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How to Organize a Political Campaign and Create a Winning Coalition

April 23rd, 2007

In organizing a campaign for public office, there are many steps that a candidate may take, and many of them depend on the kind of office that the candidate is seeking.

The first step that all candidates must make is that of filling out the initial paperwork. This usually involves filling out some forms designed to establish that the candidate meets all of the eligibility requirements for that particular office. In Texas, candidates must also file paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission. The initial report that the candidate must file is about 12 to 14 pages long, and involves the disclosure of any financial wealth that the candidate has on hand, including both income and assets. Any candidate who plans to spend more than $500 on the campaign must also file additional reports wherein the candidate must declare the sources and the amount of any funds that are actually spent on the campaign. The candidate is also required to appoint a campaign treasurer (candidates who do not plan to spend any significant amount of money on their campaigns are allowed to appoint themselves as the treasurer). After completing all of the required paperwork, such candidates will become the nominees of their chosen party, or they may run as independent or write-in candidates.

At this point, the candidate may choose to do nothing further, with the possible exception of providing information to the local newspaper or to nonpartisan groups such as the League of Women Voters. Such candidates are often referred to as “paper candidates” because they file the necessary papers to place their names on the ballot, but do not run active campaigns. In recent elections, the Libertarian Party has been the most active in using this paper candidate strategy. Because their numbers are relatively small, parties such as the Libertarians sometimes do not have enough active candidates to fill every position on the ballot. In such cases, the party will actively recruit candidates from its membership in order to be able to run as many candidates as possible in any major election.

Although the vote totals for paper candidates are usually very low, this strategy can sometimes yield some interesting results. In most elections, one of the major parties will not run a candidate for some of the more local races, leaving the other major party candidate unopposed. In these cases, Libertarian candidates are often able to garner 20% or more of the vote because they represent the only opposition to the current incumbent in that particular race. This is important because these vote totals are often used to determine whether or not a third party can qualify for ballot access in the next general election. In some rare cases, it is even possible for paper candidates to actually win elective office. For example, in the 2000 elections, the Libertarian Party of California came up with the idea of recruiting candidates from the list of voters who had registered as Libertarians in the previous election cycle (California is a state that allows for party registration). Because California is such a populous state, there were many state and local election slots to be filled, but there were also more than 80,000 voters who had registered as Libertarians. The LP staff members simply went to the telephones and began calling all of these registered voters and asked them if they would like to have the chance to run as a candidate. This was a very tedious process, but in the end it paid off- six of these candidates did not face any opposition from either of the major parties in their races, so they were able to win the election by simply filling out the proper paperwork!

Of course, most candidates, unless they know that they are unopposed, do run some type of active campaign. The kind of campaign that they try to organize often depends upon the nature of the office that they are seeking, particularly when it comes to the size of the actual electorate. Candidates who are running in a district with a fairly small population (less than 5000), may be able to run an effective campaign by actually trying to meet with most of the voters personally, usually by going door-to-door or by meeting them in restaurants, grocery stores, and the like. The candidate may also use friends or family members as a kind of volunteer “campaign staff”, and have them hand out fliers, put up posters and yard signs, and get out the vote by word of mouth. In these kinds of campaigns, the candidate’s personal efforts can often make the difference between victory and defeat, especially in a fairly close race.

In larger races, however, such as those for U.S. Congress or any statewide race, the candidate has no realistic chance of meeting with all of the voters personally, which means that in order to win, the candidate has to rely on a larger campaign staff. Greater amounts of funding are also required, and the candidate will usually appoint a treasurer to keep track of the income and expenditures during the campaign. The “grunt work” of the campaign, such as putting up posters or getting out the vote by telephone, will usually be handled by volunteers from the candidate’s party, although sometimes the candidate will resort to using paid staff for these purposes, provided there is enough funding to do so. Meanwhile, the candidate will try to gain public exposure by speaking at town meetings, attending debates whenever possible, and sometimes staging political rallies with supporters in an effort to draw positive media attention to the campaign. The amount of funding needed to win these kinds of mid-level races typically runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but still does not approach the tens of millions of dollars needed to win a presidential campaign.

Of course, the presidential campaign, being the “granddaddy” of all American political campaigns, naturally involves using the largest scale of organization. These are much more elaborate and sophisticated affairs than any of the other kinds of campaigns, as most of the tasks are now handled by paid professionals rather than by volunteers or amateurs. Most candidates will hire a political consultant, a person whose job it is to devise an effective campaign strategy, plan for any media appearances by the candidate, train the candidate for debates and speaking engagements, and generally help to build the overall image of the candidate. The campaign will also use techniques such as private polling in order to monitor the candidate’s progress throughout the campaign, and will often use focus groups in order to try to determine the public’s current perception of the candidate. Presidential campaigns are always the longest and the most costly, especially for the major party candidates, who also have to run campaigns for their party’s primary elections in addition to the general election.

In order to build a winning coalition, the candidate must devise a strategy that aims to capture as many large sections of the electorate as possible in order to attain a majority of the total vote on Election Day. The usual technique is to begin by shoring up the support of the candidate’s own party membership and any friendly constituency groups. Historically, even “extreme” candidates such as Barry Goldwater or George McGovern have been able to win at least 30% of the popular vote by simply appealing to their own supporters and by winning over a portion of the independent voters. Of course, it is always best for a candidate to be able to “cross over” and win some of the votes from the other party’s base. Republican candidate Ronald Reagan was able to use this strategy to great effect in 1980 and 1984, when he was able to garner many votes from groups of people who traditionally vote Democratic, such as blue-collar union workers. These “Reagan Democrats” were largely responsible for Reagan’s landslide victory over Walter Mondale in 1984, and because of the “coattail effect”, also helped the Republicans in chipping away at what was then a solid Democratic majority in both houses of Congress.

In most presidential elections, the primary focus of the campaign is to win over the independent or “swing” voters- those voters who are not committed to the support of any particular candidate or party. Much time, energy, and money is spent by the campaign staffs of both major party candidates in an effort to win over these swing voters. Opinion polls, focus groups, and even daily tracking polls are used in order to figure out which way this “undecided” vote may be leaning, and the campaign will often adjust its strategy accordingly. Sometimes the campaign will also conduct “opposition research” in order to discover any information about an opposing candidate that may be unfavorable to that candidate’s image among undecided voters. This often results in a barrage of negative campaign advertisements in the last two or three weeks before Election Day. Although many people complain about such ads, research by political scientists has shown that these ads can often be quite effective if they are properly timed and at least somewhat based on actual facts.

Related article: The Importance of Values in Local Political Campaigns

3 Responses to “How to Organize a Political Campaign and Create a Winning Coalition”

  1. comment number 1 by: Abdulahi Ali

    dear sir or madam,

    we need orgen support if you have healty experience to organizing compaign winning colitions.

    Puntland somalia

  2. comment number 2 by: Darin Solomon

    Hi, earlier today I wrote an essay (University of the West Indies exam) on the steps President Obama used during his election campaign which culminated in a victory at the polls. The information I got from this website provided much insight. Thanks!!!

  3. comment number 3 by: Nadia

    May I ask you Darin, if thereis any chance that I can read your article, I want to learn more, as we are approaching the election in Iraq, your article may go far away.. many thanks.
    Nadia- Iraq

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