Although my time as a soldier ended in 2008, I’ll always be grateful for the many life lessons I learned in the U.S. Army. It wasn’t easy, but neither was running for political office.
Running a good campaign takes discipline and attention to detail. And when you’re running for local office, you rarely have a high-paid political team to fall back on. Without the training I received from the greatest military in the world, I’m confident my first run for office would have proven a much tougher task.
I ran my first campaign the year after I left the military, and found myself frequently drawing upon my Army training as I campaigned for city council in Amherst, Ohio. In the end, I was successful on Election Day, and was proud to be the top vote-getter in an at-large race for three seats.
I infused my city council campaign with many of the same strategies I learned in the Army, and along the way I discovered just how applicable they were to running local races. I’m currently serving my third term on the city council.
You don’t have to be former soldier to apply these lessons to your own campaign—just be willing to work hard and take pride in everything you do.
1. Put together a good plan
The Army puts a lot of stress on planning properly for every mission, and rightly so. Being familiar with every detail and prepared for any contingency makes it more likely the mission will be completed and every soldier will return home safely.
When running for office, putting together a good plan before you hit the campaign trail is absolutely vital if you want to win on Election Day. It’s easy to skip tasks such as likely voter research, formulation of a powerful message, and building a strong fundraising list. It’s precisely why many lazy candidates don’t do it. Even though these tasks are far from glamorous, they’re essential.
If you’ve taken the time and effort to put together a comprehensive plan for your campaign, then you’ve already done much of what it takes to win. The next step is to actually implement that plan.
2. Take pride in even the smallest detail
It could get a little frustrating in Basic Training and Officer Candidate School when a superior chewed you out for overlooking a very small detail, but there was a good reason why they were so hard on us. Soldiers who take pride in even the smallest details will always have the discipline and preparation it takes to succeed on the battlefield.
We don’t need to get that dramatic when applying this lesson to running for office, but taking pride in every aspect of your political campaign is important if you want voters to look at you as a credible and professional candidate.
Check and double-check the grammar and spelling on your campaign literature. Make sure you have a clean, professional appearance when on the campaign trail. Personally call every campaign supporter and donor to thank them for their help. Make sure you find ways to show voters you take pride in every detail of your campaign.
3. When you’re ahead, keep pressing the advantage until you win
Regardless of how far ahead you think you might be, always fight as though you’re behind. And don’t let up, even a tiny bit, until victory is achieved.
That’s an important bit of advice for both soldiers and political candidates. Getting too confident of victory is deadly to military campaigns and political campaigns. Don’t pay attention to what the grapevine and the polls might say about your inevitable victory. Keep campaigning as though you’re 10 points behind your opponent, right up until the polls close on Election Day. On the day after the election, when you’ve won your race in a landslide, you can rest—at least for a little while.
4. Even with good technology, boots on the ground are indispensable
For many reasons, protracted war simply can’t be waged successfully without boots on the ground, regardless of how advanced your technology is. The individual rifleman who sweats and strains under the weight of combat gear will always be an indispensable part of military campaigns.
If you’re serious about winning a political campaign, sweating and straining should be part of your strategy, too. Walking door-to-door in your district to meet the voters personally takes a lot of work, but is an extremely effective campaign tactic. And because of how difficult it is to do, your opponent isn’t likely to match your efforts.
In my case, I really did wear combat boots for my door-to-door campaigning (the same boots I wore in basic training, actually). I started going door-to-door nearly a year before Election Day, and was able to hit the whole city four times. People might have gotten sick of seeing me, but you can sure bet they remembered my name and saw how hard I was willing to work for their vote.
5. Take on each task with confidence and professionalism
Regardless of how difficult a mission might look, always display confidence in your decisions and your methods. Second-guessing and wringing your hands leads to contagious pessimism, and nothing is more damaging to military morale than a leader who doesn’t seem to be confident of success.
You might not always be certain of victory in your political campaign, either, but never let your supporters, your volunteers, or the public get the sense that you aren’t confident and in control. Voters want to elect leaders can lead and stay calm in the most stressful circumstances, and coming across as wishy-washy or nervous is damaging to any candidate. Just don’t let confidence turn into arrogance.
One last note: even though we justly spoke of taking the fight “to the enemy” when I served in the Army, I don’t like to extend the military metaphor that far when applying it to campaigns. Don’t look at your opponent as the enemy. You’re both neighbors, and Americans, running for office in the greatest country in the world. Always remember that, regardless of who wins on Election Day.
Phil Van Treuren is a former journalist, political consultant and soldier. He’s currently a city councilman in Amherst, Ohio and writes about political campaign strategy on PoliticalCampaigningTips.com.