How To Run For Office: Tips For A Winning Campaign You're motivated to make a change and run for office. But where do you even begin? NPR politics reporter Miles Parks explains how to navigate campaign fundraising, door-knocking, and building a "kitchen cabinet."
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How To Run For Office

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How To Run For Office

How To Run For Office

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MILES PARKS, HOST:

When Bushra Amiwala first got into politics, she really didn't know what she was doing. She even had to Google how to run for office.

BUSHRA AMIWALA: And I did Google search it, but actually nothing came up. The first thing on the list that I found was understand election law, so that's what I did. So then I Googled election law, and - know an obscene amount about Illinois finance laws and ways to be compliant with the policies specific to the state of Illinois. And I found that I was almost putting my efforts and, I guess, my eggs into the wrong baskets in the beginning because I literally didn't know where to start.

PARKS: She wasn't really sure how to fundraise. She would kind of vaguely ask people, you know, maybe you could think about donating to my campaign, and that wasn't working. She didn't even really feel like she deserved the money.

AMIWALA: Would I donate $50 to myself?

PARKS: This is something a lot of first-time candidates struggle with. Bushra also didn't have a voter outreach plan. She didn't have a vote goal. She didn't have a campaign manager. She lost that first race - a campaign for a county commission seat in 2017. She told me 90% of what she did that first campaign was wrong. But that is in the distant past now. Bushra's kind of a superstar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: She is a passionate advocate for equal representation and politics, and recognizes the potential for leadership in all individuals. Please, welcome Bushra Amiwala.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

PARKS: She ran again and won. She's on the Skokie School Board in Illinois, and she's now the youngest Muslim elected official in the United States. She's 22. Her second time around, she had a solid team around her, and she was asking people for big bucks.

AMIWALA: I had so much confidence. And I had this extended network and base and support of people to reach out to that I was like, oh, of course, like, people will be, like, happy to receive a phone call from me. Like, they should be excited that they're - have this chance to directly support my campaign. And I would call people. And I'd be like, yeah, can you donate $250? And I remember I, like, would choke at the sight of asking someone for $50, and I was out here like, yeah, like, can you donate, like, 500?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKS: This is your NPR LIFE KIT for running for office. I'm Miles Parks with the NPR Politics team. We're going to help you make a plan, make a team and fundraise like a pro. By the end of this, you're going to be so good, you're going to be like Bushra 2.0.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKS: There are all sorts of reasons people run for office.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Every year, my property taxes went up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Poverty was a big issue.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Immigration, women's rights, LGBT equality.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We had gone from this beautiful tree-canopied street to pretty much a clear-cut street.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I saw the potential to be represented for the first time in my life.

PARKS: But the bottom line, the thing that links all these people, is that they care about something - anything.

MARIAN WALSH: It is much like when you know you're in love.

PARKS: That's Marian Walsh. She's a former state senator in Massachusetts, and she wrote a book called "Run: Your Personal Guide To Winning Public Office." Walsh is basically a campaign guru. She won her first election in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1988. She never lost an election before getting out of politics about a decade ago. She says that feeling of falling in love comes from being passionate about something deep to your core, and then you work backwards from there.

WALSH: Most people who run for public office, it's because they wanted to solve a problem or start a policy on a problem that is being ignored.

PARKS: Marian says you absolutely don't have to understand every aspect of how government works to run for office. You don't have to be wealthy or have much money at all either. We'll get to money later, but do not let that intimidate you. Still, it's something I heard from everyone I talked to, that there's this trepidation that stops a lot of really smart, really passionate people from running. Here's Bushra.

AMIWALA: I felt like an imposter every single day I was campaigning. I felt like I didn't know enough. I felt like there were so many more issues that I could have researched on. I felt like I'd never read enough newspapers or enough articles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKS: I asked Marian about it, and she brought up the Founding Fathers - basically, that they didn't know what they were doing either.

WALSH: There'll always be people, Miles, in any arena, who will know less or know more than you and know less or know more than me. They're always going to be there. The question is, do I care enough, do I know enough, and am I willing to do more of both - more caring and more learning?

PARKS: So that's your first tip - get out of your own way and realize you have a lot to offer if you care deeply about something. You don't have to be someone who always dreamed about getting elected, and you definitely don't need to know the ins and outs of local government. You'll learn a lot as you go.

OK. You went did some homework. You read up on what your city or town or county offers in terms of elected offices you can run for, and you have one circled where you think you could affect some change.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I ran for Madison Heights, Mich., City Council in 2017.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: State Senate in the Hampden District in Massachusetts.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The 2018 elections for the Utah State Legislature.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: The Nebraska Legislature in District 20 in 2014.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I ran for governor in Vermont.

PARKS: Now, the planning begins. You're going to want to read up on the job description of the position. Ask yourself, is this something I'm interested in doing for two or four years? Who currently holds the job? Has the incumbent run for reelection before? Marian vividly remembers figuring all this out for herself when she first ran.

WALSH: So then I go, literally, to the election department and I find out, when is that election? Is it an odd year, even year? Is it in March or February? When is it? How many people vote? All that is available to me.

PARKS: Marian says you're going to want to talk to some people who've done it before you - either people who ran before and lost or people who've held the job before. Ask them how big their team was, how much money they raised, what they did to campaign. If they had the job before, ask them what they did every day, and maybe see if there's anyone else who they'd like to introduce you to.

WALSH: That's how you begin.

PARKS: Just talking to other people...

WALSH: Exactly.

PARKS: ...Who have done it before.

WALSH: It's that simple.

PARKS: Marian says you might even consider talking to the person who currently holds the seat. They might have been considering stepping down anyway. Bushra even got great advice from the person who beat her in her first race. He was the one who encouraged her to run again for a different seat.

AMIWALA: He was the one who asked me to run. He wrote me a donation check to support my campaign. He connected me to the people to help me get notable endorsements. And anytime I needed something, he was only a phone call away.

PARKS: And last, you need to figure out whether the election is a partisan race. If it is, then you're going to want to talk to the party in your county or state as you plan your run. So that's your second tip - be a sponge for information from all sorts of people, people who've run before, people have done the job and people who know how the process works.

OK. Don't get scared. We're going to talk a little about some numbers now, but you do not have to be a math genius to get this stuff. I have a college degree in theater, and I understood it. Your third tip is figure out your vote goal and win number. These are going to be your beacons in the darkness, the data that guides all your decisions for the next few weeks and months.

Matt Batzel is the national executive director of the group American Majority. They help train conservative candidates at the local level. And he has a four-step plan to winning.

MATT BATZEL: So the first one is research and planning. The second one is identification. The third is persuasion. And the fourth is get out the vote.

PARKS: We're rounding out that first step - research. Matt says you need to realize an important fact. You don't get elected by getting everyone to vote for you. You get elected by getting more votes than anyone else.

BATZEL: You cannot just go out and try to win everyone, every single vote. That's unrealistic. You need to focus on the votes that you need. You know, you're not trying to get a shutout every single football game, but you need to score more points than the opponent. And so that's the goal is to win the election by getting more votes than your opponent.

PARKS: OK. So exactly how many votes is that? There are actually pretty simple ways to come up with that number. Basically, you average the turnout of the last few similar elections, and then you multiply that number by the number of registered voters in whatever jurisdiction you're running in. I know that might sound confusing, but Matt's group puts out this worksheet that we'll link to in our show notes that will explain the whole thing.

In general, that similar election note is really important. Throughout this whole process, you want to be comparing apples to apples. You can't compare turnout in an off-year spring election with, like, a presidential election. You then want to shoot for more than 50% of whatever number you come up with. It's not perfect, as Bushra explains, but it is an important first step in figuring out how big of an operation you need.

AMIWALA: I feel like both times I had the number significantly lower than it should have been, and I should always aim higher.

PARKS: The last thing - it might seem obvious, but you need to get your name on that ballot. How you do that is really different everywhere. So Matt says the best place to start is your state's secretary of state website or your own county elections website. You should be able to easily download the forms you need to fill out and find out what your deadlines are. Be early on this and ask questions. Election officials are people completely devoted to the democratic process - use them.

So that is your third tip. Get your ducks in a row. Figure out your vote goal. How you campaign and what you need is going to be really different depending on whether you need 500 or 5,000 votes. Also, know your deadlines. You can't miss them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKS: So now you're armed with information. You know who you're running against, what you need to do to win, and you know when you need to do it by. Now you need to make a list.

WALSH: I would write down everyone I know who lives in the community and how I know them. And that includes if someone shovels my walk. That includes where I get my dry cleaning. I mean, everyone. And then I also look - are they registered to vote? And I probably have a good friend who's going to help me do this.

PARKS: So you bring in a friend or two. No public announcement yet, but you all put your heads together and make a list of everyone in your district who you think might vote for you. And I know it might sound stressful, but you're now going to invite all these people over to your house. That's what Marian did, at least.

WALSH: So I said, well, I've made a decision I want to share with you, and I hope that you'll be supportive. And so I told them. I told them why I wanted to run.

PARKS: Marian's strategy revolves around these sorts of gatherings - an informal meeting where people come, you tell them a little about yourself, what you want to do in your community, and then you take questions. The first one might be at your house, but they can be at a backyard barbecue or before a high school football game, anywhere people want to gather.

At the end of her first one, Marian had a list of other people who are willing to host and invite their friends. Bushra says the more of these she did, the more there were to do.

AMIWALA: I had 50 coffee chats before deciding to run for office the second time. And then just through the course of that campaign, like, I had a lot of meet-and-greets hosted for me as well which are like coffee chats on steroids, which is like one person opens their doors, invites all of their friends. They provide the coffee. And they're basically trying to convince all their friends to support me as well. And I had so many of those, too. So if I was to count all of that, I think 200. And I don't even like coffee that much. I put so much cream and sugar in it.

PARKS: After all this talking to people, you might be feeling a little exhausted. A solid support system is really important for the dog days of campaign. So let's build you a team. You've probably already figured out who in your circle is most supportive of your political aspirations. These people are going to be your lifeblood. They're going to be your campaign kitchen Cabinet.

Obviously, every campaign is different, but one staple is the campaign manager. Some people see this as their opportunity to get a wealth of experience under the hood of their campaign by hiring someone with political experience.

BATZEL: And so, yeah, you can hire the high-priced consultants to come in that do this for - you know, they're professional marketers. And they they do branding for businesses all the time. And they come and do this for candidates. You know, I sat through one of these sessions a few summers ago for a candidate. And they can throw all the words and brands, et cetera, at the wall and try to come up with something. But if they don't know you and they don't know who you are, that's where that can become quickly very phony.

PARKS: But on the other side of the coin, there are those folks who know you a little too well. Some campaign advice givers say to never pick a family member. After all, you're going to spend many, many hours with this person over the course of the next few months. So you can't have someone who you'll be bickering with. We aren't going to go that far. After all, we don't know your family. But Matt says you need to find a balance.

BATZEL: Really, your kitchen Cabinet should be made up of a smallish group of people, let's say five to eight people, that is a mix of people that know you well - people that know campaigns and really want to help you to be successful, they're not just doing it for their own career.

PARKS: In your kitchen Cabinet, you might think about having a finance director or a treasurer to track the money, a communications director who can work with local press as well as your social media presence, and a volunteer coordinator.

Marian let her volunteers know there was a job for anyone who wanted to help.

WALSH: And whatever your personality is - I don't want to deal with people, Marian, I'll do the data entry for you. Marian, I don't want to do the - I'll hold signs. I'll build the sign. It's a - always a matching. You have a whole HR component. You know, so you have to be very flexible, people around you are flexible, responding to what they have to offer, and to thank them.

PARKS: Her campaign used this great form that we'll link to in the show notes. It listed a bunch of jobs, and people could just write their info and pick a role they liked. That sort of planning would have helped Bushra in her first campaign.

AMIWALA: A lot of people actually really jumped to say, what can I do? And I didn't even know what I was doing, so I didn't have tasks to delegate. So I had all these sort of like people willing to help, and I let all those opportunities of help go to waste because I just didn't know sort of like what tasks to give people. And that's actually a consistent theme that I think I had throughout the course of my entire first campaign.

PARKS: So your fourth tip - put together a campaign team who knows you but also knows how to win an election, and tell them to never say no to help.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKS: OK. So you've done the hardest part - you've started. You've announced you're running to the people most likely to help you, and maybe you've hosted them at your house or at a local park or picnic with good food.

WALSH: Having good food is also really important - really, really good food, not expensive food but good food.

PARKS: Now the real work begins. This is tip No. 5 - elections are won in person. So you're going to need to make new friends, a lot of them. How are you going to find them?

BATZEL: It's really door knocking is the most effective way to change voters' minds and get your name out there, actually going out and shaking hands, meeting voters, having a conversation with them at their door. You're not having a lengthy - you know, you're not giving a speech, you're not there for an hour. But if you can have five, 10-minute conversations with voters at their doors - you know, we have candidates all the time, that's all they do.

PARKS: Depending on the size of your district, you may need to target your door knocking a bit more. To do that sort of targeting, you're going to need a little bit more data. You can go to your local election's office again and request really targeted info. It may cost a few bucks, but you should be able to get the party registration and addresses of registered voters in your district so you know which blocks and neighborhoods to target for the most bang for your buck.

For a much larger price, you may be able to get even more targeted voter data from private companies or the political parties in your state. In some cases, it might be realistic to meet every voter you're hoping to represent, but in larger districts, that just won't be possible.

BATZEL: In a campaign, you have limited resources. One of those limited resources is the amount of time that you have from when you're deciding to run to when you actually have an election. You should focus on the people that are most likely to support you, first and foremost, and getting them onboard. I mean, really, then spend a lot of time on people that are likely to support you but are probably undecided.

PARKS: Matt says one of the most common mistakes candidates make is not getting out of their bubble, either real or digital.

BATZEL: And we see this all the time where they just, they get their name on the ballot, they think they, you know, that campaigning means putting up some tweets and putting up some Facebook posts. Well, no, you actually have to go talk to real voters.

PARKS: Bushra was able to use social media to get volunteers for her campaign. But even she admits that a campaign can't be internet-focused, you have to use the Internet to build on what you're doing out in the real world.

AMIWALA: When I would go to all these events, what I started doing was taking a photo at an event and then posting a picture afterwards, and it kept me relevant. And people would say, wow, you're so busy, and you're working so hard to campaign, and you're everywhere.

PARKS: Marian agreed that social media and email can be great tools, especially for voter and volunteer follow ups. Those messages should be sent within 24 hours of meeting someone interested in your campaign, she says. And they need to be specific.

WALSH: The follow up has to be absolutely consistent and an extension of what that face-to-face was about.

PARKS: Your campaign needs to log every single interaction with someone who could be interested in helping you or voting for you. You need an easy way to go back to it throughout your campaign and then especially at the end when you're working to get out the vote.

So your fifth tip - elections are won in person. Here's Matt.

BATZEL: When they see your name on the ballot, what do they think of? Is it something that you've told them? Is it that their neighbor is your grandmother? Is it that they've never heard of you? Or is it, maybe even worse, that your opponent has told them about you and told them that you can't be trusted for this reason or that, or that the press has defined you and talked about how you don't have a chance of winning or whatever it may be? You know, you don't want the political pundits to be defining you. You want to define yourself and tell voters who you are.

PARKS: Technology is great for tracking and targeting data and for following up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKS: But if you want to win, you have to do the work - smiling, shaking hands and kissing babies.

OK. Now, to maybe the hardest part of this whole thing, according to Matt Batzel.

BATZEL: Realistically, there are a lot of really good candidates who want to do the easy things in campaigning and tend to do the easy things. But one of the hard things of campaigning is actually raising money - dialing for dollars, meeting people you don't know.

PARKS: I know what you might be thinking - I don't need money, I can meet people, I can get volunteers. And you might be right.

BATZEL: I would say most local-level races that are under, let's say, 500 votes that you need to get, you're probably talking about less than $500 that you need to raise.

PARKS: But Matt said people often feel more connected to your campaign and motivated to help if they've got a financial stake in it, at least a little one. Also, the higher that vote goal is, very quickly, you're going to realize the expenses add up, at least they did for Bushra.

AMIWALA: The very first thing that I would have done if I had that money was to get a campaign office. So rent for this campaign office costs at least a thousand dollars a month, let's say. And that's if you get, like, a really cheap place in, like, some town - so, let's say, like $2,000 rent a month. And if you rent the place out for at least, you know, six to 10 months, that's - you're already looking at - I'm terrible at math - you're already looking at, say, $12,000 right there, just the office space, right?

PARKS: Right. And that's just the beginning.

AMIWALA: And then if you want a fridge in that office and if you want chairs and tables - you know $1,000 a month per staff person, and that's like...

The banner that's there to march and parade, you have to pay $500.

My website domain, buy your volunteers pizza for the day.

Can we talk about how expensive stamps are? Everything costs money.

PARKS: And all that money isn't going to just magically appear. How are you going to raise it? First, you're going to want to look up campaign finance laws in your state. There will be specific rules for how much money you can raise for your race, how much people can donate and how exactly you're supposed to log your donations. All that information is usually available online.

When Bushra first started fundraising, let's just say there was a learning curve.

AMIWALA: I was expecting people to be willing to donate to my campaign after talking to them for five minutes at an event. So when I would send the follow up email, I would say, hey, it was nice talking to you about flowers. Here's a link to donate to my campaign.

PARKS: That, maybe predictably, wasn't working. So she adjusted her strategy for following up with people she'd meet.

AMIWALA: And that turned into, hey, I really enjoyed our conversation about flowers. I would love to learn more about what you do and I want to tell you a bit more about my campaign and what I'm working towards. Do you have an hour in the coming weeks to meet with me for coffee? And then towards the end of the coffee meeting, ask for that donation.

The ask is really important, too. I also didn't realize that within these networking one-on-one meetings, I should be the person to ask for something. I thought that people would just offer within whatever bandwidth made sense to them and that would be it. And it was really uncomfortable for me to ask for things. But campaigning is all about asking.

PARKS: How much you need to raise also shouldn't be a guessing game. Just like when we were talking about how to win an election, when you think of it as this abstract amorphous goal, it's really difficult and really scary. But when you assign a number to it, like a vote goal, it becomes something you can plan around. Make goals for yourself depending on how much you need per month, and set aside specific time to call people on your supporter list.

AMIWALA: So call time is something that people ask candidates to do. It's basically printing out a list of your cellphone contacts, like every single person you possibly know, and have their phone number up. And you take - and you call all of them. And with each person, you write down a specific number of how much you seek to ask for.

PARKS: Bushra says she also had success doing a few fundraising dinners. She would rent space and sell seats for $25 or $50. She also offered the option to sponsor a whole table. Other people we talked to got even more creative - we heard about CrossFit events, gay dance parties, branded hot sauce. In general, being able to fundraise is all about being confident in your vision. Don't think about it like you're asking money for you, you're asking for money to support change that both you and the donor believe in.

AMIWALA: Once I believed in myself and my ability to serve, it became very easy to ask someone else to do it too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKS: So your sixth tip - fundraise with a plan. Be creative and do not be afraid to make that ask. OK. We have put weeks and months of work into like half an hour. So let's go back over your key tips.

Tip No. 1, you don't have to know everything before you run. And you don't need to be rich.

WALSH: Do I care enough? Do I know enough? And am I willing to do more of both - more caring and more learning?

PARKS: Tip No. 2, ask so many questions. Ask people who have run before, your supervisor of elections and people who've done the job. Be a sponge.

Tip three, figure out your win number and your vote goal.

BATZEL: That's the goal to win the election by getting more votes than your opponent.

PARKS: And make sure you're actually on the ballot. Don't miss your deadlines.

Tip No. 4, build a team made up of people who...

BATZEL: ...Know you well, people that know campaigns and really want to help you to be successful, they're not just doing it for their own career.

PARKS: And maybe the most important - campaigns, even in this modern era, are won in person - door knocking, big gatherings. When people see your name on the ballot, you want them to know who you are and what you stand for.

Tip six, fundraising is not scary. In a lot of cases, it's the difference between a winning and a losing campaign. Have confidence in your vision and many people will actually be happy to give you their money.

At this point, you have your campaign up and running. You're rolling with the punches, meeting all sorts of people and spreading your gospel. The final step is getting out the vote before the election. The important thing is that you don't assume everyone you talked to over the past few months is going to get out and vote for you. You have to ask them to. Remember Bushra?

AMIWALA: Campaigning is all about asking.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOSHUA HOFFMAN, BYLINE: That's it for this episode.

For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We cover everything from how to get started exercising to how to reset your family's relationship with screens. And if you like what you hear, make sure to check out our other LIFE KIT guides at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything. I've got more guides coming every month on all sorts of topics.

And here, as always, a completely random tip, this time from NPR's Joshua Hoffman.

HOFFMAN: If you need to cut cherry tomatoes in half, put a bunch on a dinner plate, put another dinner plate on top, run a knife through it - perfectly cut cherry tomato halves.

PARKS: That's a lot of plates.

And if you've got a good tip or want to suggest a topic, email us at lifekit@npr.org. This episode of LIFE KIT was produced by Chloee Weiner. Meghan Keane is our managing producer. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. Our engagement editor is Becky Harlan. And our project coordinator is Clare Schneider. Music by Nick DePrey and Brian Gerhart (ph). Neal Carruth is our general manager of podcasts. And the senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. I'm Miles Parks. Thanks for listening.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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