10 Ideas for Running for Office in a Principled Way (That Wins)

Dear Political Candidate,

Elections are a mess. But they don’t have to be. They could be our most proud democratic institution, instead of our most embarrassing.

We voters are thirsty for candidates who stand for something greater than themselves. Candidates like you. Below are a few ideas about what it could look like to run a principled campaign that is also a winning campaign. Make no mistake, being principled is harder, but in our democracy right now, there is a lot at stake. 

10 Ideas for Running a Principled, Winning Campaign

Number 1: Start serving the public now.  Don’t argue that you will bring change if elected. Instead, bring change in order to get elected. Take your platform and bring it to life during the campaign. Spend campaign resources on building playgrounds, running night classes for ex-offenders, funding a mobile health care program, and taking real social action. Instead of talking about the need to fix crumbling school buildings, hold a press conference inside one and invite the local superintendent to attend.

*Why it’s the right thing to do: It helps address the disconnect between campaigning and governing. Moreover, you’ve got all this money power and people power – why not spend it on actually making the world a better place… as opposed to posters with your picture on them?

*Why it works: While your opponent is talking about what she might do in office, you can talk about what you (and your supporters) are already doing. For undecided voters, actions speak louder than words. This is also a free method of generating substantive media coverage. Best of all, your supporters get to be involved in, and energized by, real change.

Number 2: Be honest.

When you are asked a question, tell the truth. Don’t parse or hedge or dodge. If you find yourself trying to hide something from the press or your opponent, instead release it publicly on your own terms…before they do. When you want to say something, say it yourself, rather than having an operative do your dirty work.

*Why it’s the right thing to do: We were reminded this election cycle that political discourse really does affect our day lives. When politicians bully, citizens bully. When our leaders lead with honesty and candor, that trickles down too.

*Why it works: We voters have shown we are ready to reward candor, almost to a fault. We are even willing to forgive gaffes and offenses, if we think we are getting the straight talk.

Number 3: The spotlight is on you… share it.

Every time you speak, make sure other local leaders are speaking too. Honor the work of folks you admire. Seek out press attention and public recognition for your key allies and top volunteers.

* Why it’s the right thing to do: Whether you win or lose will depend on the efforts of hundreds, even thousands, of people. Give them the recognition they deserve, and help fight the personality cults that currently define American politics.

* Why it works: Sharing the spotlight is a way to energize and engage your allies and supporters.

Number 4: Ask much of the electorate.

As it stands, you ask us two questions: can I have your vote? And: can I have your cash? You could ask a lot more. You could ask for our stories and our ideas. You could ask for help crafting policy. You could ask for our attention, longer than a 30-second soundbite. Most important, you could ask for our time: to make calls, to join your upcoming service project or public action (see # 1), to help organize. Essentially, this rule means treating us voters as equals.

*Why it’s the right thing to do: This is a democracy. We are at our best when we are all governing ourselves and taking action, not when we are waiting on you to solve our problems.

*Why it works: When you ask for more, you get more. The best thing to ask for is folks to serve a role on your campaign team – this could mean they are your social media director, precinct captain, fundraiser host, house meeting coordinator, education policy director, you name it. The more people who have meaningful roles, the more people who will be invested in the outcome.

Number 5: Listen.

Like most marketing endeavors, campaigns are currently one-directional. You attempt to sell, convince, and cajole. Instead, you could agitate, engage, and involve. The trick: you’d have to listen. When you get done asking all your questions (Number 4), make sure to listen to the answers.

*Why it’s the right thing to do: It’s your job to serve us. The least you can do is listen.

*Why it works: We want to be heard; we will repay your efforts to listen to us with insights and stories and ideas.

Number 6: Don’t preach, teach.

We have heard a thousand stump speeches just like yours. You’ve done your research, and you tell us what we want to hear, but the other candidate did her research too… We’re bored. Do something different. If you have half an hour, teach us the history of an issue. If you have an hour, teach us a skill we can use to make change in our own neighborhoods. Teach us the way Washington (or the State Capitol or City Hall) really works.

*Why it’s the right thing to do: An educated electorate is a better electorate.

*Why it works: You want us to see the world as you do – give us the architecture of your ideas, not just your conclusions. Let us walk away with some new knowledge and new power. Let us gain respect for your intellect.

Number 7: Take risks. Make mistakes. Admit them. Learn from them.

While your opponent gets lost in a quagmire of denials and obfuscations over his last mishap, you will have already moved on from yours. How? You were open about your desire to take risks. You were humble when those risks (inevitably) led to mistakes. And you showed your strength by learning from those mistakes, and not making them again.

*Why it’s the right thing to do: Making mistakes and learning from them is the only way to get better at what you do. Furthermore, taking risks is the only way to achieve real, big changes for the better.

*Why it works: You accomplish little when you spend your time holding steady, desperately trying to avoid making mistakes (see Clinton, Hillary ’08).

Number 8: Be indebted to people you want to pay back.

Take money and resources from whomever you choose, but as we say in West Virginia: at the end of the night, you’re gonna dance with the one that brung you. Not all money is created equal. Make sure the people who are giving you their money, time, and talent are people you want in your corner… and in your ear.

*Why it’s the right thing to do: Your mother told you to pick your friends wisely. You are running because you want to make some kind of change; don’t handicap yourself.

*Why it works: Not only will bad choices hurt you (most political scandals start with a politician getting in league with a shady character), good ones can help you.

Rule 9: Add your own commandment. Stick to it.

To run principled campaigns, we need principles and we need candidates like you who live up to them. Add your own non-negotiable… Surrounding yourself with people who disagree with you? Treating your opponent as you would wish to be treated? Eating dinner with your family? What’s the one rule you never want to break? You choose. Whatever you choose, make it known… so that the rest of us can hold you to it.

*Why it’s the right thing to do: Is winning worth sacrificing the thing you hold most dear?

*Why it works: You will get energy from sticking to what you believe in, and so will we.

Rule 10: Be willing to lose.

To win in a principled way is to be willing to lose. That’s how you’ll earn our respect, and that’s the only way to change the rules of the game… by playing by a different set of rules until you win.

*Why it’s the right thing to do: Being willing to lose gives you the freedom to do real good.

*Why it works: Being willing to lose gives you the freedom to do real good. Besides, Lincoln lost six times before he won the Presidency.

Sincerely Yours, The Electorate  

This is excerpted and updated from a piece written by Stephen Smith, a community organizer/candidate trainer, in 2009. Stephen now works with the Our Children, Our Future Campaign and the WV Candidate Training Academy. To learn more about the Candidate Training Academy, sign-up here.