How to Run for City Council – Finding the Magic Number

Election Results determining campaign strategy

If you’re super lucky, you’re running for city council in a district that has embraced technology and has all the election data for the past several election cycles, broken down by precinct and in Excel format, available online, ready for easy download.  If you’re not lucky at all, you’ll have to make another trip to the voter registration/elections office, sift through paper records, and pay ten cents a page to copy the data you need, and then enter that data into a spreadsheet so you can sort and filter that information.  Most likely you’ll find some results online that you can start with, but you’ll need to run copies of the precinct by precinct results.

Believe it or not, I prefer the old fashioned method of putting together an election data base by hand–it forces you to get up close and personal with each and every number on the page.  By the end of the process, there should be no doubt in your mind how many votes you need to win and where those votes should come from.

Determining Your Win Number

“Win number” or “target number” are terms used to indicate the number of votes you’ll need to win the election.  The equation for this is the total number of expected votes (T) divided by 2, plus 1.  Sounds super simple, right?  And it is.  Sort of.  The hard part – and it really doesn’t have to be that hard – is guesstimating what T is.  Here are some rules for figuring it out.

First, ignore the total number of registered voters.  Many voters on the books are dead or have moved and simply haven’t been scrubbed off the list (these things take a while).  And only a fraction of the voters that are legitimate actually vote consistently.  To determine the total number of reliable voters for a given district, simply look at how many people have voted in the past in your district over the past 10 years or so.

You’ll likely notice a trend that in election years that include a presidential election, there is a significantly higher number of voters.  In years where perhaps municipal elected offices are the only races on the ballot, voter turn out will be at its lowest.  Where does it fall for your current election?  If it’s a presidential election year, you’ll have a lot more voters to get than if it’s not.

Let’s say that your city council seat is elected every 4 years in an off-election year–it’s an odd year (2015) in which there are no national elections at play–and so the number of voters are typically low.  In 2011, 1,032 people voted on your election.  In 2007, 1,115 people.  And in 2003, there were 997 voters.  That’s an average of 1,048 voters.  Since we want to pick a Target Number that’s conservatively on the safe side, and since there are no glaringly obviously outlying numbers here, I recommend using 2007’s 1,115 number as your “T” or Total Number of Voters for the purposes of determining your Win Number.  You may even want to round up to 1,200, so you don’t have to break out a calculator.  Half of 1,200 is 600, add 1 and your Win Number is 601.

BOOM!  It’s that easy.

How to Run for City Council – Know Your District

City Council District Map

Guess what!  It’s time for a geography lesson!

Clearly, you need to know where your district actually is if you are going to run and win a political campaign there (duh).  But district boundaries can be tricky!  Often, you’ll find that the streets at the perimeter of your district may be split – perhaps the east side of the street is in your district, but the west belongs to a different one.  You certainly don’t want to waste precious door-to-door time talking to people who can’t vote for you (although if they’ll stick your campaign sign in their yard, it’s not a total loss).

Your first order of business, if you didn’t pick it up on your initial filing trip, is to stop by the voter registration office and request copies of a map of your district.  Some counties actually have them online now.  Hopefully the maps are of a good enough quality that you can take them to Kinko’s or Staples and get a good blown up copy to hang on the wall.  You’ll want to have several copies on hand to mark up and use with volunteers as well.

For a city council race, you’ll have one to ten precincts within your district; most will have about five.  I recommend you grab some highlighters of various colors and choose one to outline your whole district, then pick a different color and outline each precinct.  Or if you want to get super fancy, borrow your daughter’s glitter markers and color code each precinct.

If you can’t make up your precinct maps from the district map available at voter registration, you can make up your own at the American Fact Finder website.  It takes a little time of playing around to get the hang of it, but once you’ve got it figured out, this website has a wealth of information beyond precinct boundaries.

After you’ve made up your maps, you’ll want to do some research using the census data available on American Fact Finder.  You should be able to get a pretty good idea where in your district seniors live, what areas have kids at home, you can break your district out by race, household income, education level, etc.  This information is invaluable, because these factors influence the issues that will most likely resonate with your voters.  For example, young families will care a lot about the local schools, seniors might care about a proposed community center, etc.

Once you have your maps in order and have studied them well enough to have a solid lay of the land, you’re ready to move on to the second (and even more complicated) piece of the data mining process: deciphering past election results.  We’ll get to that next.

How to Run for City Council – Show Me The Money! Fundraising Money, That Is.

how to run for city council political campaign fundraising

Alright, enough him-hawing over the campaign plan.  Let’s see some action!  We’ll start with fundraising, because it’s really never too early to fundraise for a political campaign.

For a city council race, it’s terribly unlikely you’ll need all that much money.  Why would you?  In an average city, your district is still likely to be small enough that you can drive around the whole thing in ten minutes or so.  Are you going to buy a television ad that reaches the entire tri-county region just for that small, targeted audience?  No.  There are enough political ads cluttering up commercial breaks during campaign season.  Don’t be the jerk I can’t even vote against!

Chances are you’ll be spending your money where it has the most bang for your buck – attending events, campaign literature, and materials to support your grassroots efforts (but we’ll get to budgeting later).

How Much Money Do I Need to Fundraise?

A good place to start when determining your fundraising goal is to take a look at the campaign finance reports of previous city council candidates in your district from prior elections – including your opponent’s, if he’s an incumbent – and shoot for a figure in the same range.  You can also take a look at how they spent the money and get inspiration to either replicate or do something different.

I can tell you right now, however, that unless you’re in an unusually large city, you are likely looking to raise $5,000 – $10,000, ball park.  There’s a really good chance $1,000-$3,000 will actually cover it.

How Political Candidates Raise Money

The Fundraising Letter

You are going to start your fundraising campaign the same way everyone else does – a fundraising letter.  I call this the “Friends and Family Letter” because in most campaigns, those are the people you’ll reach out to first.  If you were running for a state or federal election, you would branch out to PACs and other political organizations, and local and statewide individuals and businesses that support your agenda.  But for the purposes of running for city council, you won’t need that kind of money, and those types of donors aren’t paying attention to municipal races anyway.

So who do you send your Friends and Family Letter to?  This is where you and your campaign teammates pull out your rolodexes (just kidding!  I mean open your smartphone’s address book) and begin putting together a contact spreadsheet.  You’re probably not going to send a letter to every single person you know, but chances are if you have their address, they fall into the category of people you would ask for a little money.  If you’re having trouble, ask yourself – would I send this person a wedding invitation?  A Christmas card?  If the answer is yes, put them in the spreadsheet.

The letter should be a simple, one page letter that let’s your folks know you’re running for city council, and that you need some initial start-up funds to get things going.  I always like to include a reply envelope with your campaign’s name and address already on it, if at all possible.  Don’t forget to put “paid for by <Your Campaign’s Name>” at the bottom of the letter.

The Fundraising Event

Bigger campaigns – for, say, governor, congress, and some statewide races – can throw their own parties.  You can, too.  But I am of the mindset that, like a bridal or baby shower, someone else really ought to do it for you.  I don’t know why, but having your own fundraiser just seems tacky.  Is it just me?

You can, however, co-opt virtually anyone else to do it for you.  Regardless, you’ll be sending out the invitations, coordinating the itinerary, and doing all the other planning work.  Just find someone to allow you to list them as the ‘host.’  It’s particularly useful if you know someone up the ballot – a candidate for state senate or an established elected official – to be either ‘host’ or ‘guest of honor’ at the event.  It gives your campaign more credibility and gives invitees more of a reason to pay to attend.

As for what the event actually is – it really doesn’t matter.  Pick a theme, any theme.  Independence day celebration?  Weekend barbecue?  Golf outing?  Whatever suits your fancy.  Do something unique, fun, and well suited to you.  Don’t plan a black tie affair if the candidate’s only worn overalls every day of his adult life.  Be true to who you are, and what your campaign is.

There’s no set number of fundraising events you should have, or when you should have them.  You should definitely have at least one; make it early enough to get money into your hands that you can start using on the things you’ve budgeted for, but late enough that people are actually thinking about political campaigns.  A fundraising party in mid-January after the days and days of holiday gatherings will not be well attended!

You also don’t want to plan to have too many events.  You likely have only a small pool of people to invite, and tapping that resource too often will just lead to wasted money on poorly attended events.  One or two events, well spaced out, is plenty for a city council candidate.

Personal Solicitation

This is the tough one.  If you’re lucky, maybe you won’t even have to do this one at all.  Generally, you’ll personally ask a donor – usually a politically involved business owner in the community – for an amount in the $500+ range.  If, as noted above, you’ve determined you only really need a few thousand bucks, you may be able to save yourself this step with one or two great fundraising events.  If your fundraising goal is closer to the $10,000 mark, you’ll likely be calling some of these high dollar donors up for a meeting.

Here’s how it’ll go down:

  • Call the donor, introduce yourself and tell them you’d like to talk to them about donating to your city council campaign.  Ask them if you can come and meet with them at their convenience.
  • Always confirm via phone (email might work) the day before.
  • Show up on time, and plan to spend 30 minutes – no more! – going over your executive summary (the Campaign Planbook helps you put this together), covering your basic platform, and making the actual ask.
  • Actually ask for money.  And a specific dollar amount.  If you think the person you’re approaching can give $500, ask for $1,000.  This is a situation where it is flattering to high ball the other person, and you never know – maybe they’ll give you the $1,000!
  • Leave.  Once the donor has given you a solid verbal ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ get the heck out of there.  Follow up with them by phone in 2-3 days if they don’t give you a check on the spot.  If they give you a wishy-washy ‘maybe,’ or seem reluctant to say ‘yes’ but unwilling to say ‘no,’ ask them what they need to see from you to be confident in giving a donation.  But don’t waste a bunch of time trying to convince someone unwilling to commit.  If 30 minutes has passed, find an opportunity to exit and tell them you’ll follow up with them later in the week by phone.  Also keep them on the list to hit them up the second time around.

There are other creative ways to raise money for your campaign, but the vast majority of your fundraising will fall under these three categories.  Now, go get that money!

How to Run for City Council – Where the Rubber Meets the Road

how to run for city council choosing your campaign team

Chandler for Borough President!

Now that you’ve gotten your paperwork in, you’re really running for city council!  Except not really, at all.  Anybody can slap their name on some forms and drop them off at the city building and get their name on a ballot as city council candidate.  Now you’ve got to prove to the voters–and yourself–that your heart is in it.  This is where the rubber really meets the road.

The Campaign Plan

I’m not going to cover the entire task of putting together a campaign plan in one post; that would be a disservice to you.  You can expect to see the various parts of the campaign plan systematically detailed in the coming posts, but if you’re really ready to hit the ground running, buy the Campaign Planbook, which will walk you step-by-step through the process of putting together a fully fleshed out, slam-bangin’ campaign plan in very little time.

The first step to writing a campaign plan actually has nothing to do with writing, yet.  You first need to gather together your gang/posse/crew – essentially, your ‘campaign team.’  There is a strict rubric you must follow when choosing people to be on this very short list.

  1. Do I really trust this person?  They will be keeping ALL your secrets.  You need to know they are telling no one.  Literally, no one.  You wouldn’t believe how much info I can milk out of your buddy’s 10 year old daughter’s classmate.
  2. Does this person have valuable input?  Just because Joe Shmoe is your best friend doesn’t mean he has anything meaningful to say about the city’s political affairs.  Additionally, just because some muckety-muck is the county representative to the state GOP doesn’t mean his opinion is worth two cents either.  You want to tap people who are close to you that are also actively engaged citizens.
  3. Does this person have the time to dedicate to this campaign?  Ideally, they should be able to put in as much time as you.
  4. Does this person have a talent or skill that is critical to campaign success?  If they are an accountant they’d make an excellent treasurer.  If they run a small business or manage a franchise (well, they’re probably too busy, but…) they’d likely make a good campaign manager.  Do not bother inviting people into the ‘club’ that don’t have anything to offer but moral support or a duplicate of someone else’s skill.  Pick the best man for the job and go with it.

Other things to consider: Will this person tell me to slow down when I’ve run myself ragged?  Will she pick up the slack if I need a break?  Will he tell me when I’m just plain wrong about something?  Will he put the well-being of my family/marriage ahead of the campaign?  In other words – is this person a true friend?

Because as a candidate you will likely give in to the temptation to believe that you are some sort of demi-god and the world revolves around you, or you will spend so much time going door-to-door that you miss every little league game of the season, or you will get so narrowly focused on what you think is important, you’ll forget to consider what the voters in your city think is important.  These people in your core campaign team are not ‘yes men.’  They need to be the ones that smack you in the face when you’re being dumb.

Once you’ve narrowed your group down to 3-5 individuals, then you’re ready to call a meeting and bust out the pens, the paper, and of course your brand new copy of the Campaign Planbook.

I should also mention here that spouses play a pivotal role in the development and implementation of the campaign plan.  I’ve been re-reading my favorite campaign planning book of all time (besides mine, of course) and it actually recommends keeping your spouse out of this group, citing that they’ll have the chance to help out by “putting up yard signs, answering phones, passing out literature, etc.”

“Um, excuse me?  So you’re basically saying my opinion means nothing to you but you still want me around for the grunt work, is that right?  Pfft!  Hope you like the couch, honey, because that’s what THAT conversation just won you,” is exactly what I would say to my husband if he relegated me to yard sign coordinator.

Chances are great that your wife couldn’t care less what’s in your campaign plan.  But you’re dragging her into this year of craziness right along with you.  It will affect her life tremendously.  And your actions as a public figure and political candidate will reflect on her public image, too.  That’s why I start every campaign plan with an agreement between candidate and spouse, so that all the cards are on the table, and both parties completely understand what’s expected of the other during this time.  Trust me, you need the support your spouse provides for you.  Additionally, you do not need the marital discord political campaigns can cause.

And if you need another reason: lack of communication can lead to major campaign faux pas in the future.  Let’s say, for example, you’ve decided you’re anti-spinach.  You’ve positioned yourself as the no-spinach candidate and the voters love you for it.  And then a reporter calls your wife and asks how she feels about spinach.  “Oh I love spinach, in fact I’m making creamed spinach for dinner tonight!”  Tomorrow’s headline: So-Called Anti-Spinach City Council Candidate John Smith Eats Spinach Twice a Week!”

Replace “spinach” with your town’s most recent fringe issue, and kiss your political aspirations good-bye.

Before you sit down with your team, you need to sit down with your spouse and determine how they would like to participate in the political process.  If she doesn’t want to be involved that much, that’s totally cool.  But if she wants a ‘seat at the table,’ I say give it to her, and take what she says seriously.

How to Run for City Council – Paperwork

Ah, the bane of my existence, paperwork.  I hate the seemingly endless stream of paperwork that accompanies running for office.  The good news, if you’re running for city council, is that the train-wreck of federal campaign finance laws don’t apply to you.  However, your city, county and state will likely have it’s own requirements.

The first and most important thing I must mention up front – there is no way I can write a post detailing every piece of paperwork you will be required to do because each town and state will have its own particular procedure.  Therefore it is imperative that you march yourself right down to your local city building and ask them to have mercy on your soul and help you out.

A few tips on interacting with the friendly folks in the clerk’s office:

  • Always kill them with kindness. Clerk is also an elected person, which means this is a partisan office, despite needing to serve candidates from both parties.  Generally they are open and helpful to everyone (it would be unlawful if they didn’t help you because you were from the opposing party), but sometimes you run into employees with a particular ax to grind.  Simply be sweet and persistent with these folks until you get what you need.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask ‘stupid’ questions.  Government forms are rarely easy to understand.  If you have any question at all about what’s required of you for a particular form, ask for clarity.  Make sure you are 100% sure of what’s required, because if you screw it up, it could be disastrous.
  • Always be very grateful for their help!  Friendships formed with the people in the Clerk’s office are priceless.  I am not above bringing them treats and sending thank you cards to these fine folks!

Unfortunately, the paperwork for running for local office is not universal – every municipality will have its own requirements, but luckily there is a basic framework that most towns and cities adhere to.  Here’s a list of the common forms and paperwork you’ll likely have to file:

  • Declaration of Candidacy or Nomination Papers – the first form you must fill out, your declaration that you intend to run for city council.  You may or may not be required to collect signatures in order to officially get your name on the ballot.
  • Bank Account – this isn’t one for the city clerk’s office, but you’ll need to open a separate bank account for campaign related fundraising and spending.  I put it here because you’ll want the ‘name’ of your campaign and the ‘name’ on the bank account to match, to avoid any confusion.  I recommend a simple “John Doe for City Council.”  Don’t try to get fancy, you don’t want to make writing a check out to you more difficult than necessary.
  • Campaign Finance Reports – these will likely need to be done before and after the primary election, and before and after the general.  It could also be on a quarterly basis.  Ideally some math whiz kid is tracking every dollar raised and spent in an Excel spreadsheet and can do the majority of the work on these forms for you, but you need to make sure you are aware and in agreement with the final numbers (because it’s your butt on the line, no one else’s).

All in all it’s pretty simple, and yet still so easy to screw up.  Don’t be afraid to ask the folks at the Clerk’s office to look over your paperwork before you officially turn in it to verify you checked all the right boxes, signed in all the right places, etc.  Make extra certain everything on the form is 100% accurate.  You want to catch any errors before your opponent or the media does.

The first step (after reading this article) is to do an internet search for “file to run” or “candidacy” or some similar key words with the name of your town.  Chances are the information you need, and maybe even the forms, are available online.  You’ll find out exactly where you need to go and who you need to shmooze to get your paperwork through without hassles.  If you can’t find info online, it’s time to pound the pavement.  Start at your town’s Clerk’s office, as that’s very likely where you need to file, and if it’s not, they can tell you where.  Sometimes filing to run for city council requires a trip to the county voter registration office, but not in most cases.

What are you waiting for?  Get going!