Campaign Budgeting 101 – Research

run for public office research cost

So far we’ve done a brief overview of campaign budgeting and covered the administrative costs of a political campaign for public office.  Next we’re going to delve into research.

When most people think of political campaign research, they’re thinking about polls.  Polls cost thousands of dollars and tell you very little useful information, especially if you’ve already decided to run.  And if you haven’t decided to run, why would you spend thousands on polling?

Polls are handy for candidates in large districts who want to pinpoint where their strongholds are.  They are good for finding out what issues are striking a chord with your constituency.  I’ve found that polls are a lot more useful and cost effective for interest groups that cover a significant geographic area, like a whole state or region of the country.  Since they usually do more polling, it’s relatively cheaper (like buying in bulk), and they have more use for the general sort of information that’s culled in polling than an individual candidate would.

For most local and state legislature races, however, you can typically find the same information that a poll would without shelling out all that cash.  You will, however, need to make a large investment of time – that’s why I recommend finding 1 or 2 academically minded volunteers to do most of the groundwork for you.

So what is ‘research’ in a small election?  Some of that you’ll have to make up for yourself based on the particulars of your race and district, but for most, research consists of:

  • Gathering past election data (at least 4 elections worth plus all the years in between).
  • Learning as much as possible about your opponent, especially his personal background/biography and voting records (if he’s held office before).
  • Gathering district info – demographics, geographic, precinct breakdowns, general history, current public opinion, etc.

This can all be done virtually for free, but there are tiny costs that can add up, and should be added to the equation for the total budget, so let’s take a look at each item and how much it may cost:

  1. Past election data, $0-100+:  You should be able to go to the county courthouse or city building and either pay 10 cents per sheet to have all the data printed out for you (this is a major pain in the rear and could add up to $100+ depending on how big your district is) or pay $5-10 to get a CD of all the counties past election data and registered voter list.  In most states counties are required to be able to provide all this data electronically, but often the funds to make that happen just aren’t there, or the county offices are simply behind the times.  Oftentimes, however, past election data can be found online (but voter registration data can’t).
  2. Opponent research, $0, tons of time:  Do not hire a private investigator or anything silly like that.  Just Google the guy.  Stop by his campaign headquarters and pick up his campaign bio.  What he says about himself is more important information than who he really is anyway.  Chances are, especially if your opponent is an incumbent, there will be a wealth of information online, for free.
  3. District research, $0-50, tons more time:  A good free resource for district research is American FactFinder – this site takes all the latest census data and makes it available to the public to be used in a plethora of ways.  My favorite feature is that you can make maps with it.  You’ll spend hours on this site and learn a ton about the demographic and geo-political nature of your district.  Other sources are the library – they usually have a special section dedicated to the social studies of your town – and newspapers and other local publications.  You’ll need to read every local publication in your district, which may require you to pay for a few subscriptions.

Some well meaning person will probably tell you in the early planning stages that you’ll need to do a poll in order to craft your message, target voters, or something like that.  Thank them kindly for the advice and then ask them for a donation to pay for it, but don’t do a poll.

If your race is really that interesting or heated that a poll is in order, someone else is already doing one on it.  Media outlets do polls all the time because statistic numbers make great headlines, and interest groups will do polls as well to suss out whether they should bother giving you money or getting involved.  While you should take the information from outside polls with several grains of salt (the questions are often biased and the polls aren’t often a true random sample, or even completely within your district), you can use these to gauge public opinion, to a degree.

You’ve probably realized by now that $200 is a fair budget for any small election when it comes to the research portion of your campaign budget, and you may even be able to save some of that money by using the free resources I’ve listed.

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New Voter Turnout – The Long-Shot Candidate’s Siren Song

New voter turnout.  What is that?  A few candidates in, er, interesting districts at interesting times, might find themselves drawn to the idea that they can win a fairly difficult, seemingly impossible race, by registering tons of new voters and then expecting all of those people you just registered to vote for you exclusively.

It’s not altogether an impossible scheme.  It can be done.  But the amount of effort involved is beyond monumental.  It requires a great deal of research, data storage, use, and tracking, and most importantly, a rock solid GOTV plan and execution.

To determine if you might be able to utilize a New Voter Turnout strategy, take these steps to see if your race is cut out for a successful go of it:

  1. Analyze your district.  Are there a lot of renters there?  Renters tend to move around much more than homeowners and usually don’t re-register at the new address.  Is it a college town?  Not only are those kids renters, but they are often not registered at all.  Since they spend 9 or 10 months of the year in their college town rather than their hometown, it’s easy to convince them that their vote will have a greater impact on their lives right here, in your district.
  2. Take a look at your past election data.  How close have the races been?  If the Democrat candidate takes the cake every election with a huge lead, the chances of registering enough voters, and then turning enough of them out, and then enough of those turned out voters actually voting for you instead of the other guy, are very slim indeed.
  3. How many voters are there?  If you’re running in a really small district, like I did in this city council race, a landslide victory percentage-wise may only amount to a couple hundred votes.  If you’re running in a district with 1,000 or less total voters (not registered voters, total of the voters who actually cast a vote on Election Day), you may have a shot at pulling off a New Voter Turnout based win.
If you decide to attack a new voter strategy, you’ll probably have to devote all your effort toward the registration process and then following up with GOTV.  That leaves very little time/money/energy to trying to swing independent and leaning voters – but if you’re counting on new voters for a win then there aren’t nearly enough swing voters to worry your head about anyway.  So focus on GOTV, and be sure to go through the entire canvassing process in the beginning to also locate your staunch Republicans so you can include them in your GOTV efforts.

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To Poll Or Not To Poll?


Yay, we're happier! But honestly, who cares?

Is it really even a question?  I’m always floored every time I see it, and yet nearly every ‘intro to political campaigning’ book I read suggests that the candidate do extensive polling before even deciding to run.

It’s ridiculous, and here’s why.

  1. If you’re reading a Dummies Guide to political campaigning, you’re a first-time candidate running for something like city council, not Congress or governor or some seat that would actually really necessitate paying someone to do a real poll before you even decide to run.  Sometimes the authors of these books take themselves way to seriously.  Speaking from experience, I can tell you, it is just not that complicated to run for local office.
  2. Also if you’re a first-time candidate, you have no money for polling anyway.  No, you can’t spend your own personal money.  Yes, it would be a complete waste of campaign funds as well because…
  3. The poll is only going to confirm what you already know:
    1. The general party breakdown of your district (47% Republican or leans Republican, that sort of thing) which you can figure out for free – and actually with more accuracy – in about 2o minutes by analyzing past voting records.
    2. Your ‘name recognition’ is next to zero because no one knows or cares who you are.

A poll might also ask more in-depth questions about issues and the viability of the incumbent if there is one, but you will pay through the nose for a poll that in-depth.  I’m talking about thousands of dollars.  Thousands of dollars that, I’m guessing, you don’t have when you’re first cracking open that ‘how to run for office’ book.  So do yourself a favor, and skip that part.

How do I find all that stuff out?

You have to do your GOTV canvassing whether you poll or not, because what you really want to know isn’t what the voters are thinking and feeling, but who are the ones that think and feel the way you do – and an anonymous statistical sampling isn’t going to help you there.

Then how do I know if I should run?!

You do your own research, you talk to friends and family, and ultimately, you pray.  Some things just have to be done on faith, and running for office is definitely one of them.

Here are a couple of posts that should help you discern your call to run for political office:

Top 26 Reasons NOT to Run for Office

How to Run for Congress – Is It for Me?

How to Run for Congress – Evaluate Yourself











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361 Days ’til Election 2012: What Should I Be Doing Right Now?

If you’ve already made the decision to run for office, you’re probably thinking you should be fundraising, filling out your candidacy paperwork, and schmoozing voters at the next ice cream social.  If this is your first campaign, you might be freaking out that you’re already behind.

Chill out!

You will have plenty of time for stress later, but there is a time for everything, and now that you’ve decided to take on this extra burden of running for office, now is the time to soak up all the things you’re going to miss next year – when your schedule is so tight you barely have time for a bathroom break.


Take this time to lay back and enjoy your family a little more than usual.  You will miss them a lot soon.  Take a few weekends away with your wife.  If your anniversary is anytime after May, celebrate it in a big way now, just in case.  Take extra time with your kids, talk to them about what you’re planning to do, and how it’ll affect you and your scheduled.

Enjoy the holidays.  Be extra indulgent this year.  It’s very important that you take this time to renew and refresh your spirit in order to have energy for the marathon of campaign 2012.  When the kids finally go back to school is a good time to put the pedal to the metal again.

Pray and talk.  Talk and pray.

With your wife.  A lot.  This is a huge decision, you need to spend a lot of time making sure it’s right for you and your family.

Write your campaign plan.

Now’s the time to focus on planning.  Do yourself a huge favor and get my Campaign Planbook – it’ll do most of the hard work for you.

Research, research, research.

Research yourself.  If you have some issues in your past, figure out in advance how you’re going to deal with them – either head on, putting it out there yourself, or preparing a quick and thorough response in the case your opponents throw it out during the campaign.  Whatever you do, make sure you prepare for the worst.

Research your opponent.  Figure out what he’s going to say about you, about himself, about the issues, about anything.  If there’s anything negative you can dig up, well, I recommend steering clear of negative campaigning, but you can always tuck it away in case you find a need for it.

Research your opponent’s legislative record.  Know it better than he does, and make sure you keep references of important votes you may bring up in a speech or debate.

Research your district.  Don’t just think you know the type of people that live there, research the demographics and the voter data.  Read the local papers, all of them.  Know the geography, all the churches, community centers, special events, major businesses.  Know everything.

Research how to run for office.  Learn how to be a good candidate.  Learn the systems that work and learn what to avoid.  I highly recommend starting right here, at, of course.  And by all means, if you have a question, email me (GOPCampaigner[at] and ask!

Re-write your campaign plan.

Now that you’ve learned a ton more about your own campaign and how to campaign, go back to your campaign plan and apply the new information as needed.  You will find that you tweak your campaign plan intermittently throughout a campaign, and that’s okay.  Events will arise that you may not have accounted for.  Just be sure that your message and your basic strategy remain firm.  This early in the game, however, it’s completely okay if you throw out your old version and start over.  You may have learned a lot about your district, yourself or your opponent that requires you to take a different tack.  Don’t worry.  With nearly a year ahead of you, you really do have time to spare for extensive planning.

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Running for Congress – Sizing Up The Competition Part 2 – Open Seats

Running for Congress for an Open Seat

You may think that once an incumbent has vacated a seat, it’s practically yours for the taking.  Maybe the incumbent was a Republican and you just assume another Republican will win (never, ever, assume anything).  Or perhaps you think that an opponent with zero name recognition, like yourself, will be easier to beat than an entrenched incumbent.  While there may be some truth in those sorts of assumptions, you can’t safely bet on them.  No campaign is won without diligent research, careful planning and excellent execution. So how do you ‘size up the competition’ when they too are a political newbie?  Research, research, research!  Google him.  Send a volunteer in to get a copy of all his campaign materials (if he’s already to that point).  Find out every place he’s worked, volunteered, attended church, etc.  No, you don’t want to stalk him, but research him just like you were assigned to write a five page biography about him. Then, write a five page biography about him.  Okay, well at least one page.  This will go directly into your campaign plan because you need to:

  1. Determine his strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Predict what his message will be.
  3. Determine what your weaknesses are in relation to his strengths.
After you’ve done all that, give it a rest.  Often times candidates begin to obsess about their opponents faults and inadequacies, using them as reasons voters should obviously choose them instead of the other guy.  If you do this, you’ll lose sight of what is actually going to win votes: your message.
Take the information you’ve gathered about your opponent and consider it carefully when you craft your campaign message.  After that, 95% of your campaign’s focus should be on what you are doing and what you are saying.
While it makes great TV for political candidates to be at each others’ throats in the media and on the campaign trail, in your typical campaign for office it doesn’t really happen much.  There will be more media coverage in a Congressional campaign, yes, but assuming neither candidate really has any skeletons in the closet and both campaigns focus on the issues they think are important, there probably won’t be much real drama.
The key to winning will come down to planning, planning, planning.  This is why your written campaign plan is absolutely the most important part of running for Congress.

So how do you approach a campaign against a long-entrenched incumbent?

  1.  Always respect the office and the incumbent’s years of service.  It’s a bitch job.
  2. Focus on the incumbent’s record and emphasize how different his positions are from the district’s concerns.
  3. Don’t bring up personal issues like tax evasion or scandals that are already known – it makes you sound whiny and insubstantial.  And the media will rehash that for you.
  4. Focus on compare/contrast language – this is the least offensive and most legitimate negative campaigning.
  5. Talk about yourself.  Beating the drum that the incumbent is no longer a viable choice doesn’t prove that you are.
  6. A clear, concise and resonant message is even more important when challenging an incumbent.
  7. Practice, practice, practice debating – incumbents have had years of experience not only on the campaign trail but in the everyday job of Congressman as well.
  8. Study, study, study your opponents’ record and everything significant that has happened since he took office.  I’m talking about every single vote.  You won’t be able to outshine the incumbent, but you can use what you know to keep up, and re-route him occasionally.
  9. Admit you don’t know everything.  Admit you don’t know much at all.  Then call your opponent a ‘Washington insider’ or ‘career politician.’
  10. Be younger.  Okay this is hard to fake, but a middle-aged candidate with a youngish family just looks more robust and capable than an old geezer whose kids have been grown for years.  In reality there’s no substance in this but it doesn’t matter because perception is reality.

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