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So, you want to run for public office…

A few tips on hand shaking and baby kissing from “Campaign Boot Camp”

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2006-01-23


Every first-time candidate for public office dreams of conducting a clear and incisive campaign, winning people over to their favorite issues by using their eloquence and reason, and securing a landslide victory by inspiring an unprecedented number of voters to head to the polls.

In reality, that probably won’t happen. As a first-time candidate, you’ll probably underestimate the number of hands you’ll have to shake and babies you’ll have to kiss; stifle your burning enthusiasm for a particular issue in favor of a simplified one that has resonance with voters; and listen to a time-consuming rant by the local crank at a neighborhood association meeting on how a road repair project on his street “took six weeks when they said it was going to take four!”

According to Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW, you won’t be alone: most first-time candidates for public office regularly run into some common problems that they need to be prepared for.

Downs recently wrapped up “Campaign Boot Camp,” a two-day workshop covering issues that political office seekers might expect to encounter when they decide to run for office. Around 40 people — including many actual candidates, those mulling the possibility of becoming one someday, and the merely curious — participated in the workshop, where one of the tasks was to design a fictional (or non-fictional, as the case may be) campaign.

If there’s a number one rule for campaigning for political office, it’s keep your message simple. Find the issues you want to focus on (the rule of thumb is three issues) and keep hitting those, no matter how repetitive it seems to you. “Candidates do not understand how important it is to stay on message,” Downs says. “You get bored saying the same thing over and over again and you want to say something new. It’s just natural. But although the candidate may be saying something for the 350th time, it may be the first time someone in the room has heard it.”

Sounds pretty self-evident, doesn’t it? In fact, many of the topics covered in the “Campaign Boot Camp” workshop — things like talking about issues that have resonance in the area, focusing on people who are registered voters, and researching your own background — seem like “givens.” Well, maybe, but Downs, who was Graham Richard’s campaign manager in 1999, says first-time candidates and novices can find themselves falling into potholes despite thinking they’re prepared.

For instance, candidates typically underestimate a few things about running for office. The first on that list? If you said “money,” you’re not that far off. First-time candidates do tend to underestimate the amount of money they need in order to run an effective campaign. But at the same time… “most offices listed on the ballot do not require a huge sum of money to campaign for,” Downs says. “Most people will underestimate the amount of money that they need in order to win, but it doesn’t require a huge amount of money in and of itself.”

So, if it’s not money, then what is it? According to Downs, it’s the amount of time and work it’s going to take to win. It all depends on what office they’re running for, of course, but many first-time candidates initially think they’ll spend a couple days a week campaigning, when really, it needs to be five or six. “They don’t think about how many neighborhood association meetings they’ll have to attend, or meetings they’ll have to attend with community leaders who might be able to support you and get others to, or the time it takes to put together a mailing and stuff envelopes,” Downs explains.

Candidates also don’t realize how much they need to research their own background. Fort Wayne politics aren’t particularly dirty. The mud-slinging is kept to a minimum (maybe because around here, it’s usually the one who does the slinging who ends up looking bad), but at the same time, your words (or votes if you’ve previously held public office) can come back to haunt you, even in the relatively clean atmosphere of Fort Wayne political campaigns. Obviously, someone running for Wayne County Assessor is not going to be subject to the same level of scrutiny as, say, a Supreme Court nominee, but the basic idea still applies — if you’ve ever made a public statement that’s ill-thought out, carries the faintest whiff of controversy, or is just plain stupid, people will dredge it up and you should be prepared to deal with it.

This also applies to any specific, unformulated issue-based ideas you’ve expressed. “Say you’ve taken a specific position on an issue, like instead of replacing the head works at the filtration plant, you think it would be better to build a new, smaller filtration plant some place else in the community,” Downs says. “Immediately, someone is going to ask you ‘where will you put it? Where is your source of water going to be? What does that do to the overall water table? How are we going to afford it?’”

“If you open up the door, you have to be able to talk to the people who come through the door.”

Most importantly, if you want to win, stick to the people who care — i.e. registered voters. Sure, maybe a really strong candidate can inspire a significant number of people to register to vote. And maybe that candidate is you. But it’s probably not. If someone is not registered to vote, you have to 1.) convince them to register; 2.) convince them to vote; and 3) convince them to vote for you. You’ve probably got enough on your plate.

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