When I taught campaign schools or worked with individual candidates, I covered a number of “do’s and don’ts,” some of which went against conventional wisdom or the advice candidates got from their spouses, aunts, uncles and cousins. I didn’t make up the rules; I based my advice on what I had learned attending countless campaign schools and seminars from experts who had been running successful campaigns for years. Now that I’m a candidate I’m trying to follow my own advice, which ain’t always easy.
Here are some examples…
YARD SIGNS: Yard signs are expensive, and too many candidates get caught up in thinking that he or she who has the most yard signs wins. We’ve all seen candidates who seem to spend most of their time planting yard signs, like farmers planting corn or soybeans. Here’s a fact – there is no correlation between having the most yard signs and having the most votes. Does anyone think that Hillary Clinton would have won Highland County if she had managed to find places to stick more yard signs in the ground than Donald Trump?
Some candidates will spend days or weeks fretting over the appearance and design of their yard signs, as though they’re going to be entered into a national Yard Sign Design Contest. They take forever to decide on the colors they’ll use, or whether to put their picture on it, or what kind of font they’ll use, and gather opinions from their hundred closest friends and family members. Designing a yard sign should take two minutes.
If yard signs serve any purpose at all, it’s only one – to remind people of the candidate’s name. I used to tell candidates that if I ever ran for office – and this was when I never thought I would ever actually run for office – but I said that if I ever ran for office, I would have the most basic yard sign in the history of yard signs. No fancy logo, no creative graphics, no message, just my name and office – in other words, just like people will see it on the ballot.
UPDATE: I already broke this rule!
But yard signs are necessary because candidates will have supporters who want to put signs in their yards. They are very nice people who really like you. You should keep them happy. But most people will tell you they only have a sign in their yard because someone asked them if they could put it there and they didn’t want to be rude. In reality, they think it’s a pain to take it in an out of the ground every time they mow their yard.
UPDATE: I’m spending more time getting out yard signs than I said I should! Thanks to everyone who has asked for them, it’s much appreciated.
CAMPAIGN T-SHIRTS: You will need just enough campaign T-shirts for people who want to wear them, which will only be family members, and people you guilt into wearing them, which will be people who are friends who will feel bad for saying no. So about 10 or 20 should do it.
TRINKETS: Trinkets are things emblazoned with a candidate’s name like hand fans, yardsticks, rulers, fly swatters, key chains, combs, emery boards, paint stirrers, refrigerator magnets and other completely useless items that get handed out at events like county fairs, as well as county fairs, not to mention county fairs. Someone already asked me what I would be handing out at the county fair. I will be at the county fair meeting people in person, and I will have literature available at the Republican booth. But I will have no trinkets.
Mark Weaver, a former deputy Ohio attorney general and a longtime campaign consultant, does a great presentation on the uselessness of trinkets. His presentation should be required for every candidate. What do people do with yardsticks, fans and fly swatters after they take them home from the fair? They put them in the closet, never to be seen again. One out of 100 people might take your refrigerator magnet and put it on the refrigerator, where it will be seen every day by the two voters who live in that house.
The only people who push trinkets as a good idea are people who sell trinkets. Still, people at the fair are sure to say, “Hey, there sure are a lot of people walking around with yardsticks with your opponent’s name on them.” And you should say, “Where can I get one? I could use a good yardstick!” Then take it home and put it in the closet, and thank God that you were smart enough not to spend a dime on trinkets.
UPDATE: So far I’m sticking to the no-trinket rule.
CAMPAIGN LITERATURE: Campaign literature is necessary and beneficial. Hopefully, it tells people a little about you, why you are running for office, and how to contact you. This, unlike yard signs, is where you can get a little creative with some nice pictures, pleasantly presented. Typically, you only want to pay for literature that will say only positive things about you. Other people will spread all the negative things at no charge, so don’t worry about including those. You’ll eventually turn your literature into direct mail, more about that later.
GIVING AWAY WHISKEY AT THE POLLS: Giving away whiskey at the polls has been banned in every state, with the possible exception of West Virginia, so don’t get caught doing it.
DOOR TO DOOR: Door-to-door campaigning is good, and the idea behind it is to personally visit as many homes as possible. But there’s nothing worse than bothering people when they’re home trying to relax. Just hang your little card on their doorknob and be on your way. If people see you and want to chat, then chat away. Otherwise, don’t annoy them. Put your phone number and email address on every piece of literature you leave on their doorknob, so if anyone really wants to talk to you or correspond, they can do it at their leisure, not with you interrupting them in the middle of “Jeopardy” or “Wheel of Fortune” or “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
ROBO CALLS: Robo calls are those automated phone calls that dial up hundreds or thousands of people and play a recorded message, usually from the candidate. Several years ago, they were new and unique enough to be effective. Today, they’re so cheap, common and overused that people just get annoyed by them. Don’t do it, unless you’re a Republican in Highland County with a recorded message from Donald Trump supporting you, or unless you’re a Democrat in Highland County with a recorded message from Donald Trump supporting you. Then, go ahead.
MEDIA RELATIONS: Candidates should always cooperate with the media, and then never worry about what the media writes, positive or negative. Even when someone in the media writes the most hateful, biased things, continue to answer their questions (if they bother to ask them) and be classy. Don’t feel too good about positive press, and don’t worry about negative press. Voters are smart enough to distinguish fair coverage from biased coverage. Run your campaign, and don’t worry about the media.
FUNDRAISING: There are two ways to raise money, the easy way and the hard way. The easy way is to find five to 10 people who are able and willing to give you very large campaign contributions. The hard way is to raise small amounts from a lot of people, usually by putting on events and charging $10 or $20 to get in and enjoy cold hot dogs and stale potato chips. The easy way is recommended, even if your opponent accuses you of being in the pocket of wealthy donors, which just means your opponent is mad because you were able to raise money the easy way.
KISSING BABIES: Kissing babies used to be a requirement for candidates, but it has largely gone by the wayside, mostly because people know a lot more about germs and bacteria than they knew in the old days. If someone holds up their baby for you to kiss, politely decline and offer to give the baby a little fist bump instead.
DIRECT MAIL: Direct mail remains the most effective way to reach voters, but it shouldn’t be overloaded with information. More pictures, less text. In fact, include just enough text that can be read in the time it takes a voter to walk from the mailbox to the trash can. Make sure to include pictures that show you with your wife, children and, if applicable, grandchildren and pets, so people know you aren’t an unlovable hermit living in isolation in a remote cabin with the ATF poised just outside your door.
Pictures on your direct mail pieces should include “action shots” showing you doing something outdoorsy, even if you never, in real life, venture outdoors except to get into your car. Walking through a field wearing camouflage and carrying a rifle is always good, but make sure to remove all the tags from your new camouflage outfit. Or, hold a shovel and dig a hole in the ground. Or, hammer a nail into a board. Or, ride a bicycle. If you can do things outdoors, you’ll obviously be a good public officeholder.
Finally, come up with a good slogan to include in your direct mail. “Dedicated, Experienced, Trustworthy” is always popular. But you might consider others like, “Knows A Lot of Useless Trivia,” or, “Pretty Good Elvis Impersonator.” Any of those will be just as effective.
GET STARTED! Now you’re ready to begin your campaign. If you follow this advice you’ll have a pretty good chance of winning, unless your opponent is more popular and gets more votes. But that’s beyond your control. Good luck!