In this first of a two-part series, Andrew Richardson explores why so many municipal candidates lose.
Congratulations! It takes a lot of courage to put your name on a ballot and your reputation up for scrutiny as a potential public official. It takes a lot of care, confidence and concern for your local community, and for that you should be commended. A word of warning though – campaigns are tough, and as a function of pure mathematics, most candidates fail (sometimes repeatedly).
So how do you beat the odds? How do you make sure you’re the one drinking from the keg of glory while your opponents are forgotten by history? The first step is understanding why so many candidates fall flat, only then can you learn how to avoid those same mistakes.
Now, where do we start?
Like the old adage says, begin by following the money. Campaigns are expensive, literature needs printing and mailing, signs need creating, websites need hosting, voters need to be contacted and volunteers need to be fed and well caffeinated. Given the sheer size of most municipal wards, candidates will never be able to speak with most voters personally.
Candidates have to be able to contact as many voters as possible to share ideas and ask for their support. This means most candidates have to spend a lot of money to reach voters. Paid phone calls, enough literature to leave behind at the door, mailers, and digital advertising are all absolutely essential in races often decided by a relatively small handful of votes. Most losing candidates spend way below the legally mandated cap, and while it’s not always their fault that they don’t have the money to spend the maximum, fairness doesn’t get a vote on Election Day.
However, money only goes so far and while you need it to win, you need to spend it the right way. At the top of the shopping list is creating a strong personal brand and choosing the right messaging. In my experience, losing municipal candidates almost always fail because their message is incoherent, or because they run as a single-issue candidate.
Having a single issue you really care about is great, and I would never discourage someone from being true to their passion – but you have to remember that not everyone shares your same passions. Single-issue candidates lose because there are only a limited amount of voters who a) care about the exact same issue and b) have their vote decided by that one issue alone.
Even more important than messaging is branding. Does the candidate’s brand reflect their values? Does it resonate with their electorate? Do they have a brand at all? Think of a candidate’s brand as their main message and if it’s inconsistent or non-existent, then voters will notice. Voters need to know exactly what you stand for, otherwise they’ll be suspicious about why you want the job or what you’ll do once you get elected. You want voters to see you walking down the street and immediately think of you in a very clear and simple way: “There goes Mr. Johnson, a real family man” or “There’s Ms. Juarez, she’s a strong leader.”
Losing candidates often lie, spin, or purposefully create an ambiguous brand in order to not alienate voters. The key here is that winning candidates accept that they won’t win every vote, but the votes they do win will be solid and reliable. The key is having a strong brand, the money and time to communicate it to enough voters.
So now we know that losing candidates often have little to no money backing their candidacy, and we know that they often have bad messaging or weak branding. So how did this all happen? Aren’t those two issues obvious problems?
Of course, but they’re obvious mostly to people who have done this before (or god help them those of us who do it for a living). Losing candidates rarely bring on people who know what they’re doing. The single most important thing a candidate can do to improve their chances of winning is choosing a good campaign manager who has multiple campaigns under their belts, knows the process, the rhythm of campaigning, and the pitfalls to avoid.
From the campaign manager out, a candidate can build an organization to sort out money issues, to refine branding and messaging, and to actually talk with voters in the community. Most importantly, a candidate’s organization is what brings voters out to the polls. All the money in the world, the best branding and messaging will still lose if a candidate’s supporters don’t go out to vote.
Losing candidates think they can do it all themselves, or worse, fashion themselves as experts in all things campaigning. Like the lawyers’ proverb goes “a candidate who has only herself for a campaign manager has a fool for a client.”