In my previous post, I wrote about the reasons why municipal candidates often fail to get elected for reasons ranging from branding and messaging, to financial and organizational miscues.
If you’re still interested, not scared of running for office, bravo! Half the battle is having a strong stomach for doing what it takes to run and win.
Now that you’ve proven your sincerity, let’s talk about the most challenging scenario any municipal candidates can face – unseating an entrenched incumbent.
In my mind, it’s the political equivalent of a scene in the Lord of the Rings, where the fellowship are running through the dwarf mines and run into a big fiery beast that could very seriously end them all.
That big fiery beast (known as the Balrog, but who’s keeping track) is basically the equivalent to an entrenched incumbent municipal candidate. Outsized, outmuscled, intimidating to face down, and the odds-on favourite to win a fight.
But, despite the odds, not impossible to beat.
So how do you do it? How do you win such a lopsided contest?
Incumbents tend to have an easier time winning because their jobs (ideally) require them to stay connected to the people who will vote for them during elections. A good councillor will emphasize constituency work and events that will maintain their brand and build a solid base upon which they can rely.
It also doesn’t hurt that they’ve done this before and won. Most elected officials, contrary to angry relatives around dinner tables everywhere, generally know what they’re doing when it comes to elections.
So let’s assume you’ve taken my advice from last week: you’re ready to spend the maximum, you’ve developed a strong personal brand and some good messaging, and you’ve engaged a competent campaign manager. What’s next?
It sounds obvious, but the first step is talking with voters. Candidates can do this in a lot of different ways, but in my experience candidates should focus on coffee parties early in the months leading up to the election. Ideally, the campaign locates some volunteers who have a strong personal network and then invite 10-15 of their neighbours and friends to meet the candidate in their homes for an open discussion.
Early on, when time is not of the essence (3-5 months before Election Day), the coffee party setting provides a more intimate chance for a candidate to have a dialogue about ideas and learn just as much from potential voters as they in turn learn from a candidate. What are they most interested in? Do they have any grievances with the incumbent? Do patterns begin to emerge over the course of multiple coffee parties? Think of these events as part focus group and part lead generation. They will give you a running start before you begin knocking on doors and having short conversations with more voters.
Talking with voters is just one part of amplifying your brand and broadcasting your message as widely as possible. To win against the odds, you’ll need to spend some of your campaign budget on other tactics that will help spread the word about your values and ideas.
The most popular options are always printed literature and phone calls. But we’re not in a normal setting are we? We’re running to beat an incumbent, so it’s time to think outside the box, just a little.
Exceptional candidates will use their budget to target digital ads, promoted social media posts to complement more traditional ways of contacting voters. You want a situation where a voter comes in contact with your message from all directions.
The key is to create a scenario by which you knock on someone’s door and they’ve already heard some variation of your message. At the very least, you want them to know who you are and what you stand for before you say hello. That way you can spend more time contrasting yourself with the incumbent, identifying the voter as a supporter, or save time if they’re not.
Beating the odds means that you’ll have to fight for every single vote. Take care to both spend time making sure your supporters (or those who do not support the incumbent) are as motivated as possible to vote. You want them worked up. You want the voter to make it their mission in life to cast a vote for you. What you want to prevent at all odds is a voter thinking that their vote does not matter because ‘Councillor X or Mayor Y has been here forever.’ Every single vote matters.
As we get closer to the end of your hypothetical campaign, I feel like I should mention something else.
A little luck can go a long way. I’ve given you the impression that money, planning, and branding are all that matters.
Yes, the luck we create for ourselves through good planning, temerity, and resources are very important factors. But sometimes good candidates can do everything right and still lose. The best candidates know the right time to run and when to take a pass. They know how to read the hand they’re dealt, but make the best out of it by taking advantage of their opponents’ weaknesses. The immortal words of Kenny Rogers say it best:
You got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away, And know when to run.
——— Andrew Richardson is a former Manager, Political Insights and Strategy at NATIONAL Public Relations