Former Senator Alan Simpson once said that most campaigns for office start with a couple of friends, sitting around a table drinking beers. While this may be the way most campaigns start, they shouldn’t stay that way for long. Too often, local candidates think that the best way to run a campaign is to get some friends involved and the campaign will fall into place on its own. While some of these types of campaigns win, most lose. In order to succeed, every campaign, even the most local, most take a business like approach to winning elections.
Plan First, Campaign Later
Most successful businesses start with a plan. The same is true of most successful campaigns. Before the first hand is shook of the first baby kissed, a local campaign must sit down and figure out the surest path to victory. At the very least, the plan must include a budget (how much money will the campaign spend?) a fundraising plan (how will we raise that money?) a voter contact strategy (how are we going to reach the voters?) and a get-out-the-vote strategy (how will we get those voters to the polls?)
Big Picture / Little Picture
No business can thrive simply by knowing what it wants to do – it must also figure out a way to get there. Similarly, no business can survive by counting pennies and buying paper clips, without knowing what it wants to do with them. It is the classic dilemma of the “big picture” vs. the “small picture” — in order to be a successful business, the company must both see the big picture (what is our ultimate goal? What do we want to do?) and simultaneously see the small picture (what exactly needs to be done to get there? What are the steps? Who will carry them out?)
Unfortunately, most campaigns fail to grasp this concept. Too often, the candidate sees only the big picture: lofty debates in the legislature where he or she fights for their constituents, or mantras about lower taxes or better schools. Just as often, campaign staff, volunteers, and consultants see only the small picture: how many mail pieces go out to whom, how much money is left in the campaign treasury, what precincts should be walked door-to-door. The key to campaign success is to merge both the big picture and the small picture – to be able to see where you are going, and how you get there. If the candidate can not see both simultaneously, then it is imperative to find a campaign manager who can.
Finally, despite what you’ve heard about the “new corporate culture”: twenty three year old kids who run companies where the employees keep water pistols on their desks and sit in bean bag chairs — companies don’t succeed without hierarchy and definition. Even though those employees may have water pistols and wear shorts to work, they know what they are supposed to do and who is going to know if they don’t do it.
Every successful business requires both hierarchy and definition. Campaigns need the same. Even if the campaign structure is mostly volunteers, and is “loose”, people should still know exactly what they are required to do and who they report to.
This doesn’t mean that volunteers and staff shouldn’t be allowed to take initiative — far from it. If a volunteer knows that he is expected to deliver 100 votes in his precinct or sell five tickets to a fundraiser, he is all the more likely to figure out creative means for achieving those goals. The important thing, though, is that the volunteer has a goal, and someone is checking his progress.
Plan, See Both Pictures, and Define
Campaigns should start as an informal idea amongst the candidate and his closest supporters. But as soon as the candidate is serious about running for office, the campaign must take a businesslike approach. The campaign must plan its activities well in advance, see the goal and know how to get there, and define roles within the campaign.
By following the corporate model, campaigns can introduce a level of efficiency that “unstructured” campaigns simply can’t compete with.