Lessons Learned from a $3 Million Campaign

It’s a bit of irony that, while at The Campaign Coach we spend the majority of our time counseling local candidates operating on a shoestring budget, the most recent race we worked on was a behemoth New York State Senate race where the campaigns and third parties spent a whopping $2.8 million on a seat that is integral to the balance of New York’s upper house.

Now, while a race of that magnitude is a completely different animal than the campaigns we normally deal with, there is plenty to learn from playing in the big kids’ sandbox. Your strategy meetings will be less about TV ad buys than door-to-door lists, and your extended family may be up at midnight sending out invites to your next fundraiser rather than a team of professionals, but I’ve compiled five key takeaways below, to demonstrate that winning a bigger race is not altogether different from winning a local one:

(1) “Face time” is the most critical component of a campaign – While in a district with 100,000+ people, it’s much more of a challenge to meet with people face-to-face, a congressional or state candidate needs to be as aggressive as possible, and optimize her time by spending it in the areas where her voters are. For local candidates, it’s even more important because you’re not able to afford incessantly being in mailboxes and on the airwaves. But from Town Coroner to President of the United States, the importance of meeting with the electorate never changes.

(2) Focus on getting your base out to vote – The wording here is key: It’s not “Focus on your base,” but focus on actually getting them out to vote. No matter the size of your jurisdiction, there are people who will vote for you because of their party affiliation, your stance on a specific issue, or because you go to the same church. You need to make a concerted effort to engage them from Day One through Poll Closing Time on Election Day.

(3) Picking up the phone and asking for money is still a pain in the butt, and it’s still important – Yes, in a larger campaign there is definitely a bigger pool of resources to tap into, and more people’s lives to influence. Which is why it takes so much fundraising to win at that level. But scale to the size of your community, and the necessary tactics are the same. In fact, if you have aspirations for office higher than local government, asking people for $500 a pop is good practice for eventually asking them for $5,000.

(4) Your message must be broad and inclusive – With the exception of the major metro areas, large districts generally include many different communities with many different interests – often with urban, suburban and rural constituents. While special interest issues among those constituents can help build your base, your overarching message must be broad enough to engage all voters. Just the same, at the local level, while you may be able to segment voters into neighborhoods or by issue, it’s rare that one segment can, by itself, carry the day. Give people issues they care about, and demonstrate your value as a representative in relation to those issues.

(5) The negative campaigning isn’t any less personal – At the local level, where everyone in your community seems to know each other, negative campaigning can be particularly personal. Don’t think that in a $3 Million race, it’s any different. In this particular race, our candidate’s girlfriend held a key role in the campaign, in a role where she had experience (and did a fantastic job). Obviously, knowing she could be a target simply for the relationship, she stayed behind the scenes, but of course she came up in the opposition’s messaging. Well, actually – a “random tip” to the media from someone “outside the campaign” (wink, wink). So, it happens, and it’s important that you and those close to you are ready for it, and don’t get distracted from your own message.

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