When it comes to running for public office, it’s safe to say that the average person probably isn’t aware of all the unique and specific challenges that accompany mounting a campaign. Because of this, there’s a fair share of misinformation – if not total ignorance – on the actual day-to-day challenges of running a political campaign.
So in this article, we’ll be debunking myths surrounding 10 popular misconceptions people may have about running for office. Mounting an independent campaign is no easy feat, don’t get us wrong, but it’s also not some impenetrably complex labyrinth of confusing protocols either. Those currently in office want potential challengers to think running to challenge them is too confusing or too complex, but rest assured – we’re here to tell you that it’s not. Here’s the 10 biggest misconceptions about running for public office:
Simply put: no, you do not need a law degree to run for office at any level. Though it’s true that tons of current U.S. lawmakers hold law degrees, it’s by no means a prerequisite for running a campaign or serving in office whatsoever. There is no special insight into public governance that a J.D. has over someone who studied anything else – or even someone who didn’t go to traditional college. In fact, of the 535 current members of Congress, only 175 have law degrees. That means 68% of Congress doesn’t have a law degree whatsoever.
So, fear not. It’s not about what degrees you do or don’t have – it’s about how well you can sell your experience and knowledge to people who will vote for you.
Look, money in politics is important – you’ll never hear us say otherwise. You can’t win a campaign without raising some money. However, it’s become a bigger and bigger myth in recent times that whoever has the most money is basically guaranteed to win. That is categorically false, because when it comes to winning elections it’s not all about the money whatsoever – especially the smaller and more local the office becomes.
Essentially, for more high-profile races – like Senator or President – higher fundraising figures correlate to victory on election night. But for lower-profile offices, like state representative, comptroller, or city council member, this distinction is nowhere near as significant.
FiveThirtyEight made an incredibly salient point during the 2018 midterm elections that although the candidate who raised more money tended to win over their opponents – and this is among high profile Congressional races, not local offices – this is correlation and not causation. FiveThirtyEight points out that just spending more money doesn’t translate to election victories – but rather that underlying forces and conditions that favor one candidate or another tend to translate into higher fundraising figures. So, in a way, the money factor is sort of the opposite of the public’s perception. It’s not that spending more money gives you a better chance of winning. It’s that the better chance of winning you really have, the better your fundraising numbers will be. And that’s a huge, important distinction to keep in mind before deciding to run for office yourself.
Running for public office is not only for “extroverts” – if that distinction even holds weight psychologically. Though it’s certainly true that running a campaign, and serving in public office, necessitates things like meeting and speaking to huge numbers of people, traveling, public speaking, and holding hearings and debates on a chamber floor (depending on the office, of course) by no means are these activities the exclusive claim of self-described “extroverts.”
That said, if public events cause you a significant amount of distress or could be triggering in some way, that is a very real consideration you have to make before deciding to launch a campaign. No, you don’t have to be an extrovert to win public office, but you certainly have to be comfortable with performing and speaking in public settings.
This myth tends to apply to lower-profile local races, but it’s true across the board: in just about every race, there are definitely citizenship and residence requirements, but for national offices, it’s purely about U.S. citizenship and residence in the state. For local races, the main requirements tend to lean towards living in the current district you’re running in, usually for at least a few years at a time. Again, this is all dependent on the office, the district, and on the state. There is no one-size fits all approach. But these requirements are almost always about how long you’ve lived in the district you’re thinking about running for – not being born there.
This myth is categorically false. Does having a spotless record help with your campaign? Sure. It provides less opposition fodder for your opponents, and that can’t hurt you. However, consider the fact that George Santos, a man who by all measures is a corrupt, serial grifter and lied about his entire personal history, still managed to be elected to Congress without anyone batting an eye.
We’re not saying to go commit crimes, or that corruption and lying is not a big deal. They are big deals! What we’re saying is that having a completely spotless record is certainly not a hardcore dealbreaker when it comes to running for public office – for better or worse. It’s less about what you may have done in your past (short of major violent crimes or significant prison time) and more, again, about how you can sell your past to your constituents.
Make no mistake about it – though social media is an absolutely critical and indispensable campaign tool, for communication, voter outreach, fundraising, media coverage, etc., it’s certainly a massive overstatement to say that social media has made running a campaign easy. While running for public office might not be as difficult and complex as the average person might think, we’re not going to lie to you and say that it’s easy, even with social media as a massively helpful tool in your campaign’s arsenal.
Like all factors of a campaign – public events, phone calls, earned media coverage, etc. – your presence on social media as a candidate is one hugely important tool at your disposal. But it’s a tool you must learn to use effectively. Nobody runs for office by setting up a social media profile and simply hoping to go so viral that they win by a landslide.
Like many other entries on this list, the myth that you have to be well-connected politically to run for office is just not true. Could it help? Sure, it could help. It could also hurt you as well! If you have an unpopular voting record, for instance, being “well-connected” could very well work against your campaign. Being an outsider with few connections may in fact be an advantage to work in your favor as you campaign for office, especially as the national attitude towards career politicians seemingly only gets worse year after year.
Being well-connected to people like campaign managers, pollsters, and fundraising experts will certainly help your campaign, but these are not prerequisites that should stand in anyone’s way from running for office. Among other things, running for office itself will help connect you with like-minded individuals and professionals who can help steer your campaign to the finish line. But being an outsider, especially in today’s political climate, is by no means a deal breaker or a hindrance to running for office whatsoever. Don’t let that hold you back even for a second.
This might be the most pernicious myth on this list. No, it’s not true that negative campaigning guarantees success – even though you’ll be forgiven for thinking otherwise, based on the sheer volume of negative campaign ads that have been foisted upon the American public in the last few election cycles.
Studies have shown that negative campaigning, compared to positive campaigning, tends to dampen voter morale and voter participation – and lesser participation tends to favor the incumbent, as they already enjoy a healthy electoral advantage over any potential challengers. In contrast, positive campaigning (i.e., focusing on the candidate’s vision and virtues rather than their opponent’s flaws) tends to increase voter participation by giving supporters a reason to proactively cast their ballot in favor of something vs. staying home to avoid voting altogether. That’s not to say negative campaigning has no uses – that’s simply untrue – but it’s by no means a guarantee of victory and it cannot be the sole strategy by which your campaign hangs. Remember: voters need someone and something to vote for, not merely someone to vote against.
Look at Congress right now. Look at who has occupied the White House and its Cabinet positions the past few administrations. Mastery of the issues is absolutely not a prerequisite for running for office. Indeed, the more lower-profile and local the race is, the less specific “expertise” will tend to matter, vs. demonstrating to the voters that you have the knowledge and temperament for the job at hand. Nobody expects their political representatives to be polymath geniuses.
Now, you should certainly be educated on most important issues, and it certainly helps to have a cohesive, consistent political framework with which you can express to your voters. You need to be able to answer questions on a range of topics to a range of people – local voters, media interviewers, other legislators, etc. – so it’s safe to say you need a somewhat well-rounded handle on the issues that directly affect your constituents. But you don’t have to be an expert on every single issue.
You know that phrase “it takes a village to raise a child”?
Political campaigns are a lot like children in this way.
Campaigns are large, coordinated efforts that only succeed with the buy-in of tons of different parties: the candidate, their staff, their volunteers, their presence in the media, and the actual voters who will cast their ballots. The best campaigns are tight-knit teams where tasks are delegated to those with specific expertise: the campaign manager has to be a good motivator and organizer of the rest of the staff; the director of fundraising has to be specifically knowledgeable about how to raise money as the campaign progresses; you may have a pollster on staff, or a policy director, social media director, field organizer, etc., etc. – the list goes on.
The point is that campaigns are the result of complex and interconnected interactions between the candidate, the campaign staff, the volunteers, and the community at large. Nobody has ever won office as a purely solo endeavor, because it's just not possible.
If you’re thinking about launching a campaign for public office, don’t let common myths and misconceptions hold you back. America needs stronger representation, and that starts with real people like you running for office. Check out Good Party Academy, Good Party's free online course designed to help real people like you determine whether a run for office could be right for them. Our expert leaders will walk you through the key truths about mounting a successful campaign, while dispelling any myths or misconceptions that may be holding you back.