I am very active on Twitter. Someone wrote to me and said they love the Commonwealthy podcast, but they’d like more information about running against an incumbent. They said we hadn’t covered that topic and she was right. So this is for you, Shay. If you want to find me on Twitter, I am @JTsarpalas.
Today we are going to talk about strategies and things you need to do if you are running against an incumbent. This is Commonwealthy #62, Beating an Incumbent.
How do you beat an incumbent? Let’s talk about that. Obviously an incumbent has advantages. An incumbent has disadvantages. So don’t think they are not beatable; they are very beatable.
Often an incumbent has gotten lazy. I have worked for different candidates and different campaigns where we’ve beaten the incumbent. It is because the incumbent kind of took it for granted that they were going to get reelected. “Everybody knows me. Everybody loves me.” Well, they might know you. They might not even know you if it is a small race or a certain area and people just don’t know what is going on.
So don’t take it for granted that they are not beatable. If you work hard, and most incumbents don’t work hard enough, even at the state rep level. Most of those candidates don’t work hard enough. They are relying on someone else to do the work for them.
Here in Illinois often the state party runs the campaigns for the state reps. They are not doing a lot themselves. Often they don’t raise a lot of money themselves. They are often, again, leaving it to the state party to do it. There is a whole lot of laziness that goes on.
And on school boards and other levels, a lot of these people are just clueless and they’ve won just out of luck or they knew a fair amount of people in the community. So you just have to out work them.
So let’s get down to specifics on the incumbent. First of all, the incumbent you have to assume has better name ID than you. They’ve run before. People have seen their name on the ballot at least, if not yard signs in the neighborhood. Or they’ve seen their name mentioned in newspapers.
Most people don’t read the newspaper anymore. They don’t have contact with that incumbent who is running. Most people if you ask them who their state representative is, they’ve no idea. They are clueless. Most people don’t even know who their Congressman is. So don’t think that is a big advantage, although it has some advantage.
Another problem you are going to have is most newspapers and endorsers tend to endorse the incumbent. Eh, you can put on a good face and do well. And if you get the endorsement, great. And if you don’t get the endorsement, so what! It doesn’t have a lot of bearing. You should go back to the podcast on that by the way.
What can happen in an endorsement session is you can get good clips in the newspaper about “This candidate is strong on or very good with.” Just lift that little clip and it makes it looks like they are supporting you. It doesn’t have to say “endorsed by.” So you can use that.
An incumbent has an advantage in fundraising. The incumbent has already made contacts with people that given their campaign money. So they have a base to work with and then somewhere to grow it from.
Also having the incumbency helps open doors, especially if you are running at a county or state rep level on up. PACs will open their doors to you when you are an incumbent. They figure the incumbent is going to get reelected. And usually the incumbent does have the advantage.
But you can overcome this fundraising disadvantage with time and hard work. Fundraising is work. You have to make calls. You have to try to get an appointment. You have to sit down and get to know the person. And perhaps you are going to go back on the next call and ask them for a check. Or you are setting up working towards a big event. You should go back to our fundraising podcasts to listen to those different types of fundraising and ways to do that.
The incumbent has already probably gotten a check from somebody. All they probably have to do is pick up a phone. They can get the appointment easier and sit down and even ask for more than last time.
And there are campaign finance limits in many states. They can only ask the maximum, but they might then ask, “Is there a relative in the family that could write a check? A spouse? Kids?” Is there someone they can refer you to? Can somebody in their office be asked for a check? Can the office or the business if they own the business let you come in and speak to people in the business?
That happens easier for an incumbent than a new candidate. But it can happen for you. And it can happen best if you start in advance. If you are thinking right now about running for 2017, you’ve got a little bit of time. You need to be calling possible fundraisers and donors now. Get them focused on your big fundraising events that it is coming up at such and such date. And then you are going to come back and make a second call and ask them to sponsor a part of it or go to a certain level in it.
Or you are going to meet them the first time and you are going to say, “I am going to come back.” And the next time you are going to come back and you are going to ask them to pay for your yard signs. You are going to ask them to write a check for your mailing or part of your mailing or for whatever it is. It is always easier to ask for a check for something specific that the campaign needs versus asking for a check for your campaign, which is much more nebulous.
So you are going to go back to these people, but you are going to start early. That is one of the tricks to beating an incumbent. When you start late against an incumbent, it is really difficult.
Let’s also bear in mind that you are probably are going to run twice. Many people that I have worked with when they are running against an incumbent win on the second time. Why? Because they have had another two years or four years to build their political connections, to know who their donors are, to know who their volunteers are, and to really get their name out in the community.
They don’t go away after a campaign. They keep writing letters to the editor and posting things online and building their name ID. Often you can build more name ID for yourself than the incumbent.
Or you are always the counter point to the incumbent. In every article where they interview the incumbent, you make sure the press is aware you are still out there and they are interviewing you so that there is another side to every story. The press likes that. They look for balance. They want to try to be balanced, although we as conservatives know they are not balanced towards us. They will put your name. They’ll put something.
So there is always that advantage of time if you are running again or if you started early. You need to get out to the media early in your neighborhood and let them know you are running. They might not do any stories on you, but if there is anything that comes up in Springfield, let them know that you are there to make a comment or a counterpoint to the incumbent. That’s important.
The incumbent has the advantage of time on their side. But one the huge disadvantages of the incumbent is they have a record. They’ve voted for something. They’ve said something publically. They’ve stood for something. Here is where a good volunteer or group of volunteers comes in.
Find yourself some people who are willing to do some research for you. Often there are people in the community that like to do that kind of work. They don’t want to knock doors, but they are happy to be researchers. Let them do opposition research for you. Have them look around and find everything this person has voted on. Have them look through old newspapers. Look online. Google that person. Try and find absolutely every article out there on the incumbent and build a file on them.
Then you are looking for things to drive negatives home on that incumbent. If you are going to beat an incumbent, you are going to have to tear them down. You are going to have to bring down their likeability and their acceptance. Bring up their negatives and bring down their positives in that community.
Now here is where some strategy is important. It is better if you do not do that yourself through press releases and things. You need an outside group to drive the negatives. Now, you can make comments in your public speaking. You can make comments on the road about that incumbent and why you are going to be better than that incumbent.
But you don’t want to come out with the hard-hitting negatives. You can say things like, “I agree with the Chicago Tribune’s comment that Joe Schmoe has spent too much or something looks shady in their dealings.” You can talk on that. But get someone else to put it out.
So who is that somebody else? A great place to go if you in a GOP organization or you are working with one or you are associated with one (in other words, if you are running as a Republican), get the county or the township GOP to put out those negatives and drive that kind of stuff.
Or perhaps there is another Republican incumbent who can make comments for you who would be comfortable. Often the incumbents don’t want to run negatives on anybody else. I know here in Illinois they are so worried about it. So you’ve got to be careful about it.
But perhaps there is someone with some guts who could get some press, someone who has been elected and is incumbent. Say someone in the next district over who is willing to come out and make comments and say some of these negative things.
Something else you can do as a part of your plan is to set up a separate group from yourself. Now often these groups have to be set up well in advance. Or you find a group that has been set up well in advance. There are small PACs, conservative groups, Tea Party groups that have PACs and have organizations. They can do this for you.
But if you don’t know one or you are running as an independent, perhaps it would behoove you to find a friend who could set up a small organization independent from you who you do not coordinate with, because the law says usually (depending on your state) that you cannot coordinate what the PAC is spending on and what the PAC doing with your campaign.
And don’t. Don’t talk to them about it. Tell them you want to set them up and have them go away. You do this literally months and months in advance. And again, look at your state law on that. And then have that person go out and raise a little money.
That PAC puts out the negatives. They do the opposition research and they put out negatives and things. And then you simply pick up on what they have done. Now, you’ve got to have somebody with a little bit of brains that is going to pick up on the right things.
And you are going to keep your distance. You are just going to that. And it is doable. It is done in the Republicans a lot because it is pretty simple. The Republican just doesn’t talk to that campaign and they go about their business.
But as I said, often it can be done by the local party, county, township, or the state party. They should be the attack dogs. For instance, in the presidential/vice presidential race, it is the vice president candidate that is the attack dog. And the president tries to rise about it and do the positives.
However, you can reinforce the negatives that are out there put out by somebody else. And you should. You should let people know that you are running against Crooked Hillary. That is smart. You don’t want to hammer too much. You can talk about their record and why you are going to be better on something and why they are making a mistake. That is fine. But you don’t want to be the vicious one. Create other people to be vicious.
One of the other things that a candidate who is not the incumbent has to think about is name ID. Your opponent probably had yard signs up last election campaign. People have seen some of those signs around. You need to get a lot of yard signs out early. In the primary would be a good time. The earlier, the better.
And many towns have laws that you can only put up signs thirty days before a campaign. You are going to have to make a decision on that. I am in favor of ignoring the law and trying to get some signs out. Who cares? What are they going to tell you, take them down? Then you take them down.
The sooner you get your name up and signs around, the better off you are because the incumbent is going to have more places to put signs up. And as I said, they had them up last cycle. You are going to have to work hard at finding places to put signs up. Make phone calls. Find really good corners that you can put up big 4×8 signs.
There are sign laws and many of those sign laws are illegal. You have a right to put up political signs. So check that stuff out. And perhaps you are going to make an issue in your campaign of the sign laws. So there is a thought. That kind of gets you off track of what you are running for. But if you can build it into the theme of your opponent is tied into the locals and put these laws up or something like that, that’s a possibility.
So yard signs. One of the ways to accomplish them the best is walk it. Get as many volunteers as you can walking the district, going door to door. When they find someone who is going to support you, don’t just ask if they can put up a yard sign for you in their yard. They have to say it is important and urgent.
“It is really important that John Doe gets his name up in this neighborhood. Would it be okay if we put a yard sign up in your yard today?” You do it immediately. Just get it up. Just stick it right in the ground immediately if they say yes.
Now, as a candidate, you should be walking downtown business areas talking to the business people. Find out what their issues are and how that relates to what you are running for. And then come up with some ideas on how you are going to connect with those business people.
And go back and see them if you saw them the first time and didn’t have answers. Get their contact info. And stay in touch with them. These are potential donors. Even small businessmen can probably write you a check for a hundred dollars. That is not a big ask. A hundred dollars is not something you should be nervous about.
But while you there, ask them if you can put a sign in their window. Get yourself some window signs, not yard signs. Or if your yard sign is stiff, if it is not a plastic bag kind of yard sign, but the kind printed on Styrofoam or foam core, see if they can put one in their business window, if they can do that for you.
If you get a downtown blanketed with signs, you are going to get a lot of people noticing. And it is possible, especially if you have a pro-business approach and the incumbent seems to be voting against business. Back that up with opposition research. Are there things that that incumbent is doing that are hurting business?
That could just be simply asking for property tax increases in the community for the schools or whatever. If you are running for school board and it is upping the property taxes in that area for the business people, that is a big issue to them. They’ve got to sell more. They’ve got to get more product out.
I once had a guy who owned a paint store. And it wasn’t a big paint store. But he told me his property tax bill was $38,0000 a year. He literally said to me, “You know how many gallons of paint I have to sell to make $38,000 of profit to then pay to the property taxes?” Unfortunately he ended up closing his paint store because he couldn’t pay the property taxes. It just wasn’t worth it.
So there are things out there for the small business people. Talk to them about those kinds of things and see how that that is going to play into your campaign. Property taxes can be talked about on just about any level. And see if that person will put a sign up for you.
Or if you’ve really got time, you are building an outside that is working on property taxes. And they identifying people on that issues. And they are building support. They can be that attack dog group that comes out on that issue. It is Citizens Against Higher Property Taxes in Chicago, Illinois or whatever town it might be that you are in. It is not going to happen in Chicago. That was dreaming.
But they raise money and they support you or they attack the incumbent for you. So there is an example of how you can get an outside group going. And something that is very doable. And that group should keep going. And that group should be IDing people that are property tax sensitive and doing a Get Out the Vote plan for that issue, which just so happens to be your campaign.
But they are separate from you. And that is completely legal. So think about that. And if you’ve got time, see what you can do there. If you don’t have time, such as Shay who is running here in 2016, think about that for the next time out. Even if you win, Shay, think about setting up that separate group so it is there and it is ready.
And perhaps it is attacking some other incumbents in the area on the other side. It can’t hurt. It will help build community and help make the whole area more property tax sensitive if that is your issue.
So let’s do a little recap. Incumbents have certain advantages. They are known. They have donors. And they have connections with volunteers and the press. You can beat them at this game if you start early and you have time and you work hard. You are constantly building donor relationships. You are building press relationships.
And you are going door to door finding people to put up yard signs for you, finding business people to put signs in their windows, and taking those people and turning them into volunteers and those other contacts that you are making door to door into people that will support you and perhaps write you a little check.
You are going to need some things to generate some excitement about your campaign. Perhaps throw a little party, a cheap party. You are inviting a lot of people to it that you have met door to door. Great if they show up. Perhaps you can work them into a donor and work them into a volunteer.
It is time and it is effort. An incumbent can be beat with time and effort. I have told this story before, but I will tell it again. I helped a guy who was running for park district. It was a very wealthy park district. His advantage was he was an active hockey coach in the community. He had five kids in the hockey program of his own. And the park district had a pretty good hockey program.
But he had ideas on how to make it better, yet save money, how to make the parks better and save money. So he started talking to all of his fellow hockey parents. And he had a little gathering. He bought pizza. He invited all of the hockey parents and hockey coaches. And he said, “Here is what I want to do and I need your help.”
And he literally got all of these hockey parents knocking doors for him and talking him up. And he hit every one of them for $45, 50, 100. But he literally had a hundred people who were actively knocking doors. And he promised them that they were going to get more ice time for their kids, that the park district was not doing a good job with scheduling ice time. And they weren’t.
He beat a twenty-three year incumbent president of the park district by organizing these hockey people and using this constituency and really, really working hard. Now is there a constituency that you have? Perhaps you are member of the local Tea Party? Can you get those people going? Will they all give you $25? Will they all knock doors for you? Will they all help you?
Get them together. Get them motivated. You’ve got talk to them. You’ve got to ask. You have to be a bit aggressive. Perhaps some of those people will your opposition research people. Perhaps some of them will help you with fundraising. Some will help you put together that pizza party. Some will help you put together that bigger fundraiser if you are going to focus on that for fundraising. Somebody can be your volunteer coordinator. Somebody can help you with social media.
What groups are you in? If you are in the PTA and you are running for school board, work it! Get a hold of those people. Find people that are in sympathy with what you want to do in the school district with what they want in the school district. It is hard to come out of nowhere and run and not have been active in the community.
So if you are planning on running some time in the future, you should be stepping up now to get active in some groups and clubs so people get to know you and you get to know who is there and what their strengths are. And help other campaigns! Being on another campaign will show you who is a good volunteer in that campaign. Get to know them so you can recruit them for your campaign. In essence, you are kind of stealing their volunteers.
But you aren’t doing that openly and right away. You are looking at this race. You are getting involved. You are learning what other people are doing. And you are seeing how people are being used and who is there to volunteer and to help. So getting active in another campaign is something you can do early on, adding that time element to your campaign so you can beat that incumbent.
That incumbent is beatable. You just have to be smart, work hard, and do your absolute best.
As always, we will have show notes and links to other podcasts and transcripts and things that relate to what we talked about today. So go to commonwealthy.com. And if you have questions, just as Shay brought up that she needed more advice about incumbents, you can reach me on Twitter at @JTsarpalas. And you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to answer your questions.
If you need more help with your campaign, my first consultation it is free. It usually runs about an hour. I am happy to hear all about your campaign. And I always end up giving you some ideas and some thoughts that are going to help your campaign. There is no charge for that. If there are specifics that we want to work on moving forward. I’ll tell you about how many times that will take for us to work together and what that will cost and what I charge per hour.
So you can get a hold of me at email@example.com. I am more than happy to help your campaign. I want to see limited government candidates win. I want to help America. So feel free to contact me. I am happy to give you that free hour.
And then, as I said, I can help you with your fundraising or with your public speaking or with your campaign plan. I am very good at putting together a voter ID and Get Out the Vote plan. I am considered an expert in that and I’ve won many elections with my Get Out the Vote plan.
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Remember, we’ve got lots to talk about. We love to talk politics. We love to go to meetings. But we aren’t going to change anything until we start winning some elections. Talk is cheap. Let’s win some elections.