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"So you are running for office!"

26 Aug
Voters Want More New Choices

Every year fewer Americans vote for President.  In 2012, 40% of the (voting age) population did not vote, more than the percentage that voted for President Obama (30%), Mitt Romney (29%), or Libertarian Gary Johnson (1%) or any other independent or third party candidates.  Fewer people voted for Obama in 2012 than in 2008; Obama was only re-elected because even more GOP voters dropped out between 2008 and 2012.

At the same time, millions of Americans, perhaps part of that 40%, have taken to the streets, both with the Tea Party and with the Occupy movements (or have endured IRS harassment by filing to start 501c3 and c4 groups).  In the wake of the Obama administration’s continuing scandals, the President’s job disapproval ratings have risen to 52%.  (And Congress and the media are also not popular.)  A majority of Americans think Edward Snowden is a whistleblower, even though almost every government official, and certainly every administration official, has insisted that he is a traitor.  (And even some libertarian journalists and tea party politicians have back pedaled saying he did everything the wrong way and is personally reprehensible.)

As a result, tea partiers, libertarians, and other mavericks, have started challenging Republicans in primaries.  Perhaps fearing the same thing, a few Democrats have begun to criticize the NSA or Obamacare.  A true reform movement might emerge in the Democratic Party, something like the movements behind Howard Dean or Barack Obama, before they were both absorbed by the Borg.

Perhaps you’d like to step into the fray yourself in 2014.  I did it in my own little way in 2012, running for Congress (Delegate to Congress) in the nearly one party state of DC as a Libertarian, and for the first time, getting a new party enough of the vote to get it permanent ballot status.  You can now get yourself on the ballot as a Libertarian in the 2014 primaries and general election in DC without collecting 5,000 or more signatures to do so.

Some people asked me to write about my experience running for office, since it was a success of sorts, even a surprising one.  I told them the main thing I had to tell people was you must spend enough money to get the job done, and some insisted that that was a message activists actually needed to hear.  Why run an underfunded campaign that just contributes to an image that reformers, mavericks, or  libertarians (including Libertarians), have no chance of changing things.  So here it is.

Ballot Access

But in your race you may still need to go through this step.  Even if you are running in one of the two incumbent parties, you may have to collect significant numbers of signatures to get on the primary ballot.  (In special elections, for example, it’s often the case that everyone must collect thousands of signatures.)

You’ll need lots of volunteers to help you manage this and to collect the signatures, a thankless task (DC and many states schedule the signature gathering period of an election in the hottest weeks of the summer, so that petitioners must stand in parking lots and on sidewalks in 100 degree heat — yet OSHA, knowing where it’s bread is buttered, doesn’t seem to question these restrictive ballot access practices.)  It may be legal to hire petitioners, even roving teams of “professional” petitioners from other states, in your jurisdiction.  So in other words, you need money.

Money

You will need money for lots of things.  Campaign swag — buttons, bumperstickers, T shirts.  And advertising — print, radio, online, maybe even radio or TV.  (You can design fast and dirty swag at vendors like CafePress.)

If you are running against an incumbent, he or she will be very well funded.  You can see who gives your opponent money by going to OpenSecrets.org, which publicizes FEC reports in a searchable database.  You are probably going to find that your opponents is funded by Political Action Committees, corporate donors, and unions, with few individual donors.  They are being rewarded for the legislative favors and tax dollars they give to special interests.  This will be true of faux radicals, “progressives” (in name only – PINOs), and people who were civil rights or feminist activists (decades ago) and who rest on those laurels with media complicity.

You might be able to beat them by spending less money than they do, but you will need to be in the same ballpark.  If you have a lesser goal, like getting permanent ballot status for a new party (as I did), you will probably find that you need to spend something like the same number of dollars per vote as the incumbent.  In my case my incumbent, Eleanor Holmes Norton, routinely raises $400,000 every two years to run essentially unopposed in a one party state — that’s about $2 per vote.  I spent closer to $1 a vote.  Less, but still in the same order of magnitude dollars per vote.  Presidential campaigns now seem to be spending a billion dollars each to campaign in a country of 300 million (way more than $3 per vote, given that a plurality don’t vote and the Democrats and Republicans get billions more in free coverage from media corporations).  I’d suggest you find out how many voters are in your state or district (or decide how many votes you are aiming for) and come up with a plan to raise at least $1 per vote.  Start early.  Treat it the way you would to raise money to buy a house or send a child to college.  Save and raise money now.

The standard fundraising methods:

1) Self-financing.  Make and save money this year to spend on your campaign next year.  One PAC is based on the idea that “Early Money Is Like Yeast.”  Your money may be that money, that allows you to look viable enough to attract some donors.

2) Finance Committee.  It’s good to line up a group who will give or get, or pledge to give or get, money, months (or years) ahead of your campaign.

3) Online Giving.  There are vendors like Transaxt or Piryx that provide a way for people to give you money online, with the vendor sending 94-97% of the donation on to your campaign checking account a few days later.  This is more advance work you need to do:  set up an account and designate a bank; identify your treasurer, who will file reports with the Federal Election Commission, Clerk of Congress or local and state agencies; get a taxpayer ID number for the campaign.  Currently you can file electronically with the FEC if you spend less than $50,000.  Some agencies, like the Clerk of the Congress, make you list all assets and income; local agencies may make you swear you are current on tax filings.

4) Fundraisers.  Identify supporters with palatial homes or find a fun event space, and throw a party.  Charge an entry fee, and then have someone who is good at it pitch people for additional donations.  Give everyone lost of alcohol  — it makes people give more money.  (This is also why you need campaign swag.  You want your donors and your campaign committee members to feel ownership of your campaign.  And they do and your campaign also seems more viable if you have buttons, stickers and yard signs to give them.)

5) Direct Mail.  If you have the budget you can mail both donor and voter prospects a bumpersticker.  All your direct mail should lead people back to your website, especially donations links.  Longer letters have been found to raise more money.  You can find names of likely donors at OpenSecrets.org, by searching for people in relevant zip codes who have donated to campaigns (e.g. Ron Paul, Gary Johnson) with similar positions to yours.  Supposedly the FEC believes it is illegal to use its data in this way, and yet there it is sitting on the net.  You may need to cross check with WhitePages.com or local property tax records to find the current address of donors.

Resource Allocation/Time Management

Basic economics tell us you can’t do everything — you don’t have the time or money.  EMILY’s List (“Early Money is Like Yeast”) tells us you want to target people you know will want to vote, volunteer, and above all DONATE to you EARLY.  So you need to target.

To target direct mail you can rent mailing lists from groups with views similar to your own, or use OpenSecrets.org.  You can also get voter lists segregated by party affiliation from your local board of elections.

For internet targeting, vendors will be willing to help you.  The companies that sell ad space on sites like Breitbart.com will sell you an ad that only appears in zip codes and cities where you are running.  Facebook and other social media allow you to target ads by age, gender, location, and people who have an interest in specific topics (NSA, debt, IRS, Edward Snowden).

For door to door canvassing you could use voter registration lists segregated by party.  As a maverick you may want to appeal to independents or the more independent voters in all parties.  You should look at election results from recent elections and see where candidates or issues (e.g. term limits, decriminalization, tax limitations) in line with your views got the most votes.  In my DC race I received 6% of the vote, but I got 18% of the vote from Delegate Norton’s immediate neighbors on Capitol Hill.  Based on earlier years we had assumed Dupont Circle and adjacent hipster neighborhoods were where we had the most libertarian voters and had hung lots of street signs there and fewer on the Hill.  Next time we will give them more equal coverage.  You should make sure you base knows about and is excited about your campaign.

You will probably have to do some triage, especially with events.  You will find yourself being invited to community forums on the same night.  I went to some and was invited to others, in part because Greens and progressive Democrats wanted to present a unified challenge to the incumbent.  (Delegate Norton was so well funded and confident she doesn’t speak to community groups, though she was caught doing some inebriated tweeting during one of the Presidential debates.  My joke at the time was that her social media maven said she needed a Tumblr and she didn’t understand what he meant.)  You may see that you are speaking to the same 40 political junkies at each event.  If they aren’t supporters who donate and volunteer time, and if there is no media coverage, you are better off dialing for dollars, canvassing neighborhoods, or hanging streets signs.

Issues

Though some issues are pervasive in all races — taxes, exploding debt, runaway spending, corruption, invasions of privacy — you will want to identify important issues in your race overlooked by the incumbent and the established parties or factions.  Three areas I think people should explore in 2014 are 1) the luxurious self-rewarding spending by the political class, 2) illegal surveillance and data collection by government agencies, and 3) election tampering by incumbents and their supporters.  Are your local and state or Congressional politicians hiring relatives or going on expensive junkets?  Do they have friends or relatives who are well paid lobbyists?  Are local and state agencies cooperating with the IRS, NSA, SEC to invade citizens’ privacy?  Does your jurisdiction have any laws preventing invasions of privacy or regulating the use of drones?  Additionally school choice and failing urban schools are the soft underbelly of the Democratic Party coalition, overlooked by many in the GOP.

There are many good sources of information on local and states issues:  the Franklin Centerthe Reason Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform, or the Cato Institute.

Even if you don’t win

You should have fun, meet people, and build a network.  You may get a new party on the ballot, or help a group of activists take over your city, county or state Republican or Democratic Party, or get people elected to committees and conventions.  It’s a long game, even though our late stage disaster statism seems not far from collapse.  Each small step is on the road to eventual victory.