So You Want to Run For Office … Now What?

So You Want to Run For Office … Now What?

A friend from high school contacted me. Nice guy. Successful career. Good family man. “I’m considering running for public office,” he said. “What do you think?”

My reply was short and simple: “Have you done your Candidate Checklist?” You could almost hear him scratching his head in his reply. “Do you mean have I lined up political supporters and financial backers? Do I know how to assemble a good campaign team?”

No, that wasn’t what I meant. Those things are important. But would-be office seekers should do something else first. Answering five questions on the Candidate Checklist now will make your entry into the race easier later, or even spare you serious headaches if you find running isn’t right for you (or not right at this particular time).

Candidate Checklist

1) Why do I want to do this?

It’s a deceptively simple question, but the answer reveals much. As a candidate you’ll ask people to invest their vote in you. So they’ll ask you in return, “Why do you want to be [insert office here]?”

Before you say it to anyone else, you should talk to yourself first. Ask yourself, “Why do I want this job?” A short, sincere and (above all) succinct answer establishes rapport with voters. A bad answer can be fatal.

Consider the classic case of Ted Kennedy. For years, observers expected the Massachusetts senator to one day follow his late brothers’ presidential footsteps. And that day did finally come. There was much hoopla in the runup to Kennedy’s entry in the 1980 race. NBC prepared an hour-long TV special called “Teddy” to air right before the big announcement.

Kennedy’s interview for that program began with the simplest of softball questions: “Why do you want to be president?” He gave a hesitant, rambling incomprehensible reply that was so bad, one comedian later joked, “The only intelligible word he said was ‘tomato’.”

Kennedy supporters, the news media, and Americans in general were stunned. If the guy couldn’t even answer why he wanted the job, why should he get in the race? Political junkies call it “the day the presidency was lost before the campaign even began.”

Don’t make the same mistake. Articulate to yourself why you want the office before you ever tell anyone else.

2) Is your Significant Other truly onboard with this?

I’ve seen this countless times: a would-be candidate excitedly tells the husband/wife or boy/girlfriend, “I’m thinking about running for office. What do you think, honey?”

What can they say? A supportive partner often answers, “Sounds great, dear!” without realizing everything that’s involved.

As the would-be candidate, and as someone who wants to keep the relationship intact, it’s your responsibility to schedule The Talks with your significant other. (Note the plural, talks, because too many important issues are involved to cover in one conversation.)

First, there’s the time commitment. As a candidate, you’ll be coming home long after bedtime most nights. As the race nears primary and general election day, you’ll likely be gone overnight, too.

Forget things like date night. Quality time will become a five minute phone chat.

And what about the kids? If you have small children, your spouse will suddenly shoulder that burden alone. Is he/she ok with it?

Finally, a new group of people will suddenly intrude into your relationship. You’ll hear the campaign manager, communications director and fundraisers’ names – a lot. Count on the campaign’s scheduler becoming an intimate part of your daily lives, too. Your Significant Other will hear, “The candidate has to skip your daughter’s music recital because an important town hall meeting was just scheduled across the state for that night.” How will that play at home – especially when the bad news is delivered once too often?

You, as the potential candidate, chose to enter this strange lifestyle. It’s imposed on your Significant Other because of your decision. You owe it to him/her to fully explain -well in advance- what will be on the line for your marriage and family before throwing your hat into the ring.

3) Do you have a strong support system?

“We all need someone we can lean on,” Mick Jagger once sang. That’s especially true when you’re a political candidate.

Every waking moment (and a good deal of dreamtime, too) is invested in the campaign. How can I win more supporters? Where can we get more funding? The campaign manager wants me to do this, while other staffers want me to do that; what should I do? And of course, how do I keep my Significant Other from riding my case? (See Question #2).

And then there are the voters. Expect to hear an endless loop consisting of, “I’ve got a great idea for a new project, and I want to enlist your support” … “Here’s what your campaign should do if you really want to win” …  and “My nephew hasn’t worked for six month and needs a job.” It never ends.

A small circle of close friends is essential for helping you through the hard times. Friends who can tell that favorite joke that always makes you laugh; friends who stay quiet and let you vent on particularly stressful days; friends who know the meaning of “confidential;” and most important of all, friends who will always have your back.

They’re worth their weight in gold.

 4)  Does your financial situation permit you to run?

I would love to say anybody can seek public office. But the cold, hard reality is not everyone can afford to take a year off work to seek a job that often pays less than the one they currently have.

If you’re self-employed and your stock portfolio is healthy, good for you. If grandpa left you a plump trust fund, huzzah. But for the rest of us whose last name isn’t Rockefeller, check your financial status first. Talk with your family accountant, banker or financial planner. You don’t want to discover six weeks before election day that you can’t pay your bills.

5) Are you willing to live with yourself if you lose?

When I was a college sophomore, I ran for student body vice president. I missed making the runoff by 32 votes. Just 32 votes, man! They danced on the foot of my bed every night for the following year. (And I’m happy to say I was successful in my next run the following year.)

The losing end of election night feels miserable. You don’t want to be there. And defeat’s aftertaste lasts a long time.

Are you willing to endure it if you decide to run? And more importantly, are you willing to do everything (that is legal and moral) to avoid it by winning?

That’s the Checklist. If these questions have give you second thoughts about becoming a candidate, stop right now and take a deep breath. Because you can do it!

Yes, running for office seems daunting from a distance. But it will also likely be one of the most rewarding things you ever do.  Forewarned is forearmed, they say. By knowing what to expect in advance, you and your family can enter the race with eyes wide open. That will help you keep your attention focused right where it belongs: on winning.

All I ask in return is a good seat at your inauguration ceremony, and a couple of cozy dinners upstairs at the White House.


J. Mark Powell is historical columnist, veteran campaign and government communicator, novelist and former broadcast journalist. You can contract him for communications and writing here. 

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