Candidate College: How to become a politician

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Ever thought of running for a political office? This post will show you a video-taped conference where speakers, including successful politicians, try and give some advice about what to do and what to expect.  I also include summary notes if you need the quick version.

Obama Nashua Rally 37

If you can change a room, can you really change the world?

Photo by no.nein

Background: Professional Engineers Ontario had an event to encourage and to teach engineers to run in the Ontario Provincial Parliament (Ontario is a province of Canada). They are trying to push more engineers to run for office. At the end of this post, I have a comment on this desire to encourage engineers to become politicians. But first, let's look at the advice.

These tips can apply to anyone, of any profession, running in any democratic jurisdiction. Just use common sense and you'll see a lot that translates. The constant pep-talk to the engineering profession could wear on you a little, but that's it. The "Candidate College" is 3 video parts (39 mins / 35 mins / 29 mins):   VIDEO LINK

Jump to 8 minutes into first video to skip the preamble. I personally thought that the first 10 minutes of video 2 was the best.

My notes from the videos follow, in case you don't have time to view it all:

Video 1 ~8 minutes:

  • Losing is not to be feared and is also a valuable experience
  • Many people fear being asked by the media about a topic they don’t know anything about. When it happens, do not fake an answer as they’ll see through it. Admit you don’t know and ask to get back to them. This will build respect

Video 1 ~22 minutes:

  • Having a public profile helps but offers no guarantee. Sometimes a “shift in political winds” allows an unknown newcomer beat a seemingly invincible incumbent
  • Ad agency’s advice: once elected: make at least 7 contacts every 12 months with the electorate. A “contact” means the public recognizes your name and sees your photograph. For example a calendar with pictures of you and your name, household mailings every few months (w/ photos), big BBQ in the summer all are invited to and the invitation has your name/picture. Lastly, work the local papers. It is hard to get in the big papers unless you are at least on a political cabinet. “Back-benchers” (lesser-known, lower-level politicians) must work the local small media
  • Also work small local events: even if you just meet 10 people, they’ll each tell 4 other people, who then tell others: the multiplier effect. Encourage people to come talk to you, and also bring in their spouse or friends or whoever when they visit so you get more contacts

Video 1 ~35 minutes:

  • You must have passionate reason to want to run. Passion helps you attract people, and motivate yourself through difficult times
  • Get involved in the community to build a profile and contacts before you run
  • Join the local riding association (Provincial) / EDA?? (Federal), get involved, meet the president, learn who’s on the inside and become part of the team. Volunteering in the riding association is another way to help the political process without becoming a politician yourself

Video 2 Start Peter Tabuns

  • He discusses "nominations," where a political party decides who will represent it in an electoral riding. How to win these local nominations so you can then go fight the election
  • If you are serious about winning a nomination to be the political candidate for a party in your riding, hire a professional full-time organizer. Just as you hire a professional to build a building, you need pros to help you win a serious political contest
  • A nomination consists of three phases: preparation, campaign, and the nomination meeting
  • Preparation: have a short, clear reason for running. (e.g. Ted Kennedy’s first interview: he was asked “Why are you running?” There was dead air – no answer – for a long time. That clip was replayed again and again, haunting his campaign)
  • Leave work during the nomination race. Run for political office full-time, not just in the evening. “Go big or go home”
  • Not sure whether to run? Try the rule of 10: can you get around 10 people in a room together, and they all commit to work for you? If you can’t get 10, you won’t get 100s
  • Talk to the local movers and shakers, and to party leaders. See if a local favorite is going to run in your riding because you might not want to go against them
  • If you run, be sure you’re able to handle winning or losing. Visualize your lifestyle if either happens. Winning is a change in lifestyle, you’ve gotta move to the capital and spend time in the legislature, etc. etc. -- don’t accidentally win
  • Nomination campaign: sign up members. Sign up everybody. Friends, acquaintances, cabbies, etc. Phone everyone on the party’s member list and talk to them personally. If you get the answering machine follow up on them later. Phone, phone, phone. 9am-9pm. Telemarket
  • Do a basic website. Picture, life history, your goals. Facebook is OK – if you have a lot of Facebook friends. Having 4 friends makes you look pathetic. Use flyers too – make them clean and simple
  • Nomination meeting: a few days before the meeting, call the people in neighborhoods or groups who support you, and keep calling again and again. Get them to the meeting. Get them rides, whatever it takes. Don’t bother pushing people who are undecided or against you to attend the nomination meeting: why help your opponents?
  • Nomination speech: doesn’t have to be great, just credible, plausible, get people comfortable with you. Do capably but not extraordinarily. Obama had a very sophisticated “get out the vote” campaign, not just great oratory. Focus on getting your supporters there at the vote for you

Video 2 ~12 mins

  • Design your campaign to show you as a winning candidate. You must be considered as a contender so that the public “has to look at you” as a possible winner. Get the leader of your party to come to your riding if you can: shows you have a chance. If you seem like a winner, people will go the extra mile to help you because it might actually pay off
  • Show you can play the election game: you fit into the context/archetype of a politician
  • Public is more cynical, less people vote, but if you’re a truthful person who has contributed to society, you are seen to be working hard, intelligent, etc. you are embodying the political archetype
  • You can’t play dirty these days: you’ll get caught stealing funds, stealing opponent’s signs, etc. You’ll wind up on the front page and it’ll hurt
  • You need a good sign campaign to get your name out. Get your picture on the signs if you can also: people remember the face and recognize you in public. Once your face is recognized, you’ll get free contacts throughout your daily life (like “I know you” at the grocery store)
  • In some areas <1000 votes can decide it, so fight for all votes
  • You have to raise money for a modern campaign. It’s no longer considered “buying an election.” You can’t just win with an army of volunteers anymore. You need reasonable money AND a reasonable number of volunteers to win
  • Identify your supporters, and get them into the polls (and advance polls). Don’t spend your energy bringing out your opponent’s voters. You can look at data from previous elections (for your party or yourself), and look at who bought your signs to decide where to focus when “getting out the vote”
  • Have one or two clear issues: when you knock on Mrs. Johnson’s door, she knows “oh you’re running to improve traffic in Markham” (or whatever)

Video 2 ~26 mins

  • Do work and raise money between the elections
  • “Low-level” political contacts help too

Video 3 ~6 mins

  • If you have young children, it may be better to run after the family is raised and the kids are more independent, since politics is a very on-call job, not 9-5
  • Question by young guy: what can we do now to prepare? Answer: maybe there’s a policy area, non-partisan like NGOs (non governmental organizations). Also could contact local riding association / EDA and volunteer?
  • Which level of politics to enter? Depends on your interests. Municipal (city-level) = less bound by partisan issues. Federal (country-level) requires you balance the constituents and your belief of the best interests for the country

Video 3 ~10 mins

  • Use your natural strengths: if you’re a soccer mom use that constituency
  • Have a knowledgeable Chief Financial Officer and campaign team member. Those two gotta be on the same page
  • Keep your canvassing teams happy. It’s slow and tiring so give them food. Have a budget item for this food when you plan your campaign
  • Nomination vs. election: nomination is about you, differentiating yourself to people within your own party. The election is more about the overall political party, the leader, and their policies, less about yourself. It is a priority/strategy shift
  • Since you probably have to take time off work, running hurts your pocketbook. Be sure you can take it
  • Ask the riding association what funding they have for your campaign. If not enough, gotta fundraise and campaign
  • When you win: hopefully you’re connected to people all over the community (not just your supporters)

Video 3 ~15 mins

  • Not sure politics is right for you? Test-drive it: volunteer for a campaign
  • Candidate has to be involved in raising the money. They’re the most effective person to do this. You cannot just delegate it
  • The paid organizer you hire to run your campaign must be a full-time professional over the campaign. Try to find someone within the party who’s experienced/credible/capable and wants to believe in your cause as a candidate. They are the full-time core of your campaign
  • There is no manual or tried-and-true method to prepare, but if you want to build your skills consider media training, public speaking courses, especially if you’re not used to that
  • If you don’t have local connections/networks, maybe build them first, volunteer, before you make the run

Video 3 ~21 mins

  • Municipal (city-level): it’s very hard to run against an incumbent, may be a bad idea [My note: although true in Ontario because of how the city councillor system is set up, this may not be universally true]
  • Typical effective campaign costs $85,000-$100,000 to run. Raising money can be a challenge
  • Heard an interview from Obama’s Chief Financial Officer: give people something in return for the money you give. E.g. Obama gave information: if someone gives Obama $5 by credit card, they get signed up for a bulletin about Obama, where he was, what he’s doing, campaign’s momentum, etc.
  • Know thyself: what if your values don’t line up with any party? Run as an independent, or wait it out: influence policy on the sidelines and wait until you’re comfortable to run
  • Story: someone raised $85,000 from friends/contacts in B.C., but made few connections with local people, so lost hard. He wasted his money!

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That ends my video notes. As a side topic, I have a thought about Professional Engineers Ontario’s effort to encourage engineers to run for office. Watching the video I see there is some angst around this issue.

Let's put it in perspective. Different countries seem to “prefer” different professions for office and end up with an unusual abundance of them. The Economist had an article about this last year1. It is behind a subscription wall, but if I remember correctly: America prefers lawyers, Brazil doctors, Egypt academics, and China engineers. It varies by what the country prefers, esteems, or thinks it needs right now. Personally, I see it as a smaller-scale version of the way that societies throughout history have sung the praises of brave warriors, or clever orators, or wise men, or the pious, or businessmen, depending on the circumstances and character of the time.

Lawyers have always been a natural fit for politics in democracy as they’re good orators and advocates, familiar with laws which are a major focus of politics, and often able to amass enough wealth and connections to allow them to run. But it’s no global rule, and there is no hard-and-fast supremacy for lawyers.

Also, through the rise of political think-tanks and advocacy groups, it is now possible to have an almost purely political career. These new groups have provided a “bottom rung” on a purely political career ladder. Example: David Cameron who heads the British Federal Conservatives and has a good shot at winning the election tomorrow.

In short, it's not at all weird for a non-lawyer to run. It should not be a big deal, unless you make it a big deal in your own head.

Edit:2010-12-03: Someone sent me this link. It provides a course, geared to helping women get elected in Canada, but might have some useful information for all countries and sexes? Getting to the gate.

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  1. Regarding The Economist article, you can read comments here. Please correct me if I've made any mistakes summarizing it. []
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2 Responses to Candidate College: How to become a politician

  1. Frank79 says:

    Oh dear. It’s after the election and we still don’t know if Cameron won!

  2. Frankie says:

    Peter Tabun’s warning on not “accidentally winning” may have held true for some… Students, ex-Communist, a Cree leader and more join NDP’s swollen Quebec ranks

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