Running for local office and serving in government is something many people actively consider without actually committing to. It’s not an uncommon thought – “I could do a better job than those bozos in office!” – but for many people, that thought is where their potential participation ends. Many people who would otherwise run for local office simply don’t know how to do it, what it takes, or where to even begin.
Luckily, this information is not hidden away in some private vault, and luckily, running for public office isn’t rocket science or brain surgery either. In this article, we’ll cover 8 basic things to know before deciding to make the commitment to running for public office – things like who you can contact to get started, how to run for office with no experience, requirements to run for local office, and so on and so on.
Becoming an elected official is a big commitment, and one that anyone considering making a run needs to take seriously, no matter how big or small the office may be. So, if you ever had the passing thought about becoming an elected official, here’s 8 things to know before running for local office:
Before making a run of any kind whatsoever, it’s utterly imperative that you have a solid, if not comprehensive, understanding of the role and function of the local government in which you’d wish to serve. This includes the very basic things, like what the offices are and how they interact with each other, and the more complex nuances, such as the specific history of the area, the impacts of past policy on the public, and the socioeconomic, demographic, and ideological composition of the electorate you’re running to represent.
Research is absolutely key here. Which local offices are up for election in the cycle you’d want to run in? Which offices, perhaps, have incumbents that are running unopposed? Run for offices that you can sincerely envision yourself serving for years at a time. Trust us – the stress and difficulties of mounting a political campaign of any size are great enough that you need enough genuine conviction and passion to see yourself through to public service.
What are the biggest issues that are currently affecting the community you wish to serve? What powers does the office you seek hold to solve such issues? Are the solutions you’re professing in line with what the majority of your voters would like to see accomplished? These are the sorts of questions you must not only ask yourself, but answer yourself before throwing your hat in the ring. Having a well-rounded basis for what issues have historically and contemporaneously affected the jurisdiction you’re running in – and the history of what policies have or haven’t been implemented to address said issues – is absolutely critical not just for running a legitimate and successful campaign, but for serving as a legitimate and successful public representative.
Another key set of information you must have squared away before running for office is knowing that you meet all of the specific legal requirements to be eligible to run and serve in the first place. Sorry to any 34-year-olds who are currently thinking about running for President – you’ll have to wait one more year at least!
In all seriousness though, making sure you check every box of your local jurisdiction’s requirements is absolutely key. Make sure that you’ve lived in the area that you’re running for however long is legally stipulated by your county, city, or state. Requirements such as age, length of time lived in a given jurisdiction, tax records, asset ownership, potential conflicts of interest, citizenship status, and a clean criminal record will vary from community to community, but basically all of them will have stipulations in line to some degree or another.
Don’t make the mistake of campaigning for office, potentially winning, and then having your victory overturned by a legal discrepancy because you happened to overlook one of the requirements to officially run in the first place.
Just as important as knowing the specific functions of the local offices and how they interact with each other, getting to know the current officeholders with whom you’d be serving upon winning election is absolutely paramount. After all, a huge tool in any politician’s arsenal, no matter which office they’re serving and no matter which jurisdiction they live in, is the personal relationships they forge with other public officials and stakeholders. Which other officials will you be able to collaborate with? Who would seek to obstruct your agenda? How can you form productive relationships with other government officials in order to deliver on your campaign promises? Local governance doesn’t happen in a void, and without the type of media scrutiny that accompanies more high-profile offices, personal relationships are that much more important towards passing policy and governing effectively.
And that’s just one half of the equation. Engaging with the electorate itself is essential to get a feel for how the community is responding to certain issues. Having a first-hand look at how various constituencies are affected by certain policies, and having a first-hand look at how certain communities feel about specific issues is of the utmost importance for persuading the electorate that you’re the one to elect to help solve such problems. College students are necessarily going to face a different slate of challenges than dockworkers, who will face different issues than bus drivers, who will face different issues than retired senior citizens. Having a comprehensive, well-rounded view of how various issues, policies, and communities intersect with each other is critical not just for winning a local race, but for serving in office.
One thing you absolutely don’t want to do, especially as a first-time candidate running for local office, is to not have a campaign strategy before running. Developing a strategy – including interfacing with voters, attending local events, doing speeches and town halls, potential media buys and advertising, a fundraising apparatus, and of course, having a robust social media presence – is absolutely essential to have any shot at actually being elected to office.
If you can afford it, hiring a campaign manager and fundraising operator and having a dedicated group of volunteers are indispensable tools for a successful campaign. Develop a plan of attack for how you plan to publicize your campaign, earn name recognition, and differentiate yourself from the other candidates running against you – especially if you’re running against an incumbent.
Knowing which fundraising strategies to employ goes hand-in-hand with developing your campaign strategy. Depending on the size and prominence of the office you’re running for, building up an email list and text message list to send out fundraising messaging may be a salient way to attract campaign donations. Others may throw fundraising events, such as dinners, cookouts, or other public events – and for some offices, it may be necessary for the candidate to hit the phones to fundraise from bigger donors more directly.
No two campaigns raise money in the same way or from the same set of voters, so there is no hard-and-fast rule book you must adhere to, other than what you can get to work for your own campaign. Even selling campaign merch can be a viable way to raise funds for your campaign!
Similar to understanding the community you’re running in and the issues they face, having a clear picture of your opponents and what their weaknesses are heading into the next election is absolutely vital. Now, we’re not saying “go negative” against your opponents immediately or all the time, but being educated on the history and voting record of those you’re running against – especially if they’re an incumbent – is definitely necessary if you want to pitch yourself to voters as a better alternative.
After all, if you can’t successfully convince voters why you’re the better candidate over someone else specifically, why should they choose you? In politics, even at the local level, you aren’t just running for office, you’re also running against everyone else gunning for that same office. In order to win your campaign, you need to distinguish yourself – positively – among the field of other candidates as much as possible.
Hand in hand with a robust campaign strategy is a robust messaging and outreach operation. If you want any shot at being elected, the pool of your potential voters need to know what it is your stand for, what your qualifications are, and what your personality and demeanor are like. These things give voters a clearer idea of what to expect from you in office should you win the election – but voters won’t know these key facts about you without a robust messaging apparatus getting your name, your policies, and your content out to the voters who might vote for you.
A successful messaging and outreach operation could include things like campaign events, having volunteers vouch for your campaign on your behalf, either in door-to-door settings or at larger public gatherings. It could include things like a dedicated email and SMS text messaging list – and it should certainly include some degree of social media presence. Depending on the demographics of your electorate and the amount of fundraising you have to purchase media, even physical mailers that outline your policies or draw strong contrasts between you and your opponent can be extremely invaluable methods of getting your message to the prospective voters who need to hear it.
It’s like that old saying goes: if a candidate gives a speech in the middle of the woods with nobody around, will anyone even know they’re running?
Last, but certainly not least, you have to mobilize your prospective voters to, you know, actually vote for you when the time comes. Whether that’s encouraging the electorate to vote early via mail-in or drop-off ballots, or whether it’s providing the community with resources to figure out where their in-person Election Day polling place is, encouraging voter mobilization is quite literally the most important aspect of a successful campaign.
You can raise as much money as possible, hire the savviest campaign strategists, attract crowds to your campaign events, but if you can’t actually motivate people to take that final step of utmost importance – casting their vote in your favor – then all of that campaigning was completely for naught.
A central aspect of any campaign’s messaging is on the importance of voting itself. Informing the electorate about when the election is, when early voting period starts and ends, where people can cast their ballots, and so on, is absolutely critical for those in the community to take the final step of voting for you.
If you’ve been entertaining the idea of running for public office but don’t know where to start, or if you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of actually mounting a campaign, check out Good Party’s resources for running as an independent. Good Party provides training, tools, and helpful strategies to encourage would-be office holders to commit to running for office as independent candidates.