Tags: Local | Political | Candidates | Face | Unique | Challenges

Local Political Candidates Face Unique Challenges

Monday, 04 October 2004 12:00 AM

In other words, a world of difference separates a candidate for president from a candidate for the local school board. Yet, despite these differences, all campaigns, big or small, have a lot in common. They need a message, money to convey that message, and people to manage and carry out the campaign.

To take first things first, candidates need a clear theme, a short, punchy statement of why the voters might want to choose them over their opponents. The candidate might trumpet opposition to higher taxes or for support of local school funding. The candidate might call for more limited government or increased social services. The theme might consist simply of personal qualities the candidate wants to emphasize, such as integrity, vision or experience. If these themes seem overly personalized it is because the relative weakness of the political parties in the United States requires each campaign to emphasize the unique qualifications and the commitment of the individual candidate.

Having arrived at a message, the candidate must have some means of communicating that message to the voters. This brings up the most difficult part of campaigning for most candidates, and the most controversial aspect of the modern American political scene -- raising money. It has become a cliché that money is the lifeblood of any political campaign. Earl Bender, a Washington political consultant, says that the increasing cost of campaigning is one of the strongest trends in American politics.

The influence of moneyed interests has become increasingly controversial in small races as well as large ones, and goes hand in hand with the increasing cost of campaigning. Legislatures, though, have had a difficult time writing new law that limits fund raising yet does not interfere with every citizens' right to support a candidate by any reasonable means.

Still, the influence of money can be exaggerated. Although many Americans believe that certain candidates attract campaign contributions and so become the clear favorites to win, in fact the opposite is often true; certain candidates are clear favorites to win, and so attract the largest campaign contributions.

In addition, despite money's supposed power, in many cases the better-financed candidate loses. There are countless examples, but let one stand for them all. In the recent primary race for mayor of Portland, Oregon, the winner spent only one-tenth as much as his nearest challenger.

Where does the money come from? For most candidates in small races, contributions come primarily from family and friends, as well as from the candidate's own savings, Bender says. The large organizations that contribute funds to larger races generally have no interest in the thousands of city and county council races, school and fire board contests and other campaigns that form the majority of elective offices.

Much as we might think that all candidates dream of having the money for television spots, radio campaigns or sophisticated polls, the truth is that most of them can run a good campaign without such tools. Instead, candidates will work hard and keep costs low. This is where a committed staff and volunteers can prove decisive. Most campaigns have only one paid staffer, a campaign manager, and do not even rent office space, but run the campaign from the candidate's living room or kitchen. Victory will depend on hard work and lots of shoe leather, walking miles going door to door in the voting district. Candidates and their volunteers also spend hours making phone calls to voters and mailing out thousands of brochures.

As for those famous campaign polls, most campaigns cannot afford them. They may take one "benchmark poll" before the campaign begins, indicating the issues that most concern voters and what candidate they might support. Cynics charge that these polls produce candidates whose only commitment is to the prevailing winds. More practical politicians, though, say that, with limited resources, they need to concentrate on those issues that concern voters. Once the campaign is under way, polls are less than useless for most candidates in local races; even if they could afford to pay for such a poll, candidates would not have the money or time to change strategies if they were losing.

Most candidates, then, head toward election day with only a vague idea if they are winning or losing. Even on election night, the candidates and their anxious friends and family cannot rely on television or radio news to let them know how the vote count is going. These news outlets will be focusing mostly on the major races. Gathered at the candidate's home or perhaps sharing a small hotel conference room with other friendly candidates, they will stand around white-knuckled as a volunteer goes down to the county election board and phones in results as they are posted, or someone gets online to watch returns as county officials post them on the internet.

In a close race, the results will seem to come with an agonizing slowness seemingly designed to drive everyone mad. For a candidate who is clearly losing, though, they will appear to rush in like an avalanche, crushing his or her dreams. For clear winners, the celebrations start early and go late.

Tradition and good manners require the losing candidates even in small races to make a congratulatory phone call to the winner and perhaps a short concession speech to supporters. A few years ago, a losing candidate, who had once been a staff member of the man he challenged, congratulated his former boss, adding sadly, "He taught me everything I know about politics. Unfortunately, he didn't teach me everything he knows."

Finally, the lights of the last party will go out, the last campaign worker, crushed or elated, will find his way home -- and within a few months the process will start all over again, with the next major elections less than two years away.



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In other words, a world of difference separates a candidate for president from a candidate for the local school board. Yet, despite these differences, all campaigns, big or small, have a lot in common. They need a message, money to convey that message, and people to manage...
Monday, 04 October 2004 12:00 AM
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