charge in A CONTRACT).
- Tying yourself to other candidates. You are running your own race and need to show voters that you are a candidate they can support, regardless of how they feel about any other candidates in the race from your party.
- Not understanding that at the end of the campaign, win or lose, the race your run will be reflective of the candidate you were. Ultimately you should be proud of your campaign.
Ultimately, this is YOUR campaign. If you don’t want to work with someone, accept a contribution, or take a stand, don’t do it. You are the person who is liable for everything that goes right or wrong with your campaign.
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