How To Run For Office For The First Time

February 21, 2017

February 21, 2017

Bustle: How To Run For Office For The First Time

By JR Thorpe

Want to change the world? You're hardly alone — many valuable and positive things have come from the widespread public opposition to the policies and values of the Trump administration, including a sudden uptick of people interested in running for political office. And this sharp increase of interest among folks who likely would have never thought about getting involved in politics in the past is even more important than it might initially appear.

Back in 2014, Pew Research profiled all current politicians in the United States, and found that only two percent of Americans had ever run for any kind of political office — and the vast majority of those people were white, male, and college-educated. The research found that only a quarter of the people who had ever run for office were women, and only 18 percent were people of color. And that, frankly, doesn't reflect America in the slightest.

Many people are now working to change this — an unprecedented number of women have flooded organizations in recent months asking for tips on how to run for office. Bustle talked to Alexandra de Luca of EMILY's List,  one of the nation's pre-eminent organizations helping women to run for office, about what steps to take when you decide to take on the world.

Take A Training Course

If you've never run for office before, you're going to need some help to get started. The good news is that both free and inexpensive training courses exist to help potential political leaders learn what it actually takes to be elected, as well as what steps are necessary to do it properly.

NationBuilder's course is among the most well-known; its step-by-step goals take you through everything from getting to know your local community and its needs to securing support and volunteers. One advantage of this particular course is that it's done via computer; however, if you want a more hands-on experience and are a female Democrat, EMERGEAmerica's 7-month training program may be more your speed. Prefer a mix of the two? American Majority offers both on-the-ground and online courses around becoming politically active and campaigning. Want some more general tips? She Should Run's Incubator program courses help you figure out “how to build upon your qualifications, networks, personal story and leadership brand” so that you can get your skills in order for the big fight.

EMILY's List also offers a program to help aspiring politicians get started, and De Luca told Bustle that pro-choice Democrat women should reach out to them. “We’ve heard from thousands of women since the election and the women’s march who want to continue to take action through running for office.  That’s why we launched our new recruitment campaign, Run to Win, aimed at recruiting a new wave of pro-choice Democratic women into office, up and down the ballot, around the country. We can help you identify the right opportunity to run, and give you the tools you need to launch a campaign and win.”

Find Out What Positions You're Eligible To Run For

Becoming a politician isn't as simple as it looks; you've got to work with specific guidelines, figure out your perspective on the political issues that will really affect the people you're running to represent, and perhaps most importantly, know what specific positions you're eligible to run for. Fortunately, there's a tool to help you out with that. Run For Office, which is operated by the people behind NationBuilder, gives you a searchable database of all the elected positions available in your area, as well as info on how to file the paperwork to become a candidate for each of them.

Know Why You're Running

What, precisely, are you trying to do in your community, and why are you the right person to do it? Getting things straight in your head may not be a matter of having a sudden “lightbulb moment;” your purpose as a candidate may, and probably should, evolve as you talk to more people and understand your area more fully. But figuring out your answer to the “why are you running” question early on is a good idea for any potential candidate.

De Luca told Bustle that considering your passions is a good place to start: “Do you want to safeguard and improve public schools in your community? Do you want to defend voting rights for all Americans? No matter what motivates you, there’s an elected position in your town, state, or community that fits what you’re passionate about.”

The Campaign Workshop highlights some important facts to keep in mind, though: the most popular and successful reasons to run for office are focused on specific issues or problems; motivations that center around ego, revenge against the incumbent, or just trying to win aren't going to help anybody.

Start Talking To People

According to a now-famous article written by Ezra Klein over at Vox during the 2016 presidential campaigns, one of Hillary Clinton's great political assets was the fact that she listened, intently, repeatedly, and to everybody. It was one of the elements that made her a consummate politician, but it wasn't often prioritized on the campaign trail. Whether or not Clinton is a political hero of yours, it's still a good idea to learn from her example. All the training courses will emphasize the importance of knowing your constituents— not just on a basic level but to the extent that you can engage with them on their deepest concerns. You need to really understand what the people you represent are worried about before you can help them.

EMILY's List and De Luca have tips for refining your abilities: “Go to local Democratic Party meetings, city council meetings, and volunteer with causes you care about. You’ll not only be giving back, you’ll also be expanding your network and hearing from people in your community about the issues they care about.” Getting comfortable talking about yourself, she noted, is one of the most important parts of the process: “People want to know about you: what your story is, why you’re interested in running. We guarantee you that women in your community that you talk to will relate to the issues and challenges you’ve faced yourself — after all, that’s probably one of the reasons why you’re interested in running!”

If you're shy, or dislike confrontation with people who think in different ways, this is probably not the job for you (don't worry — there are plenty of other ways to get politically involved if you're shy or socially anxious). If you love debate and engaging with strangers, though, it's going to be awesome.

Don't Worry Too Much About Your Qualifications

As noted above, EMILY's List is currently overseeing an initiative called Run To Win to attract more women into political campaigning. And they put the idea of needing to be “qualified” into perspective. What matters, they argue, isn't years of political experience, but rather, the urge to make a difference, put in work and make your voice heard. “The most important misconception that we try and bust here at EMILYs List,” De Luca told Bustle, “is that running for office isn’t accessible for all women. It is! You don’t have to be a lawyer with decades-worth of experience in the court to run for office  — but you do have to be passionate about your community, and have the energy and commitment to fight for the people you’d be representing!”

The thing that distinguishes good campaigning isn't necessarily a candidate with the biggest CV; it's passion, and the ability to do things rigorously and listen to others as they happen.

Accumulate Resources Of All Kinds

Resources are important to a campaign, and there are various areas you need to focus on: money, people, and tools. Specifics on how to develop these resources are generally outlined by the experts — communications company Callfire has a good 10-point plan for encouraging monetary donations, for example — but in general, you've got to use everything you've got at your disposal. Everybody you know needs to get involved, Morgan Pehme of the civic engagement organization New York Civic explained to the Huffington Post:

“It is absolutely essential that you build out a computerized database with the complete contact information (emails are a must!) of all your family members, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, business associates, and as many of your friends’ friends as you can amass. Next to each person’s entry you should make an annotation as to what role the person could potentially play in your campaign. Would they be willing to volunteer? Collect signatures? Send out “Dear Neighbor” letters on your behalf? Most importantly, will they be able to donate to your campaign?”

“You know more people than you think—so start putting it on paper,” De Luca advises. “When you meet someone, get their business card, and write down how and where you met them.”

Beyond people and money, you also need good tools at your disposal. Luckily, many of the things that would once have been the domain of elite political candidates are now available to us plebs. Slate put together an excellent list of the potential services available to candidates, including basic site-building tools, online fundraising, and managing door-knockers. It's never been easier for a new candidate to run — and it's never been more important for us to win.