So you’ve decided to jump in and run for office in 2014. Congratulations. Now, get to work, because chances are you’re already behind, at least online.
The general election may be more than a year away, but starting your digital campaign now will pay off in dollars, volunteers and (most likely) votes next fall. So where should you start? To get some ideas, I surveyed an array of experienced Republican and Democratic campaigners, most with an online or grassroots bent. They’ve all spent years working with campaigns up and down the scale, and I came away with a ton of great advice, so listen up.
Don’t forget the fundamentals
We’ll focus on the digital side of 2014 prep for the purposes of this piece, but that’s only because we’re assuming you’ve already covered the political fundamentals. As Democratic consultant Kathryn Poindexter reminds us, “Make sure you’re legally eligible for the office you want to hold, and in particular check residency and age requirements.” Don’t be stupid enough to get caught on the wrong side of a district line.
Also, don’t forget what kind of political year we’ll be looking at in 2014 when you formulate your overall strategy. Facing an off-year electorate makes a big difference when it comes to structuring your campaign.
“Know that turnout will be very different from 2012, so fire up your base,” advises NationBuilder’s Mike Moschella. In an off-year, it’s critical to “ensure the candidate interacts personally with grassroots leaders, not just the big donors.”
Get those emails
Here’s the single piece of advice I heard over and over when talking with experienced online campaigners: start collecting email addresses now. It’s never too early to build that list. Republican grassroots organizer (and hardcore techie) Andrew Hemingway says campaigns should be doing everything they can to collect email addresses at this stage of the game.
“A good email list will pay huge dividends,” says Hemingway.
The money you invest now in list-building, identifying supporters and donors “will pay off in spades when it comes to election time,” says DSPolitical’s Chris Massicotte. “They’ll be your precinct captains, your organizers and your last-minute donors.”
So how to get the email addresses? Advertising is one route, and most campaigns will benefit from running at least some geo-targeted Google or Facebook ads as soon as they have an online signup form or Facebook page to point them at. As Beekeeper Group’s Henri Makembe notes, advertising will likely cost a campaign significantly less this far out from election time. That means early online ads are not only smart, but they’re not going to cost much.
While advertising can help, the most important source of contacts at this stage is personal contact, particularly for local campaigns.
“At every event, you ask people for their email addresses,” says Massicotte. So don’t forget to bring that iPad to every fish fry and house party.
Build the grassroots and the grasstops
The second piece of advice I heard again and again? Build relationships now, long before you’ll need to leverage them. As Poindexter put it, “See and be seen; be involved with your community, with your political party, and with your personal and professional networks. Attend everything, host a few things, and get absolutely everyone’s contact info.”
Doing this successfully requires you to get strategic about your outreach early.
“Part of the field campaign has to be figuring out who the influencers are, who are your grasstops, and who you need to be reaching out to,” says NGP VAN’s Rob Winikates.
Social media is a big part of this process, since the category of politically influential people now includes bloggers and social media activists. Democratic social media maven Beth Becker advises campaigns to “start developing relations with individuals who care about issues you care about, who are geographically relevant and who are influential.”
Technology is one way to make that “influential” determination since services like Klout.com can help you estimate how many people listen to a particular online activist. But, says Becker, they’re only a start. When you’re evaluating a potential online contact, you need to not only be observing what they’re talking about you need to see whether their audience actually engages with them.