This is the first in a series of articles on the essence of running for office. The theme of my articles will be about strategies and casualties found along the campaign trail. I will discuss what makes a good candidate and what makes a campaign successful.
I will not be discussing ideology or policy in these articles. I have a strong ideological belief system, and acknowledge how important the issues are in American public life. However, in order to deploy your policy affirmation, you first have to cross the finish line, and that is why these articles are worth reading.
A basic instinctive premise of running for office should be civic engagement. However, too many of our candidates skip this important step. Instead, they decide to go from zero to hero and usually end up unsuccessful in their political ambitions. Let’s discuss the decline of civic engagement, candidates who fall victim to disengagement and the solution to this growing problem that I like to call “the garage door politician.”
Americans have spent the last three generations growing detached from their communities. The book “Bowling Alone” by Robert Putnam illustrates the aggressive decline of civic engagement in the United States. The premise is simple; in generations past, ending with the Greatest Generation who came of age during the Depression and World War II, Americans were engaged in everything from neighborhood clubs, civic groups — and even bowling leagues.
The inventions of television and radio and suburban life with long commutes have eroded the public engagement of most Americans. Information and ideas are no longer discussed in meetings, but on the television – a one way conversation. However, what happens when a solo bowler decides to run for office? It happens all too often, and the truth is, individuals who don’t exchange ideas in person are far less likely to cast ballots – and those who do want to support a candidate they know directly or indirectly and respect.
I like to refer to these individuals as garage door politicians. These are individuals who drive out of their garage every morning and then head back in every evening just in time to catch a rerun of “The Office” without ever talking to their neighbors or having active involvement in their communities.
While Americans have become more disengaged in the political process in recent generations, there are no shortage of would be candidates who draw from these ranks. Many understandably get mad at the “system” or feel they have something unique and constructive to add to the process and throw their hat in the ring. But support and trust don’t materialize just because your name is on the ballot.
These candidates have gotten themselves in a bad situation. Voters like to know they can trust their elected officials. This is an issue more important than ideology, campaign style or the color of their logo and yard signs. Trust is the cornerstone to a winning campaign.
Candidates appearing out of thin air, venturing outside of the confides of their living room for the first time do not have built-in trust or credibility. In fact, their sudden involvement in civic and political clubs and activities seems disingenuous. A candidate shouldn’t only care about his or her communities during the election cycle.
Worse yet, a disengaged candidate will lack valuable endorsements and a base. Any winning campaign is the result of a strong and mobilized base (more on that another day). Having a network of connections who see the candidate as a leader, an honest member of the community and holding a true interest in their neighbors is the key to winning.
Endorsements are a prime example of why candidates need to get involved in the world around them. Endorsements are important for one key reason: Voters see names they know and trust supporting the candidate. This trust is now transferred to the endorsed candidate. It’s the old adage “if Mikey likes it…”
A garage door candidate isn’t going to earn endorsements. He might even brag about this, stating he doesn’t want establishment support. But she is sadly mistaken. An endorsement is a token of respect and a sign of leadership. If you don’t have friends involved in politics (even at the grassroots level) and you have never bothered to get involved, why would anyone give you a show of respect and faith? And more to the point, if you haven’t shown any interest in the voters before, why should they show interest in you?
To form a base, a crowd at an event, a group of donors and so on, you need friends – friends who care about their communities and friends who believe in you. For those candidates who wake up and decide to run for office, they find the campaign trail is a lonely place. Support and money comes from a long and established history of civic involvement, and no, Facebook doesn’t count.
The solution to the garage door candidate sounds easy, but it requires a high degree of sincerity and dedication.
First, it’s important to get involved early. This doesn’t mean weeks or months before your election – it means years. Involvement should be in more than one or two clubs no matter how expedient. Get involved in women’s Republican clubs – even if you’re a man. Get involved in your HOA, volunteer for charities you care about and volunteer for political campaigns and causes you believe in supporting. Venture out of the house and in to the arena of ideas! In doing so, not only will you earn the respect and trust of voters, but you will have learned the issues most pressing to your neighbors. But most important, you will have done something good for the community.
It is important to become involved for the right reasons and in complete sincerity. If you get involved to simply win votes, or show up for meetings only when you want something (like votes), you might as well stay home. People dedicated to clubs and charities do so because they deeply believe in the cause. Using their network and mission ONLY to get ahead will be noticed.
If these tasks seem boring or a strain, you may want to reconsider the next step and not run for office. If you don’t have the time or interest to continue your involvement past a few weeks (remember, this isn’t a New Year’s Resolution), more involvement isn’t right for you. It’s about year’s worth of connections.
I understand it can be frustrating watching the news. You want to do something, and running for office feels right. But no matter how valid your ideas, or how coordinated your leadership abilities may be, political races are won by candidates who care about their community and have the trust of the voter with a track record to prove it.. A garage door candidate won’t have the ability to win votes, because they lack the biography and support network to win.
Eric Weinmann has provided campaign consultation and management since 2008. Operating from Houston, Texas, Weinmann focuses on Republican and municipal races. For more information, or to email Eric Weinmann