Whether you dream of running for president or just for a local city council seat, the world of politics is a whole new ballgame, complete with enough unwritten rules and cunning tricks to rival just about any secret society. Navigating the dos and don'ts of political life can make running for office a daunting endeavor, but if you take on the challenge and do it right, you too can enter the slick world of democracy.
The end result -- the celebration party and the photo ops -- might seem pretty glamorous from the outside, but you can't ignore the hard work and behind-the-scenes maneuvers of a political campaign. Preparing for any race at the polls will take a lot of time, effort and maybe even treachery. If you're planning on diving in, here are some of the things you'll need to keep in mind for a successful run for political office.
Choose a position
Before you start practicing your gracious winner's speech, you'll need to lay the groundwork for your rise to political stardom. Your first decision is whether to become a career politician (someone whose sole occupation is their elected status) or maintain your day job while holding office. This choice will help narrow down your options in terms of which races you can enter. Obviously, most of the high-profile political jobs, such as state governor or senator, will only be options if you're looking to make it a full-time job. If you only want a sideline project, you might want to consider a local council seat, trusteeship or board position for a local organization.
When trying to decide what type of position you want to pursue, it's a good idea to look into candidacy requirements to find out which ones you're eligible to run for. Because politics aren't just about handshakes and interns, plenty of strict laws and regulations are built into the system to monitor the democratic process. Everyone knows that a U.S. president has to be born in the United States, but that isn't all; every elected position has standards you have to meet.
Research your predecessors and opponents
Once you've figured out what office you're striving for, it's time to do a little research. Look into who has the job now and who's had it in the past in order to get an idea of what it takes to be elected, and what you'll have to do once you are. You might think that information will only be available on past presidents and senators, but your local media and library can offer up plenty of background information on recent mayors, city councilors and various other elected officials.
Look for similarities: Were most lawyers or family men, college grads or military servicemen? Pick out the characteristics that seem to pop up the most often and try your best to incorporate them -- or at least parts of them -- into your own persona. Don’t forget to hide the skeletons in your closet and dig up dirt on your opponents
Speaking of research and your character, some of the most important work you will have to do is on yourself. You must run through your own sordid history to spot any potential skeletons in your closet and figure out how to keep them hidden. You might also want to dig into the history of whomever you're running against. Knowing your opponents is one of the most critical factors in just about every aspect of life, and during an election, their dirty laundry can be a particularly valuable asset. Keeping a few secrets in your back pocket can be good insurance if things don't go your way and you need to sideline an adversary.
Plan your campaign
Now that you know the goals and the players, it's time to figure out exactly how to get to where you want to go. Your campaign must have a lot of different facets if you expect to be successful. Politics is a fierce game that is far removed from the sparkly posters and lunchtime campaign promises of your run for senior class president. The one thing that does remain the same is that most elections really are just popularity contests. Sure, some idealists believe in the right person for the job and a commitment to making a difference, but most of us know that he with the most friends wins.
Before you head out to make the “friends” that will ultimately be casting votes in your favor, you need to decide on your campaign platform; that is, what you actually plan to accomplish while you're in office. To get elected, you won't need to cover every single topic in detail, but you'll want to have a solid stance on the important, hot-button issues of the day.
Scan newspapers, watch the national and local news and political programs -- or you can cheat and scan the internet for buzz words and hot topics to use in your quest for power. You're more likely to gain attention if you take a stand on an issue that is already in the headlines.
However, steer clear of topics that are out of the breadth of your position, like abortion or assisted suicide. If it isn't something you will be able to do anything about once in office, it's best not to give people ammunition against you. Topics like these are contentious, and you can be assured that no matter which side of the issue you fall on, you would offend too many people to make it worthwhile.
Perfect your look and form alliances
Before you head out on the campaign trail, there are a few more things you'll have to prepare. First, you have to look like a politician, which includes a conservative haircut, great teeth, a nice suit,and if possible, an attractive man/woman at your side. You’ll also get bonus points for some cute kids for photo opportunities; nieces and nephews will do in a pinch.
Next, you need to form some alliances; a united front and noteworthy references are the cornerstones of a winning political career. You have to seek out as many friends (aka supporters) as possible, particularly high-profile ones. Mine your contact list for anyone who might be able to help you out or who might know someone who can. Old school friends, former coworkers, friends of your parents -- anyone who could possibly give you an introduction into the world of politics or grant you access to the people with the cash and know-how to help you get started.
How to build your campaign team… What you're looking for is access to your target demographic, and some free campaign publicity and support. Remember: Exposure is the only way to get votes, so you're looking for volume. Why go door to door stating your case to the individual voter when you can speak at your uncle Herb’s monthly union meeting and grab 200 voters in one shot? People are more likely to vote for someone they feel a connection with -- regardless of how brief their contact with them was or how far removed they are -- so start making lists of all your strategic alliances and supporters, and their strategic alliances and supporters, and so on. Your goal is to build your very own six-degrees- of-separation grid, one that will hopefully connect you with enough voters to win your election.
Build your team
Now that you have the avenues for getting your message out there, you will need some help bringing all the pieces together. Only the smallest of campaigns can be run single-handedly, so you will most likely need to surround yourself with a staff of savvy organizers and eager worker bees. When it comes to staffing, there are some key players you'll want to have around, although the exact number will depend on the level of office you're aiming for.
Political advisers and campaign managers are going to cost you. Six-figure salaries are the standard for most advisers for a national or state campaign -- such as for senator, governor or president -- but their salaries are much more reasonable for smaller campaigns and they can be invaluable resources for the first-timer. Sound advice and years of experience can add polish and refinement to what could otherwise be a haphazard campaign, making an adviser worthwhile for those shooting for a high-profile, media-worthy position.
Other areas you might consider assigning to someone with experience include fundraising coordination and press management. In a pinch, troll your local universities and colleges for political science or marketing majors that could help you out. Your focus should be on the big picture while your staff works to ensure that all the pieces of the puzzle are taken care of and in line with the overall vision.
As for the hands-on volunteers, look for quantity rather than quality. Since their duties will mostly consist of mundane poster distribution or envelope stuffing, screening and recruitment can be done fairly quickly. One of the easiest ways to get many bodies working for you is to use your platform perspective to your advantage; it shouldn't be too hard to find a special-interest group -- for example, an environmental action group if that's your thing -- to poach volunteers from. Politics is all about the exchange of favors, so most organizations will be more than happy to provide members to work with you toward your “shared” goal. If you can promise visibility for their cause, they'll be sure to send over some free, able-bodied workers.
Assemble your campaign materials
Now that you have the workers, you need to get your campaign materials sorted. Fliers, posters, signs, and commercials; there's no limit to the ways your name can get out there. For inspiration, all you have to do is look around you. Think like a marketing machine; it's all about logos, slogans and sound bites. Easily identifiable characteristics are the political equivalent of the breakfast cereal jingle. There's a reason why some politicians are always being parodied on Saturday Night Live: They've made themselves into such caricatures that the slogans and symbolism they‘ve surrounded themselves with can practically stand alone. That's your goal: brand recognition.
How to get more votes on the last few days leading up to the election…
A catchphrase (remember “No New Taxes”?) or a gesture (the Bill Clinton thumbs-up) can become a powerful tool to get your name on every voter's lips. The media isn't going to sift through a half-hour speech looking for something to say about you -- you need to hit them over the head with your main points. Repetition is the quickest way to make this happen. If you make it easy for the media to quote you and the voters to understand you, you'll be a step ahead of your running mates who are too busy trying to outtalk and overpromise their way into office.
Work the media
The stage has been set for your rise to political stardom, and the final days leading up to Election Day can be hectic and exhilarating. Whether you're running for the Senate or City Council, you'll be in the media spotlight to some degree. Politics is fascinating for those watching from the outside, and it's up to you to put on a good show. Working the media is your last shot at reaching the voters and locking in votes, and no time is more critical than the last few days before ballots are cast. Plenty of well-qualified candidates have thrown races down the drain with a poor on-air presence or a botched interview, so be sure to keep your wits about you every time the camera is pointed in your direction.
Your final push to the polls will be a success with these camera-ready tips:
- - Smile as often as you look serious. People want to vote for someone who is trustworthy, but they also want to see his friendly, human side. Bridge the gap between easygoing everyman and assured leader. Keep your face expressive and your speech patterns inflective; no one wants to listen to a stone-faced, monotone speaker.
- Remember that honesty and disclosure aren’t the same thing. Omission isn't a lie; therefore, keep the bad hidden and continually tout the good.
- Clichés and catchphrases are your friends. Popular political ones you'll want to throw into your speeches include, "In these difficult times…" and "What my running mate fails to understand is..."
- Wear glasses if you have them; they look scholarly and intelligent.
- For the most part, people want to believe what you're saying, so speak slowly and with authority, and never look to others for answers. Remember that voters don't need to understand the political issues; they just need to believe that you do.
- When in doubt,quote other great thinkers and politicians. This makes you sound trustworthy and honorable by association, as well as well-read and intelligent.
become a leader
No matter how high you've set your sights, running a good campaign can be more important than what you actually stand for or how much experience you have. A campaign is just a stepped-up version of a marketing plan -- with you as the product. Keeping that in mind and managing all aspects of your image on the campaign trail can make you a real political contender.
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