WASHINGTON — The presidential race is over, but Toora Arsala doesn’t have a case of the post-election blues. After all, it’s never too soon to start thinking about the next election.
“I’m definitely interested in running for the House of Delegates [Virginia’s lower house] after I graduate because our representative has been there for too long,” Arsala said. “He has to go.”
This sentiment for change is common among a new generation of leaders coming to the forefront, Arsala said.
As President of Northern Virginia Community College Democrats, he often speaks to other youth political groups about his experiences volunteering for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign and serving as one of the youngest delegates at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. But he concedes that stepping into the spotlight as a candidate can be daunting.
So if you’re like Arsala, a campaign for state office is often a good place to begin your political journey to Capitol Hill or even the Oval Office. After all, Barack Obama’s first elected office was in the Illinois State Senate.
With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about running your own, or somebody else’s first campaign.
Know your constituents
Every community has its unique way of life that the prospective candidate needs to learn about before starting a campaign.
First, get to know the people in your community by looking at national census data and local sources of demographic data, said Lezlee Westine, campaign advisor to President George W. Bush in 2000. Break down the voting population by age, highlighting seniors, Social Security and Medicare recipients, and families with children. This information illuminates what issues are important to potential constituents.
Second, Westine advised, seek out opinion leaders in the community. It’s fairly easy to find respected corporate leaders and community organizers by checking local news outlets and searching online.
Next step, meet your would-be constituents by knocking on doors or calling, said Brandon Cloud, deputy political director of the Maryland Democratic Party.
“You have to build name recognition,” Cloud said. “In a small race, if you put the time in, you can personally make an impression on nearly every single person.”
Put Together a Network
A campaign, however, is reliant on more than just the candidate. Friendships and alliances help with fundraising, communicating and getting voters to the polls, said Gregory Slayton, who also worked on Bush’s 2000 campaign.
To build this network, candidates should look to people they’ve previously worked with in the private sector or the community, Cloud said.
“Volunteer with other campaigns, go to local central committee meetings, go to legislative meetings,” he said. “If you haven’t been involved locally with other campaigns and been helping your community, it will be hard to get people to help you.”
Successful candidates need a financial plan going in and should “spend a minimum 50 percent of their time fundraising in order to win,” said Slayton, who was also national finance co-chairman for several U.S. senators and presidential candidates, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
The key to fundraising is building relationships, said Westine.
“Don’t start calling random wealthy people asking for money, because this doesn’t really work,” she said. “People are more likely to contribute if they know either the candidate or a big supporter.”
Creating a network can widen this pool of donors, said Paula Dukes, onetime fundraiser for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and now partner in the Rizzo Dukes Group.
“If a donor really likes a candidate personally, you often see their willingness to not only make a contribution but host an event, as well as encouraging their friends and colleagues to get involved,” Dukes said. “A political contribution is your greatest guarantee of a personal investment for a candidate by a voter.”
The best place to begin is by creating a finance team with a few key donors that the candidate knows personally, said Westine. Candidates then give each member of their team a targeted amount of money to either raise or give.
A “stump speech” is a set of prepared remarks often repeated, said Julie Cave Altman, a White House speechwriter during the Reagan Administration. A campaign should prepare several stump speeches:
• A 30-second speech for quick meet-and-greets;
• A 5-minute speech for a meeting or event not sponsored by the campaign;
• A 10-to-20 minute speech to give at rallies and gatherings.
While the entire talk should be relevant and concise, the beginning and ending are what the audience will remember, said Heidi Berenson, the president of Berenson Communications.
“We know from research that you have about nine seconds before an audience judges you worth listening to,” she said.
Having worked with members of Congress, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., Berenson suggests skipping bland statements like, “Good morning thank you for inviting me here today.” Start with what Berenson called a “cold” open, mentioning an interesting fact, question, poll, or anything to grab the audience’s attention.
A “dynamic close” is equally important, she said. Wrap up your speech up clearly: issue a call to action, sum up key points, and always end on an upbeat note.
Social media sites connect candidates with their constituencies in four key ways, said Mark Corallo, a Washington communications veteran who served as spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson. They are:
• Name Recognition
This relationship, however, has to be continuous.
“You can’t just with interact people when you’re asking for money every two or four years,” Slayton said. Instead, tweet several times a day and make sure Facebook is always current.
And the results speak for themselves. The candidate with the more engaged Facebook fan base won eight out of nine toss-up U.S. Senate races and 20 out of 33 of the most competitive house races, according to MacWilliams Sanders Communications.
As for Arsala, he says there are still many things he needs to do before he runs as a first-time candidate in 2017. However, it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm.
“This election has really gotten me excited about running for office,” Arsala said. “Obama inspired me to try and inspire others, and nothing is going to stop me.”