Running for local office is an incredible way to stand up and represent the needs of your community. While presidential and congressional elections often receive more media attention, local elections are crucial in determining who will lead your city, county, or district to a successful future. Local elected officials play an important role in encouraging economic development, resolving social issues, supporting education, and more.
The positions elected at the local level vary between states and communities. Whether you’re running for mayor, sheriff, comptroller, city council, school board, or another local office, this guide will walk you through eight keys to running an effective political campaign.
Before you start contacting voters, a critical first step is to slow down and research. Take time to understand the political landscape of your community. Otherwise, you won’t know how best to strategize, interact with voters, and set out to meet the needs of the people you hope to represent.
Here are some questions to ask during this research stage:
What races or ethnicities do most residents belong to? What age ranges do most members fall into? What languages are spoken in your community? Asking questions like these can help you get a better idea of the average voter in your municipality, county, or district.
Think about the recent history of your community, and about the issues past politicians have tried and perhaps failed to solve. Maybe your city cares strongly about improving schools, fixing roads, or increasing government transparency. Look for the overlap of the issues that both you and many voters are passionate about.
How many residents usually turn out to vote? How many people are registered to vote? How many people are newly eligible to vote? You can find this information by looking at data from previous elections, your local census office, or your district’s electoral office. Understanding these patterns will help you know how best to engage potential voters.
This is one of the most important questions to ask as you prepare to launch your campaign. You can calculate how many votes you need to win by multiplying your community’s typical voter turnout by the percentage of votes needed to win. For instance, if 3,000 people in your city usually turn out to vote for municipal elections and you need 50 percent of the vote to win, you should aim for a minimum of 1,500 votes. You can use this number as a guide for your campaign strategy.
What parties have typically won elections in your community in the past? How will your party affiliation impact your chances of winning the election? For some local offices, the first thing voters might learn about you is your party affiliation. For other, non-partisan offices and for independent candidates, you may have more freedom to make your own first impression.
Understanding your competition is key to running an effective local political campaign. Find out if the incumbent officeholder is running for reelection, or if other competitors are also vying for office. How do your competitors’ platforms compare to yours? What areas of your campaign might competitors see as a weakness to take advantage of? Doing this research can help you make a plan ahead of time for how you will deal with negative attention or even attacks from competitors.
As you research the answers to all of these questions, remember that the more informed and connected you are, the better you will be able to serve and represent your community. All the information you gather will help you to make realistic and meaningful goals in the next step of your campaign process.
Once you’ve done your research, it’s time to set clear goals for your local political campaign. As with any endeavor, setting goals can help you to stay on track. And as with many other endeavors, setting SMART goals is a great place to begin.
SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Here’s what each of those words means for your political campaign strategy:
Setting specific and measurable goals allows you to track your progress toward them. For instance, if you have the vague goal of “recruiting a lot of volunteers” or “reaching many voters,” how will you know when you have reached your goal? If you set a more specific goal like “contacting 1,000 city residents by phone,” you will be better able to monitor your progress toward that goal.
The next word in SMART is “attainable.” Setting attainable goals means being realistic about what you can accomplish. It’s probably not an attainable goal to win over every voter in your district, for example. As you think about what goals are attainable for you, consider your available resources. Making use of tools like campaign management software can increase your bandwidth and make bigger goals possible. Read our blog here for more information on how political campaign management software can accelerate your campaign and help you reach more voters.
Next, make sure your goals are relevant. For your campaign strategy, this means that your goals have a significant chance of making a difference in the election. If you’re developing goals around voter outreach, for instance, you’ll want to think about where the people in your community most often engage with political messages and content.
If hardly anyone in your community uses a certain social media platform, then a goal focused on that platform would probably not be relevant to your campaign. Or if almost no young people in your city pay for cable, then targeting an expensive television ad at young people might not make sense. Setting relevant goals will help you to allocate your limited campaign funds wisely.
Finally, SMART goals are time-bound; they have a specific end date. You might make goals for the first two weeks of your campaign, or for the final week before the election. You will probably also have goals that span the entire duration of your campaign.
Using this system can help you develop a more focused and intentional campaign strategy.
No effective political campaign happens alone. One person may end up getting elected, but many people are involved in getting you there.
It’s essential to assemble a dedicated and skilled campaign team. Recruit people with areas of expertise you may lack, such as marketing, design, or law. Campaign managers and fundraising specialists can also bring valuable skills to the table. Together, this team will be your paid staff — the main group of people who will support you on your campaign journey.
It’s also important to recruit volunteers to assist your campaign. Volunteers can help with fundraising, canvassing, contacting potential voters, and other time-intensive tasks. Volunteers can also support you as you put on campaign events.
As you recruit both paid members of your campaign team and volunteers, remember to keep your whole team on the same page. Establish a reliable system of communication between team members and volunteers, and then keep the channels of communication open. Also be sure to be respectful of your team’s time and energy. Finally, look for team members and volunteers who truly support your campaign and the values you stand for. Remember that passion is contagious!
Additionally, reach out to local influencers, party leaders, and officials. Building relationships with people your community already trusts can increase your credibility, provide valuable endorsements, and bolster your campaign resources.
Your campaign message is a central element of your overall campaign strategy. From a catchy slogan to the “About” section on your campaign website, make sure your campaign message checks these boxes:
Your campaign message should reflect your values and goals — not just what you think people would “want you to say” in order for them to vote for you. Few things are more frustrating than a politician who makes campaign promises that they never intended to keep.
Your campaign message should reflect your unique personality. You want to sound like a real, relatable person.
Your campaign message should be compelling. Give the people something fresh and new, something they can be proud to stand behind.
Your campaign message should be consistent across platforms. Don’t confuse potential voters by changing your tune in different contexts.
Your campaign message should resonate with the needs and priorities of your community. This point goes back to the importance of starting your campaign with effective research. If your messaging does not address residents’ concerns, they may look to other candidates who are more attentive to their needs.
Your campaign message should be specific enough to give voters a good idea of what your time in office will look like. It might be tempting to make your messaging overly broad in order to attract the most voters, but you want to avoid misleading voters.
If you want a jump start in building your campaign message, consider trying Good Party’s new AI Campaign Manager. Answer a series of questions, and our AI Campaign Manager will draft customized slogans, policy platforms, and more that you can edit and make your own.
Fundraising and organizing are essential parts of running a successful local campaign. In both cases, building a grassroots campaign is crucial.
From our perspective at Good Party, the best way to fundraise is to collect donations from numerous grassroots donors. Many political candidates accept large donations from corporations, unions, or interest groups. Some candidates also take out large personal loans to fund their campaigns. These methods are far from ideal, however.
Accepting large donations from corporations and other organizations can lead to a form of legal corruption as politicians act in favor of those organizations’ interests once in office — rather than focusing on the best interests of the people. Taking out large personal loans is also dangerous, as it gives wealthier candidates an unfair advantage and makes those candidates more disconnected from the people they hope to represent.
You can go about grassroots fundraising by building a broad network of donors, organizing fundraising events, starting a crowdfunding campaign, and more. You may also be able to apply for grant money or sell merchandise. Remember that in many cases, a chance to fundraise is also a chance to connect with voters. For more detailed campaign fundraising ideas, read our blog by Good Party’s head of marketing, Jack Nagel.
As with fundraising, political organizing works best when candidates take a grassroots approach. Common methods of voter outreach include:
SMS text marketing
Sending out mailers
Distributing yard signs
Hosting events or fundraisers, like a dinner or walkathon
Engaging in community events
Using social media to connect with voters
Many of these voter outreach methods can double as fundraising efforts.
As you connect with and organize potential supporters, it will be helpful to track your progress in a dedicated voter list or file. In this file, you can keep track of who you have contacted and when, how likely they are to support or donate to your campaign, and so on. You may want to look at state voter files and public records as you construct your file.
We live in a digital age. It is more important than ever to establish a strong online presence as part of your political campaign strategy. Especially for younger voters, online interactions have the potential to be just as important as in-person ones.
An ideal strategy should involve both newer modes of digital outreach, such as via social media, and more traditional tactics such as press conferences and media interviews. A great first step toward building an online presence is to craft a campaign website. If technology isn’t your forte, this may be one area where you’ll want to enlist help. Make sure your website is user-friendly and easy to navigate, while clearly displaying your campaign message and policy platform.
Social media is another important way to get your message across. Tell your story, be transparent about your goals, and reach specific audiences more effectively. Read our blog from Good Party’s creator community lead Colton Hess to learn more tips and tricks for getting the most out of social media for your local campaign.
There are still more ways to be tech savvy as you conduct voter outreach. Here are some more ways to connect with voters:
Paid digital advertising
Writing press releases
Organizing press conferences
Engaging in media interviews
Contacting local media outlets
Remember to keep in mind where members of your community most often consume news and political content. Also keep in mind that a voter may have to have several positive interactions with information about your campaign before they seriously consider voting for you.
Both the federal and state governments have extensive laws and regulations designed to make the election process fairer. Part of running an effective campaign is making sure you adhere to these laws and regulations. These laws vary from state to state. You may want to consult a legal expert to make sure your campaign is compliant with all federal and state regulations.
Campaign finance regulations are one important area of election law. These regulations are designed to prevent candidates from sourcing funds in unethical ways. To comply, your team will need to prepare all necessary local, state, and federal campaign finance reports.
Other legal areas to watch out for include filing deadlines, reporting obligations, and other compliance requirements. Again, these deadlines and requirements vary from one state to another, so do your research as part of your campaign strategy.
Local elections often have much lower voter turnout than federal and presidential elections. In fact, according to the Carnegie Corporation of New York, voter turnout in municipal elections is usually under 15 percent. Voter turnout for school board elections is even lower at 5-10 percent.
Low voter turnout rates can be both a challenge and an opportunity. One way to maximize your get-out-the-vote efforts is to focus on increasing voter turnout on election day. Your team can organize voter registration drives. You can promote early voting initiatives to make sure more voters make it to the polls, or you can draw on your volunteer base to make it easier for more people to vote, such as by distributing absentee ballots.
Maximizing voter turnout can have a powerful impact on local election results.
Running for local office is a great way to make your voice heard and stand up for the needs of your community. At Good Party, we believe that good representation begins at the local level. And we are here for candidates who are ready to run good, independent campaigns. If you are interested in running for local office as an independent or third-party candidate, schedule an info session to learn how Good Party can provide free, expert-led support.