Conventional Un-Wisdom: If a candidate has a strong profile, the correct issue positions and public speaking ability, they will attain institutional and establishment support. Donations and support will flow from party organizations, unions and traditional donors.
As I look for candidates to help and support around the nation, vet potential clients, and generally try to support the progressive movement, this is one of the fallacies that stifles any chance of success dead in its tracks. Many candidates belief is that if they take on an incumbent or an incumbent party on an issue they see as greatly important to the district, the support will come to them in the form of dollars, donors and volunteers. These candidates believe this because no one has given them a proper education on how candidate fund raising works, just slammed the door in their face after saying “come back after you’ve raised $xxx,xxx.” No clue is provided on how or where that money should come from, the proper techniques to attain it or where to find quality staffing. That is the reality of the Democratic Party in most of this country.
The reality is, those door slamming establishment figures aren’t wrong, but they aren’t helping themselves by not providing more information or explanation. To be a serious contender for a US Congressional seat anywhere in the country, you need to be able to raise roughly $200,000 from your own network in the first 90 days of your candidacy, assuming you started on the first day of a financial reporting period, subtract a day from the time frame for every day in to the period you start. What does “from your network” mean? Your friends, family, co-workers, colleagues, college classmates, high school classmates, kindergarten classmates and every member of your Little League team. Yes, even the kid you used to beat up in high school…or the one who beat you up. No, it doesn’t matter what their personal ideology is. They will contribute in support of having someone they know in Congress, they will contribute based on knowing someone with the same experience (attending X school, living in Y town, or enduring the same miserable boss at a job ten years ago), they will contribute because you asked them. That is the key, you have to ask. You have to reach out and make the effort to talk to them, in direct communication, not through an email or a letter, but face to face or over the phone.
What those door slammers are thinking as they slam the door is, “this guy/gal can’t get his own family to support his campaign, why should anyone else?” I can’t count how many candidates have complained to me about their struggles fund raising that I have pulled their disclosure reports to find they have less than one hundred unique donors. Their friends and family have not given even $20 to their campaign. Before approaching traditional donors, you should have a minimum of three hundred unique contributors, ideally more. This is how you demonstrate that your candidacy and campaign are a worthwhile investment to donors who don’t have any personal knowledge or understanding of you or your experience. This is where the resources come from to build your campaign staff, purchase your first materials (NOT YARD SIGNS), and begin developing a more complete campaign. During the process of collecting from these initial donors from your own network you don’t need fancy literature or precise messaging, it is a personal outreach from you to someone with a preexisting relationship or shared experience. It isn’t about your position on issues, it isn’t about your party affiliation, its about what you share – there is absolutely no benefit to lying.
To get started, there is a basic exercise. Sit down and write it down. This is a common practice in campaigns, one of the basic rules of organizing is “If it isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist.” The easiest way to do this is using a spreadsheet application, start just by listing the people you know will contribute and a conservative estimate of what they will give in the first 90 days. Build out the list using multiple columns for contributions and relational identification columns.
Here is an example (Click to enlarge):
At this point we are just looking to get the names of everyone you expect to contribute in the first 90 days “on paper.” The first run through might just be the names themselves, with the additional information added in later passes. Eventually the list will be expanded to included phone numbers, mailing addresses, email addresses, etc. It is very important to be honest (and conservative) with the dollar amounts assigned on this sheet. If you are over-confident in this exercise, all subsequent events in the process will fail. Column E is the amount you expect this specific donor to give in the 1st 90 days (first filing period), Column F is some mid campaign date, in a 15 month or longer campaign, I would use the end of the first calendar year, ie 12/31 as in the sample. Column G, “Potential”, is the maximum knowledge or research suggests the donor could give, or the maximum they have committed to giving over the entire length of the campaign. Remember that money not yet in the bank, isn’t anything you can count on. Until it is in your hands, it doesn’t exist.
A dollar raised 15 months prior to election day is worth significantly more than a dollar raised one month prior to election day, I estimate it to be around a factor of 25 to 1, but typically, campaigns bring in 1/3 to 1/2 of their total fund raising in the last 30 to 90 days. If that same money was harvested six months out, it would deliver far more impact. Money raised a year or more out is used to build a foundation, bring in higher caliber staffing, and build a complete and thorough campaign plan. It further helps to expand outreach to widen the base, develop larger fund raising networks and help to establish the narrative and define the candidate in the manner the campaign sets forth rather than the definition the opposing campaign prefers.
Start early and do the work before you start the campaign. Make your list, have someone you trust go through it with you, allow them to ask questions and expand the list through them. In this process you can also begin creating a timeline of your entire life experience, which you will need (on paper) later in the campaign building process. At this point you should also attend a DFA Training Academy, or similar program – really this is a step you should take when you start considering you might run “some day”, or if you just want to be a more effective activist and/or campaign supporter.
After you’ve brought in your contributions from your personal network and filed your first quarterly report showing 300, 400, 500, 1000 donors contributing $200,000+, you can begin outreach to those traditional donors, you can begin asking the party and other organizations for support, you have demonstrated you are willing and capable of doing the work. Make no mistake, running for Congress is a full time job and then some…if you think you are special and you can get away with 8 or 10 hour workdays, that you can be home to kiss your kids goodnight every night, you are very wrong. There is no forgiveness in this process, it is brutal and I have a great deal of respect for the men and women that sign up to endure it knowingly. The ones who sign up because they don’t know any better, that’s a problem we as a party need to be held responsible for, particularly when they become the nominee and still run low quality campaigns. That hurts the party in a long term fashion. We must run real challengers for every seat every cycle.