You want to make a change. Nice! You've been inspired to run for office. Good for you! In just a few short months you'll get to show everyone how it's done. Not quite! It's harder than you think and your odds of winning as an outsider are incredibly low even if your policy positions are spot on. There's an art to getting elected and things get harder the higher up you go. That said, we definitely need regular people to run for office.
In this article, I have no choice but to be incredibly blunt because if you don't know what you're getting yourself into then running is a huge waste of time and money... mostly yours.
Campaigning can be really fun and you'll also meet some great people, but most of the time it's a grind that can get nasty. Obviously, things will be proportional to what you're running for — e.g., school board will be easier than Congress.
In this series, I share the lessons I've learned as well as some of the practical things you'll need to run for office. I'll also talk about where to maximize your efforts. Whether it's the local school board or U.S. Senate, the same principles apply. This series is geared towards people like me who follow the issues, want to make a difference, but didn't really know where to begin.
For simplicity, all the technical info in this series will be specific to California but shouldn't be too different in other states. Either way you'll need to check with your local officials.
Disclaimer: every race is different, these are just guidelines.
Why I Ran For U.S. Congress
In 2016, I ran for California's 3rd Congressional District against one of the state's most deeply entrenched political fixtures. The race consisted of the incumbent Democrat, an endorsed GOP candidate, and myself (GOP).
All in all, I did quite well even though I didn't win; receiving almost 20,000 votes (13%) and a very low cost per vote.
Initially, I only ran because the GOP candidates from 2012-2016 never responded to my emails. I figured the best way to get their attention and push them on immigration was to run against them. So that's why I jumped into the race. I was never trying to win... at first anyway.
Looking back, running for office was one of the best things I've ever done. I was hesitant at first, but I learned so much about the process and have an even better understanding of why the country is the way it is. It wasn't easy though.
Your Odds of Winning Are Almost Nil
If you're an outsider, your chances of winning are incredibly low. Not many voters follow the issues closely and many wouldn't be able to tell you who the incumbent is.
Much of getting elected comes down to name recognition, messaging, and marketing. I'll cover these topics later in the series. In a three-way race you can expect to get around 5% of the vote without trying. Every percentage point above that will become exponentially more difficult.
If you don't have any sort of "following" coming into the race, it's a big challenge building one while campaigning.
If you come in off the street, as I did, your party won't take you seriously. They won't endorse you and they might even campaign against you like the GOP central committees did to me.
Most Aren't Good at Messaging
So many grassroots candidates campaign on issues that are either too far to one side or not enough people care about. Their messaging is often way too complicated or nuanced for the public.
Immigration is a perfect example. It's an enormous topic with endless facets. Conservative candidates I talked to often had some strange way to spin it so that they could take both sides of the issue while throwing in buzzwords about the Constitution.
Your platform must be incredibly easy to understand and unambiguous, otherwise you'll never rise above the political noise. Focus on how you're different and why people should vote for you.
If You're Not Different, Don't Run
Why should anyone vote for a newcomer with very little political experience that is a "me too" candidate? Make sure you are a clear alternative to the other candidates with at least one proposal that sets you far apart. If you're running because you think tweaking some zoning or procedural rules will solve our biggest problems, you might be better off starting a PAC instead. Reciting the Constitution won't win either. Just make sure you won't cost a good candidate the primary in a tight race.
Start Really Early
I only campaigned for four months starting from scratch and it wasn't nearly enough time to research a platform, design marketing materials, and visit every county. Start campaigning at least one year before your primary; the more people you can talk to and build your name, the better. You may also ward off a would-be competitor.
Candidates with money behind them can hire strategists with a pre-existing pipeline they can tap into. Additionally, the parties themselves also have their own networks but you can only use them if you are the endorsed candidate. As an outsider you'll get none of that and will need to build your own pipeline if you can't find anybody. It's doable, but will take some additional time and dedication.
Ballot access rules are different per state and may even vary per county. Your state may allow you to run for free as a write-in candidate (California does), but you won't get any votes that way.
To get your name printed on the ballot, you'll need to fork over some cash ($1,750 for Congress). There is a way around this but it's not worth the effort. Just pay the fees.
I spent $10,000 of my own money and raised $1,000 that people gave me without asking. That's a champagne campaign on a beer budget. My opponents had hundreds of thousands of dollars on hand.
Next you'll need to get onto the sample ballot, print signs, get voter info, the whole shebang and more. For Congress, those cost additional thousands of dollars each.
Even if you're out-funded, you can still win by being resourceful.
I'll cover expenses in detail in another article. As an example, here are the election requirements and fees for Sacramento County.
The Media Will Ignore You
They know your chances are terrible. If you align with their politics they might give you free coverage, but otherwise they'll just ignore you.
In my race, I was only covered by the local papers that were forced to cover every single candidate. Otherwise, I pretty much got no mentions and reporters for larger papers wouldn't even return my emails.
The Media Will Attack You
As the saying goes: First they ignore you. Then they attack you. Then you win. If you make it onto the media's radar, congratulations, your campaign may have a glimmer of hope; but they will first try to prevent you from being seen or heard. Not many get into office without going through the gauntlet, though. The higher up you go, the tougher it gets.
Just remember, the public is merciless but people have incredibly short memories.
Your Past May Come Back To Haunt You
In the Twitter Age of politics, it's easier than ever for people to send a message to a reporter or spam the internet with pics. It's a shame that it's so easy, on the other hand, people have become desensitized to this kind of stuff. Every election from here on out will have those "gotcha" moments.
Trump's election was inspiring in the sense that he proved it's at least possible to get elected no matter what you've done. It just depends how much heat you can take.
I've been approached by people who wanted to run for office and they ran into last minute doubts about their pasts but ended up running anyway. It's natural and we all have skeletons so don't get too caught up in it.
If you're running for any office that isn't statewide or federal, I wouldn't worry about it. Even then, the more high-profile candidates will take the brunt of any attacks.
If you're worried, get some opposition research done on yourself (if you can afford it) and start removing things you've posted online. In any case, it probably won't even be an issue unless you manage to scare the status quo higher up, which is unlikely for a newcomer.
Unless you've done something wildly inappropriate with proof, it probably won't be a deal breaker to most people but could get uncomfortable. If you've done something that will break up your marriage I wouldn't risk that either. Come clean with everything you can think of to your spouse. If they aren't horrified, you'll just have to learn how to be a little bit shameless like a bona fide politician.
Just remember, the cover-up is always worse than the crime.
It's Hard On Your Family
Campaigning eats up most of your free time. My district took four hours just to drive across. Every day I would leave from work and start campaigning. Sometimes I'd still be putting up signs at 3am. That left my wife alone to take care of the kids. If you're living paycheck to paycheck like we were, the high costs add extra stress to your relationship. I was also only getting a few hours sleep a night which left me pretty cranky and spaced out half the time.
People Are Mean
Nobody will appreciate anything you've done. No matter how pure your intentions or how much you sacrifice, campaigning is a thankless job. It doesn't help that most politicians are self-serving egomaniacs who give everyone else a bad name.
People are very tribal when it comes to politics. While most people are cordial, some will talk trash to you or your volunteers just based on your party affiliation. Then, there are towns where it seems that almost everyone is a jerk.
That's how it goes, don't let it get to you. Even the weaseliest politicians have incredibly thick skin.
There Are Lots of Weirdos
I'm not saying this is good or bad. I was fascinated by the sheer variety of people I met. But if you're easily creeped out or low on patience, just know that you may have to deal with some very strange people.
Your Friends Won't Help You
Don't expect anyone to help you, even if you've given them your kidney. Your family might not help, either. When I ran, family would do what they could, but they had lives of their own. I would text everyone in my contact list and hardly anyone would respond, but some did. I was consistently surprised by the people that did help just as much as the people that didn't. You'll definitely never forget those who helped you. You'll probably need volunteers or paid helpers to pick up any slack.
You Might Lose Friends
I never experienced this with my own campaign, in fact, some people with opposite views actually helped me. Working on the Trump campaign certainly cost me so-called friends, though. The way I look at it, anyone that stopped talking to me has done me a favor so don't sweat it. You can't go through life making everyone happy, especially in politics.
There's So Much Pettiness
Politics is incredibly petty, from POTUS on down. I was more or less a one man team so I didn't experience this with my campaign but the Trump campaign was another story. People are very territorial and the quietest people are the ones that may expect the most recognition.
I've heard stories from other campaigns of people quitting because they didn't like their job titles, stuff like that. In the Trump campaign, power grabs would happen between factions in the same county for unpaid, low-level positions.
Try to make everyone feel as important as possible and don't take anything for granted.
No New Friends, Just Frenemies
When you're dealing with other political people, like those at the committees, watch out. Don't tell them anything lucrative and stay away from alcohol. Don't make friends, just make nice.
For my campaign, the first day the candidate list was made official by the Secretary of State, I received a couple emails from people kinda pretending to be voters. I responded honestly just as I would an actual voter.
I later found out they worked with the central committees and were just snooping around to report back to HQ. Didn't bother me, and it shouldn't bother you either.
You're Walking on Eggshells
People are incredibly fickle, especially conservatives in my experience. They will threaten to change their vote mid-conversation if you say something they don't like.
You can try and talk out both sides of your mouth like a politician, or you can say what you mean and mean what you say and hope they come back. If you're good on the issues and offer something different that will improve their lives, they probably will.
If I haven't scared you, then you are ready to run for office. We need you to run! You could be nuts, but you'll be on the ballot all the same.
As a test, go out and talk to people for an hour and tell them you're running. You'll find that opinions on some things will be all over the place and you might even be tempted to compromise your original positions. Everyone is a single issue voter at heart, they all have one issue that is most important to them. Just don't budge on your most important issues.
People skills are a real asset when running for office, so if you're socially awkward like me, start talking to lots of strangers to get comfortable. It's almost impossible to find someone who is both good with people and the issues. It's usually one or the other but if you can master both it will help immensely.
If you still want to run, I say just do it. No matter how much you prepare, you'll always be a long shot as an outsider. The less you build it up in your mind, the less pressure. After you've figured out all the kinks you can always run again.
You'll learn more in three months running your own campaign than you could ever learn in a lifetime of volunteering for other people's campaigns. Most importantly, you'll better understand how people think.
Feel free to contact me.