Unconventional Wisdom: What Inspires Candidates to Run?

This weekend I will lead a session on Candidate Development at LegiCamp 2011, a gathering of activists from around the state in Orlando discussing the upcoming Legislative session and election cycle.  With this post, I will discuss some of the main sources of where candidates come from in terms of motivation to step forward and put their names on a ballot.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’ve clearly left out a few of the most corrupt/evil pathways to candidacy.

Traditional Pathways

The traditional path is to run for lower tier offices and expand upward thereafter, on the strength of achievements, growing social networks and influence gained.  The traditional routes provide significantly better odds at victory in higher tier elections, for both the benefits of having built infrastructure and having learned the lessons when the mistakes weren’t so painful to the campaign.

Family / Raised to Serve: This is the pathway many Americans think of first when the subject is discussed, thoughts turn to the Kennedy’s, Bush’s and regional and local “power families.”  In addition to those austere families, there are many (thought not nearly enough for my tastes), that raise their children with a commitment to public service.  Some of these families are primarily military or first responders, some are school teachers or work for charitable organizations.  In larger families of this style, you can find the children grow to find different ways to serve.  Once this value is instilled, it can make one more likely to be motivated along one of the other pathways at some point in life.  Among the more political/powerful of such families, the traditional routes can be shortcut a bit due to built in power, name recognition, financial clout and influence/credibility built-in to the family name.

Aspiration / Pursuit of Power:  Nearly all children are raised to value success, some become enamored with power and aspire to positions of power in public service.  Sometimes this occurs as a direct path, sometimes as a “plan b” option.  These folks are more likely to follow the most traditional path, starting with lower tier local offices and building power and influence piece by piece, creating and waiting for opportunities to reach for the next rung on the ladder.  They often attend law school and/or seek out jobs working for elected officials.

Community Issue / Activist: There is great truth to the axiom that there is more power at the local level of government than the higher levels, and thus great power to inspire those impacted.  Whether it is an intersection lacking a stop sign or a traffic signal that incurs numerous accidents or a school board member that says something ridiculous and drastically alters the life of a precious snowflake, these inspirations can lead to a very passionate campaign for local/lower tier office.  If victorious, these candidates can become community champions, catapulting them up the ladder.  There are a few members of the US House and Senate that got their start as a result of an unsafe intersection in their community.  They got stop signs, traffic lights and a one-way ticket to the electoral fast track.

Non-Traditional Pathways

Candidates that run for the first time for a higher tier office; State Senate, Big City Mayor, Governor, US Congress, US Senate or the White House.  This is often backed by personal financial investment and victories the first time out are few and far between.

Incumbent Inspired: This is the classic story of the incumbent doing something that inspires vehement angst.  Be it a statement, a vote or an entire legislative agenda, whether it is a straw or an entire bale of hay, the camel is finally inspired to kick back.  A few years ago, a Utah businessman named Pete Ashdown was so appalled at the idiocy of Senator Orrin Hatch’s legislative agenda and statements related to Intellectual Property and Technology, he penned a letter to Senator Hatch saying he would do anything in his power to see him defeated in 2006.  After looking around and talking to various authorities in the Democratic Party, it became clear there was no one interested in running against the five term incumbent.  He stepped up and ran, challenging Senator Hatch in what was then the most conservative state in the nation.  These candidate more often follow very non-traditional paths, jumping from the private sector to a race for higher level office, such as Congress or the US Senate.

Opportunity: Candidates of opportunity may have had the desire to follow a more traditional pathway to office but due to life circumstances went a different direction.  Years down the road, a golden opportunity manifests in the form of an open seat or a special election, an incumbent ravaged by scandal, or their own 15 minutes of celebrity due to luck or heroic actions.  Sometimes it just spawns out of massive personal wealth and a political climate conducive to victory.  These candidates have less traditional resumes and rarely run for lower tier offices, these guys and gals are going for Federal Office or Governor.  Examples include Arnold Schwarzenegger entering the recall election for Governor of California, Jeff Greene for US Senate in Florida in 2010, Rick Scott and Meg Whitman for Governor (FL and CA respectively), and if you pick a random Congressional Special Election from the last 20 years, you will typically find at least one millionaire who decided to jump in and give it a go, the 2006 CA-50 adventure had 4 or 5 of them.

Major Event / Movement: Candidates inspired by a major event, local or national, that dramatically impacted the community.  From civil rights issues to tragic events like 9/11, people’s lives can be dramatically impacted, causing them to give up their life direction and instead seek elected office.  Opposition to a war, to discrimination, or to an incumbent President’s policies can trigger these candidates to come forward.  President Obama’s meteoric rise in 2007/2008 inspired scores of people to run on the ballot under him in 2008, some inspired to join the cause, and some just hoping to ride the coat tails (that didn’t really manifest in most communities).

If you are thinking about running, or know of someone you think should run, which category best fits?  If the candidate is from one of the non-traditional pathways, what can they do to offset the weaknesses most common to that pathway?  One of the keys to a successful campaign is identifying your own strengths and weaknesses and find ways to accurate the strengths while mitigating and reducing the weaknesses.  Of course, one common weakness among non-traditional candidates is not knowing how to campaign and not being willing to listen/learn.

Not all people inspired in the means described above actually step up and run, some are deterred by personal/family obligations, some by the daunting financial challenges, and some are never reached out to and encouraged to run.  That is one piece each of us must take to heart, when you meet someone who should (consider a ) run for office, we must tell them so.  Then direct them to a professional that can asses their capacity and advise them of the realities of running.  MPA Political can do that.

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