Creating your campaign plan

How to chart your path as a political candidate

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
—Mike Tyson

You will not create a detailed plan on day one that you follow closely through election day. Your job at the start of the campaign is to put together the basic campaign building blocks that will prepare you to respond to the unpredictable challenges that will face you on the campaign trail.

Know your district

You should know how voters in your district voted in the previous few cycles. That includes their votes for the office you’re running for, as well as their votes for other races, including presidential contests. If your state has party registration, you should also learn how many voters are registered Republicans, registered Democrats, and registered NPA or other. You should have a sense of what turnout looks like in your district - total turnout as well as partisan turnout. Calculating your win number is a good exercise and you should do it, but be aware that its importance is sometimes exaggerated.

NOTE: Be very aware that district boundaries sometimes shift - don’t be confused by races in the “same” district that were actually run in a different geographic area.

Know former candidates

Know who has run in your district for the past few cycles. Know their names, their basic campaign message and how they were received by different local voting blocs. Look up their finance reports with the Supervisor of Elections (or Board of Elections or Division of elections - know the authorities!). Their total raised will give you a sense of the budget you’ll need to realistically win your own race.

Decide who you’re communicating with

The main goal of your campaign is to win the most votes in your election. To do this, you’ll need to communicate with voters - this will be the actual goal of most of your campaign work. Your communications vendors for mail, digital, TV, etc will be experts on targeting, so get people on your team who you trust, and then TRUST THEM. But it’s good for you to have some idea who you’d like to communicate with from the start of the campaign.

For most campaigns, it’s best to have one main message going to one main target. An example of a communications target for Democratic campaigns in competitive districts might be NPAs plus Republican women.

How will you communicate?

Have a sense of how you may communicate with voters. Every single communication method is costly in dollars, time, or both. If you have very (VERY) dedicated volunteers, a volunteer field and phonebanking program can be an effective way to reach voters. Mail is expensive, but the rate at which it reaches your targets is second-to-none. Digital is inexpensive and well-targeted, but generally reaches a much smaller portion of your targeted universe. TV is the most powerful medium for getting attention from large numbers of voters and driving a narrative. However, TV is also extremely expensive.

How will you raise money?

If you were recruited to run by someone, you should talk to them about how much they will help with funding. Pin them down and get specific answers that you can hold them to later - big words are easy to offer at the beginning, and often don’t pan out later. Next take a look at your network and your own finances. For your network, complete a thorough rolodexing process – this will help you get an idea what a realistic campaign budget will ultimately look like. In most places, you should not expect your local or state party to foot the bill for your campaign. They may help a little, but it will be your job as a candidate to fund your campaign.

Build your team

Once you know your district, past candidates, and your targets, it’s time to build your team. Be very careful here because it’s easy to overstaff and sink your campaign’s chances before you’ve even started. Conversely, it’s possible to have too little expertise on the team and therefore make big mistakes early. Here’s one good guideline: if you’re not willing to pay staff out of your own pocketbook, you shouldn’t hire any paid staff until you’ve finished rolodexing your network. Ultimately, you want to spend 70% or more of the money you raise on voter outreach, with all overhead (including payroll) kept below 30%. This is difficult for small campaigns, but you should still aim to spend the overwhelming majority of your funds on directly communicating with voters.

Campaigns usually feature a campaign manager or general consultant who organizes the entire campaign, including the other team members. This person or firm is paid a salary or a monthly consulting fee. On a sizable campaign, you may also have a paid field organizer to run a field program (whether it’s paid or volunteer). Communications is generally done by vendors who work on contract. A large campaign may have as many as 5 separate vendors, including a pollster. A small campaign will probably have 1 or 2 vendors.

Getting started

Once you have your team together, the campaign is truly under way. As the candidate you will usually fill two key roles: 1. Being the public face of the campaign, and 2. Raising the money to fund the campaign. Campaigns can be tough. Learn more in our guide to Campaign Fundraising with Call Time and our Overview of Campaign Events.

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