Run For OfficeElections

How To Run For Office: What You'll Need

Part 2: The minimum you should have to mount a serious campaign.
10 min read
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News / Getty Images

In Part 1, I discussed whether or not you should even run in the first place. In this article, I'll cover the bare minimum you should have to mount a serious campaign.

When I ran, I shot from the hip, starting from scratch with only four months until the election. I had never even attended a political event before. I was pretty much a one man operation with the exception of a treasurer and a couple of people I knew whom I could ask policy questions. You can run fairly lean but there are a couple things that are well worth outsourcing.

Here is what I recommend doing, and in this order:

  1. Find a Treasurer
  2. File Paperwork
  3. Start Your Committee
  4. Open a Bank Account
  5. Get a Campaign Manager
  6. Make Your Platform
  7. Hire a Designer
  8. Create Marketing Material
  9. Get On The Ballot
  10. Raise Money
  11. Entice Volunteers
  12. Beware of Consultants

Try to give yourself at least a year before your primary to start getting everything in order. Most of that time will be spent building your message and name recognition. In theory, everything covered in this article could be accomplished in just a couple of weeks, though. So don't let time stop you.

Also keep in mind that the primary and general elections are considered two separate elections. So you may need to repeat some steps if you advance.


Find a Treasurer As Soon As Possible

Finding a treasurer was by far the biggest opening hurdle. The election paperwork process is incredibly niche and the bureaucracy you're likely trying to usurp is completely unavoidable. You can't just walk into an H&R Block and ask for a campaign treasurer.

I spent a week researching all the rules and regulations to do the paperwork myself but it was just too daunting of a task, not to mention stressful. I was scared of getting fined for not dotting an "i" or crossing a "t".

Having an experienced and capable treasurer will not only give you peace of mind, they also may have a wealth of information in regards to navigating the bureaucracy.

The first few qualified people I found weren't accepting new clients. I think at least one of them just didn't want to help me because they didn't like my platform.

Ultimately, I found a treasurer by word of mouth. My district was quite large, spanning eight counties, so I needed to attend several different GOP meetings. I just kept asking people and eventually someone forwarded one of my emails to the right person.

My advice is to network through party committee meetings and get email addresses of as many people as possible. I wouldn't rely on party leadership to help because they have their own agendas, but you can try reaching out anyway. Leadership contact info is usually pretty easy to find, though I'd put more faith in the regular members to help out. Many people that attend these meetings don't agree with leadership and are just there because there is no other option.

A treasurer is not free. Mine charged me a flat rate of $500 until I received a certain amount of funds, at which point he then bill hourly. Well worth it!


File Paperwork

There are a number of non-financial forms (e.g. Candidate Intention Statement) you'll need to file before you can get on the ballot. You'll also need to file some of them in a certain order, and maybe even between certain dates.

I only needed to file the federal forms since I ran for Congress, which seemed much more straightforward than the California state forms.

I won't list the forms here since they vary between federal and state, and possibly even the office you're running for. I filed all my non-financial forms myself; some you can even do online.

I'd recommend consulting your treasurer and also keeping your Secretary of State's (SOS) and county's election offices on speed dial. All forms will ultimately need to be filed with the SOS and the election office in the county of your primary residence. (Exceptions may apply) If you still need help, I'd recommend blasting out an email to the people you met at the party meetings.

From my experience, the SOS was always accurate and helpful, though often involved a wait on the phone. Same with the FEC, but that's only for federal office and most won't need to contact them.

The only problem I encountered was at the county level. There are a number of clerks and you never know who you'll speak to on the phone. They often need to look stuff up and call you back. In some cases they don't even really speak English (!!). I was given incorrect information at least once by my home county office. Try to find someone you trust and only deal with them.


Start Your Committee

Every campaign needs a committee, which is basically just an IRS EIN number to file everything under. It's easy enough to setup via an SS-4 form on the IRS website.

You've seen these committee names at the bottom of political signs and marketing materials as required by law, usually prefixed with the phrase "PAID FOR BY". Mine was just called "Detert for Congress". It's not important what you call it, it just has to be unique. You'll really only need it for the sake of paperwork.


Open a Bank Account

You're going to need cash and even if it's your own cash you'll need to put all that money into a separate bank account. I ultimately decided to open an account with the same bank I did my personal banking. This was before I found my treasurer and it took all day and involved going to another branch in another city to help me.

Opening an account for a political committee is an unusual case and most bankers just aren't going to have any idea what to do. This is where having a treasurer will really help.

The bank will require a few forms, namely your committee's EIN number. Once it's open, your treasurer can manage your finances from there.


Get a Campaign Manager

You may be able to get by without a campaign manager if you're running for a lower office.

I acted as my own campaign manager, but it would have been nice to have had someone to help me manage the day to day. Sitting behind your computer researching or posting on social media is one thing, but at the end of the day you need to drive out to meet people in person, sometimes hours away. You'll want someone to fill in those gaps.

I can't really speak to where the best place to find a manager would be. I'd start with politically savvy friends and maybe family, then branch out from there. As far as cost, you're looking at anywhere from $1k – $15k per month. (So I hear)

Above all, your manager should be someone you trust and who believes in your message. Otherwise, you're better off with nobody.


Make Your Platform

One of the hardest things about running for office is becoming an expert, or at least forming an opinion, on all the issues. You'll need to know your core issue(s) inside and out; for me it was outsourcing and immigration.

However, you'll also get asked questions about everything under the sun. For conservatives, the most adamant voters were concerned about the Second Amendment and abortion. For liberals, it was healthcare. So be sure to formulate an opinion on these issues as well and how they relate to the office you're seeking.

The people who vote early and often are more likely to know the issues. If you're reading this, you should most likely be focused on winning your primary. Primary elections are base elections, so tailor your message to the base.

I would advise against going into too much detail on issues you aren't familiar with. When in doubt, leave it out of your platform until you are comfortable taking a yes or no position.

Showcase your core issues and show how you're different than your opponents. The more issues you can take a firm stance on, the more credible you'll appear.

Advisors

You don't need a full-time policy expert, and you probably don't even need to pay anybody. There are a number of activist organizations on every side of the aisle. I called some of them up and asked for their opinions.

I even went on Twitter and followed people who knew what they were talking about and asked them to review certain sections of my platform. Many ignored me but some were more than happy to help.

You'll talk to some people who will be very forceful with their opinion. In the end, you'll need to filter all that new information and form your own opinions and positions.


Hire a Designer

This is a no-brainer yet I see so many candidates fail to do this all the time. I do all my own design work but that doesn't mean you should necessarily. Plus, it's a huge headache that also eats up a lot of time.

Appearances matter and voters will make snap judgements about your credibility just based on your website and marketing material. If your material looks cluttered and disorganized with toddler font and rainbow clip art, people just won't take you seriously. I know you worked really hard on it, but still...

Things like logos will also need to be in a vector format so they look exactly the same printed on paper as they do blown up to billboard size. A designer should know this.

For quasi-DIY, there are a number of website and marketing templates you can buy online. You might even be able to get by with a judicious use of Craigslist if you're careful.


Create Marketing Material

At minimum you'll need a website with as short of a URL as you can think of.

I'd also recommend getting business cards made with your logo on it and long rack cards you can pass out with more detailed information.

You'll also want signs, both yard-sized and jumbo 8'x4' if you can afford it and local ordinances allow them that large.

I had a couple people ask for buttons so I got some made. It turned out to be a big waste of money, though. Don't bother.

Get everything printed locally. Printers are on a very tight schedule and it's hard enough getting them to meet your deadlines. Ordering online isn't really cheaper and it's more hassle. I had an event that I showed up to with no marketing material because I had ordered them online and they were still in transit. You'll also be able to sample materials before you order and stop by the shop if anything goes wrong.


Get On The Ballot

Ballot access requirements are different in every state. There is a narrow nomination window to get on the ballot as the election nears. It usually lasts about 1-2 months with firm deadlines. In that time you'll need to file more paperwork, gather signatures, and pay filing fees.

I filed most of my own paperwork and was able to ask the county and SOS election offices what I needed to do without issue. Any financial stuff will be up to your treasurer. Most offices will also require you to gather signatures; it might be 10 or 10,000.

Congress, for example, requires a minimum number of 40-60 signatures plus an additional 2,000. You also have the option of foregoing the 2,000 signatures by paying an "in lieu" fee of $1,740. Every signature you do get will then be pro-rated at 87¢. So if you get 10 signatures, you can deduct $8.70 from the $1,740 filing fee.

I would not recommend collecting signatures, however. You'll end up paying one way or another in either time or cash. Keep in mind that the signatures need to be from registered voters who are in your district and the information they write down has to match their voter registration. Realistically, you'll need to collect 5x more signatures than you originally intended.

It's not worth it. Just pay the fees, file the papers, and get back to campaigning as soon as possible.

Oh, and be sure to get on the sample ballots that get mailed to every registered voter. It does cost extra unfortunately.


Raise Money

In the end, no matter how much you do yourself, at a minimum you'll still need cash for filing fees and marketing material. There are two ways to get money: ask for it or use your own.

I was almost entirely self-funded and didn't ask for any donations other than putting a link on my website. One reason I got off to such a late start was because I needed to wait for my house to sell so that I had cash on hand.

It's a heck of a lot easier to use your own money. If you're running for statewide office it will be difficult to self-fund and still have a shot. For any office that isn't statewide, you might be able to get by on your own dime if you're lucky.

My recommendation is to start off slow and early. Do as much as you can yourself before resorting to outsourcing and delegation. You'll run a much wiser and leaner campaign this way.

If you do end up asking for money, you shouldn't have a problem receiving small donations if your message resonates. I never solicited donations in person but some people would donate after talking to me for five minutes.

If you find yourself needing to ask for money at large fundraisers, you're probably very close to selling out. Be resourceful.


Entice Volunteers

You can pay staffers but it's so much better if you can convince people to help you for free. You'll save a lot of money too.

Start by texting everyone in your phone to see if they'll help out. The vast majority won't but you'll be just as surprised by the ones who do help as the ones who won't.

As you build more name recognition, you'll find it easier to get people interested, especially if your message resonates.


Beware of Consultants

Without going on too long, be very careful about hiring consultants. I think "strategists" have played no small role in ruining politics in this country; not to say there aren't good ones out there. Go with your gut and say what you believe. You don't need to pay anyone for that. In a world of fake news, being genuine will go a long way.

Part 3: I'll break down some of the costs of running.

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