Project Wonderful

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pro-Tip for Candidates: Seven Sentences You Should Never Say to Your Campaign Manager

Although I usually write for campaign staff, a phone call from a very frustrated friend combined with some meetings I've taken lately motivated me to write a set of guidelines for candidates employing a staff, especially on local races. Like a first date, there are some things a candidate should know will be an immediate turn-off to a veteran campaign staffer and conversely some sentences that should raise a major red flag if uttered by your candidate. What's worse, I think most candidates have no idea what message they're really sending with these seemingly innocuous phrases. It all has to do with setting boundaries and reasonable expectations. Think of the following as a tough-love version of the "The Rules" for candidate-campaign manager relationships. Seven sentences a candidate should never say:

1)"I am the candidate, you work for me."

This is one of the most frustrating sentences a campaign manager can hear because what you're essentially saying is "I'm not willing to let you do your job."

This can be a confusing issue. On the one hand, the candidate hires and (her campaign) pays the campaign manager. On the other hand, the campaign manager spends all day telling the candidate what to do. Who's the boss? Think of a campaign manager like a doctor. You don't have to listen to what she says, but if you don't you might die... or you know, lose an election. This is your campaign and you need to feel comfortable with how it's run. That is why it is so important to find consultants and campaign staff who you trust and who you feel understand you. Once you've done that, let them do their jobs. After all they are the experts, which is why you hired them.

That's not to say you can never question a decision or that you should take a stance with which you disagree, but if this is the norm rather than the exception, then you need to examine what's wrong. Are you pushing back against professional campaign advice because it requires you to do things that are uncomfortable for you? In that case are you really willing to do the work it takes to run office? Do you not have faith in your campaign team? What can you do to change that?

Even at the inevitable times in the best candidate-manager relationships when you disagree, I implore you never to say this sentence. Just as in any relationship, at the end of the day you want the other person to feel appreciated and saying this sentence devalues the very important and probably difficult role that your campaign manager plays in your campaign.

2)"I don't want to annoy people."

Too bad. Running for office means that you will annoy people. You will badger people who pledged endorse you. You will beg people for money, repeatedly, even when they have donated before. You will knock the doors of people you met just a week before only to hear them reaffirm that they are undecided. People will complain. They will tell you they hate getting political mail. They will tell you that if you call again they won't vote for you (if that's the case they were never going to support you in the first place.) They will write op-eds lamenting negative campaigning... and in the end you will win because you were willing to do it and your opponent was not.

When you ask people to support you either with their time or financially, you are implicitly promising that you will work as hard as you possibly can to get elected. Doing these things that annoy voters but will help you win in the long run is how you keep your end of that bargain.

3) "It's like the Obama campaign."

No, it's not. When I hear this from a candidate it immediately makes me think "this person has unrealistic expectations about what it means to run for office."

I don't care how charismatic, well-connected or progressive you are, people are not going to be coming out of the woodwork to volunteer on or donate money to your campaign by sheer force of your personality. You need to earn it. Barack Obama had an historic candidacy. The kind of dedication and passion exhibited by his 2008 supporters just does not exist on a non-national level and most times not even then. This doesn't mean you won't also have passionate and dedicated supporters, but they are likely to be fewer in number and harder to earn. Even if you worked for Obama, you are not him. Most people will not tear up when they talk about why they support you. Tactics that Obama could rely on, like charging for yard signs, circulating youtube videos that get thousands of hits, and online fundraising drives are not going to be the bread and butter of your campaign. This is a local election about local issues and local people. This race is about you and the community you are running to represent. What will help you win is hard work; good old fashioned fundraising calls, an understanding of your district and lots of voter contact, which by the way Obama for America did plenty of.

4)"My wife/husband is my campaign manager/field director/communications person."

Bad idea. Other than Ben and Leslie, I have seen this work exactly once when my candidate's wife was the campaign treasurer and she was a) an exceptional person and b) able to perform that job in a few hours a week.

You do not want your spouse to play any role on the campaign where they have to tell you "no" or tell or be told "no" by other campaign staff. Why? Because running for office is hard. I don't just mean its difficult to run a good campaign, although it is, I mean emotionally. Your staff's job is to kick your butt a little and your spouse's job is to support you. Those two motives will inevitably come into conflict at some point. If your relationship and your campaign are intertwined, one or the other will suffer. You want your staff to be thinking about what's best for you as a candidate, not as a person, and believe me, you'll want someone to complain to about the rest of us at the end of the day. Do not do this to yourself or your campaign team.

5)"That may have worked in location X but it won't work here."

I have written/railed about this phenomenon before.

Here is where a kitchen cabinet of local supporters can either be very useful, or a thorn in a campaign manager's side. Thanks to local advisors, I now know that the Pine Beetle is killing Colorado's forests and that in Minnesota volunteers bring bars and hot dish to a potluck, not cookies and casserole. At the same time when an equally well meaning group of local activists told me that there are no campaign volunteers in the state of Connecticut, (None! In the entire state!) that wasn't gonna fly.

When it comes to local issues, jargon, and landscape, yes, you know more than your campaign staff. However when it comes to mainstays of running a campaign like voter contact, fundraising, and targeting, your campaign manager is still the expert and she knows what's necessary to win. In places like college towns where the voter list from three years ago may no longer be current or in New York City where it's harder to access big buildings, this may take a little creative thinking, which is another way in which your trusted local advisors are invaluable. In those cases, it is much more constructive to say "this is how we make that happen here" rather than undermine your staff by allowing your local supporters to write her off as outsider.

6)"There's too much money in politics, I'm going to win with grassroots support."

This is just a cop out way of saying "I'm not willing to do fundraising calls," in which case, don't run for office. I don't care if you're old school John McCain and Feingold and Bernie Sanders rolled into one piece of campaign finance legislation, you still need to raise money. As Barack Obama said when asked why he opposes Citizens United but not Democratic Super PACs, "We're not going to just unilateraly disarm." Call it using the master's tools to dismantle the master's house, call it whatever you like. If you want to get the money out of politics, you need to be elected and to do that you need to fundraise. Always. In every case. No exception.

7)"They haven't yet, but they should/will support me."

One of the hardest things about being a first time candidate is facing a lot of disappointment. When you run for office some people come through for you in ways you could have never imagined and some people...don't. You will have friends who just put a new wing on their house to house their vintage car collection who tell you they can't afford to max out on your campaign. You will have clubs in which you have been a loyal member for years refuse to endorse you for political reasons. It's not fair. It stinks. It's humbling and it's life.

Don't take anything for granted until the check is in your hand or the endorsement is in the paper. Then when it happens, you can be pleasantly surprised.

Look, running for office is tough. You're selling yourself and there's a chance that you might be rejected. You have to call people you haven't spoken to in years and ask them for money. There are times when it can feel downright humiliating. It's hard not to take the possibility of victory personally, and maybe even harder to hand that awesome responsibility to a twenty-something who you've never met before. I get it. That relationship can be difficult enough and I hope by putting this advice out there, I am saving you further strain. One thing I can promise you is that your staff wants you to succeed. Trust them and be a candidate worthy of their trust and the chances of success increase exponentially.

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