Personal and professional finances are at the top of the long list of how to attack a candidate. Take Marco Rubio, the most recent office seeker to have a money-related issue hit the press.
In high-profile races, the press look hard and long to discover some weakness in the candidate’s financial situation. But everyone who runs for office should be alert to this issue and plan accordingly.
There are two separate scenarios that usually crop up. If candidates are wealthy and self-funded, the press wants to know how he or she earned the money, how much they have on hand and how they spend it. They’re harsh critics on the very rich and will look until they find a questionable, or what appears to be a questionable situation.
If the candidate isn’t wealthy, then the press looks at bills, loans, education expenses and family commitments. What a tough and difficult situation for a person who’s struggled to get an education, provide for a family and save. Each person and each situation is different, but the press generally will go after candidates the same way. Still, there are ways to prepare. As a fundraising consultant, here are some common questions I get from my clients:
Are personal or campaign funds scrutinized more?
It depends on what you’re running for and the amount of money being discussed. Both are areas that can cause a candidate to become defensive and lose focus on the campaign. In order not to let that happen, plan, organize and know all details about your personal and campaign money so you’ll be prepared to answer questions as presented to you and not fall into a money trap.
As a first-time candidate, what are the common pitfalls related to campaign accounts?
Remember that people contribute to your campaign so you’ll be a strong and viable candidate who’ll have the necessary financial resources to get your message to the voters. Contributions are for office expenses, campaign travel, staff, mail, phone banking and, if possible, cable or TV. Contributions aren’t for lavish dinners, gifts, excessive travel, or car maintenance.
Contributors want to know that their contributions are being used wisely and effectively. The candidate must be aware of how contributions are being spent. There’s no excuse for funds to be used inappropriately or for the candidate to say, “I didn’t know about that expenditure.”
How do I hire the right people?
Choosing staff is your decision, but remember: Compensation isn’t always the benchmark for your choice. You need to be comfortable with the person and his or her skills. Analyze your strong and weak areas and choose a person who balances your qualities. Another important rule to follow is: don’t hire family members or close friends. Moreover, don’t feel you should give someone a position based on what they’re doing to help your campaign.
When the campaign is in full swing, how do I monitor the cash flow?
An experienced fundraiser or finance consultant will know the rules and limits for contributions. That person should alert you to any expenditure or contributions that may be in question. Better to take the time to research the check rather than have to return the contribution or explain why you spent a certain amount of money on an item or activity. If you have a campaign credit card, use it sparingly and only for items related to the campaign. Your finance team should also be watching the in and out of the money.
What happens when the campaign is in the last weeks and there isn’t enough money?
The campaign team and you didn’t follow the budget outlined in the beginning of the campaign. Or often, the other side hits so hard you need to keep finding money to produce more mail or TV in order to fight back. Either way, you’re going into debt, unless you increase and strengthen your fundraising efforts. Don’t be tempted by a contributor’s personal offer in return for your “help” later on, and don’t stop paying your staff because, win or lose, raising money post-Election Day won’t be easy.
Unless you’re extraordinarily wealthy, don’t dip into your personal savings or mortgage your home to pay for your campaign. You’re being watched each day and a financial misstep can impact both the present and any future campaigns.
Renée Hatchwell is the founder of Renée Hatchwell Company, which offers fundraising as well as finance consulting and development.