Ascent Strategic’s Rules for Campaigns

April 27, 2022

Over our 85 years of cumulative experience as general consultants, we’ve learned a thing or two about politics. See below for our top 28 rules that all campaigns should follow.

  1. Do Your Job

As a candidate, only do the things only you can do: a) Ask for help; and b) Deliver the message.  Everything else should be done by your team.  If not doing your job, either you don’t have a good team or – more likely – you are finding excuses to avoid following Rule #1.

2. Prepare the Home Front

Talk to your family.  Let them know how tough this will be.  Plan out the time you’ll be away from home.  Make sure your family understands that they’ll be seeing and hearing horrific, negative things about you.  If you’re self-funding – to any extent – make sure you have complete buy-in from your spouse.

3. Make Your Calls

Most of your time as a candidate will be spent making phone calls to ask for money and help.  It’s a job requirement (see Rule #1).  Block off time and make your calls.  Call donors, VIPs, party bigwigs, community leaders, and voters.  When you get to the bottom of the list, go back to the top and start again.    

4. Campaigning is Sales

Define your own “sales cycle” and stick to it. Identify a potential donor/endorser/volunteer.  Call them.  Make the ask.  Follow up.  Schedule a meeting.  Ask again.  Follow up.  Repeat.  After you make a sale, thank them.  Treat them like the valued “customer” they are.  Upsell.        

5. Strategy Always Beats Tactics

The wrong candidate with the wrong message in the wrong district in the wrong year will lose – regardless of how well the tactical campaign is executed.  Get the strategy right first.

6. Nice Guys Lose

You’re a nice person with a good-looking family.  You’ve got experience.  You give back to your community.  So what? Your opponent is probably a nice person, too (at least according to their website.)  Voters care about issues.  How are you going to make their lives better?  Why are you better than the other person.

7. Fire the Incumbent

If someone’s an incumbent, that means the voters have hired them to do a job.  You must explain why the voters should fire the incumbent.  How has the incumbent failed in the job their employers hired them to do?  If you don’t make that case, you will lose. 

8. Beware the Echo Chamber

Very few people you meet in a campaign are “average voters.”  By definition, the people you’re hearing from are already paying attention to politics and issues.  If you don’t believe me, ask the person who lives next door to name their state senator.  Campaign to that person.   

9. People Lie – Even Your Friends

Here are just a few of the lies you’re going to hear: “You should run for office;” “I’m with you;” “I’ll send you a check;” “I’ll be there on Saturday to volunteer.”  Assume they’re lying until you have the endorsement in writing or the check in the bank.  Even – especially – your friends.   

10. Ignore the Feedback

Everyone thinks they know how to run a campaign, but they’re not looking at the numbers the way you are.  So you’re going to need to learn to ignore things like: “Nobody likes negative campaigning;” “People don’t read direct mail;” “I just hang up on political callers;” and “You should really talk about…”

11. Purge the Doomsayers

For whatever reason (be it envy or honest concern), some of your closest friends will relish the role of informing you of every bad thing they hear about you: You looked bad on TV; you’re losing support; they saw a poll that had you losing; your opponent just gave a great speech.  Find a way to (politely) ignore them.     

12. They’re Not Your Friends

The other side may be polite and cordial, but they’re not going to support you.  If your strategy requires you to win over big chunks of opposition groups, you will lose.  Don’t delude yourself.  And definitely don’t abandon principles to earn their support.  (But be polite and cordial.  Politics needs more of that.) 

  13. Circle the Wagons

Anyone on your campaign is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being you’ve ever known in your life.  Nothing kills a campaign faster than rumors of incompetence, laziness, or disloyalty.  Always speak well of your team and mandate they do the same.

14. Stay On Message

Of course you need to stay on message when you’re giving a speech or an interview, but in a campaign, every conversation matters.  You need to be on message when you’re talking to supporters, party leaders, donors, potential donors, campaign staff, the person next to you in line at the grocery store…

15. You’re Always “On the Record”

Unless you specifically ask to be “off the record” and a member of the press agrees, you’re “on the record.”  Better yet, assume that every word out of your mouth is being recorded and may end up on the internet or in your opponent’s next ad.  Act accordingly. 

16. You’re Not That Smart

Political professionals study campaigns, test messages, and dig deep into the data.  We run quantitative analyses on tactics and methodologies.  And every two years, we re-evaluate what we know and work to improve.  Naturally, you’re going to want to do it “your way.”  Don’t.  Hence the rule.    

17. You’re Not Their Priority

Don’t give up on someone just because they haven’t written a check or showed up to volunteer yet.  Your campaign is way down on their list of priorities – after family, work, church, getting dinner on the table, or going to the kid’s soccer game.  Keep asking, and when they do finally help, be grateful. 

18. The Answer is Yes

People won’t know your campaign timeline (nor should they), so you’ll be asked questions like: “Where are your yard signs?” or “Are you sending direct mail?”  Just say yes.  Incorporate “yes” in your message (remember to “stay on message”).  It relays confidence.  And if someone offers help, the answer is yes. 

19. Write a Campaign Plan

A campaign plan should include strategy, messaging, vote goals, tactics, timeline, and budget.  It should include fundraising targets, tactics, and metrics.  It should list out rules, roles, and responsibilities.  Write it down.  It will (and should) change constantly, but write it down.

20. Events Lie

Events chew up staff time and resources.  But worse, they lie.  “Great” events lie by telling you things are going well.  “Bad” lie by telling you things are going badly.  And whether an event is “good” or “bad” is entirely based on the size of the room compared to the size of the audience.  Simple events.  Small rooms.

21. Voters Vote

Voters vote, volunteers volunteer, and donors donate.  Unless you have a personal relationship with someone, you’re not going to get a non-voter to vote, convince someone to knock on doors if they’ve never done it, or get a donation from a first-time donor.  Focus on the voters, volunteers, and donors.  

22. Make it Fun

If someone shows up to volunteer, make it fun. Studies show that people like fun.  Be upbeat.  Be grateful.  Be fun.  A phone bank without pizza is not fun.  A Saturday morning precinct walk without coffee and donuts is a travesty.   

23. It’s a Yard Sign

Yard signs are called yard signs because they go on yards.  They’re not called “strewn down the median of the highway signs.”  Also, yard signs cost money.  Watch out for the guy with the pickup truck who shows up and asks for 100 signs (unless he’s got a list of specific yards he’s planning to put them in.)

24. Run a Ten House Campaign

What if only ten houses decided the election?  You’d probably: 1) Ask voters in each house if they support you; 2) Figure out what undecided voters most care about and talk to them about that issue; 3) Make sure your supporters vote.  Congratulations: You now know how to run a (very small) campaign. 

25. No Excuses

Candidates get very good at coming up with excuses – especially when it comes to why they didn’t do the soul-crushing drudgery of making phone calls to ask for money.  Nothing you think you should be doing for your campaign is as important.  No excuses.  Do your job.  (See Rules #1 and #3.)   

26. No Delusions

Sometimes, it is not to be.  Your strategy was wrong.  It’s not the right year.  Your district is unwinnable.  (Maybe you forgot Rule #9 and your friends and “supporters” were lying to you.)  So if you find yourself saying, “We can’t afford advertising, but this is a different kind of campaign,” you’ve already lost.

27. This, Too, Shall Pass

On a campaign, you’ll hit your highest highs and your lowest lows.  You’ll have good days and bad days.  You’ll take hits.  You’ll have your wins.   But you can’t be a great candidate if you’re riding too high or down in a funk.  Remember the proverb: This, too, shall pass.  And then get back to work doing your job.      

28. No Buttons

When was the last time you saw a political button on an actual human being?  Never?  Exactly.  That’s because 98.3% of all political buttons manufactured in the United States from 1996-2022 were never affixed to clothing and went straight into button collections.  Buy lapel stickers instead.        

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