Common candidate mistakes and how to prevent them

Julie Stauch has handled strategy, tactics, and management for many campaigns. -promoted by desmoinesdem

This piece reflects the compilation of observations from working closely with Democratic candidates, as well as observing patterns of candidate behaviors. The goal here is to address some real problems that exist and provide insights into what can aid our candidates and improve our electoral outcomes.

The most important variable in winning back any legislative or administrative seat is the candidate who chooses to run, because if no one runs, we definitely won’t win. No matter what motivates each reader to want to see change in our various governments, we are united in the fact that we have to support our candidates.

There is an assumption out there that “candidates have to run twice to win.” Do they? Let’s review the common mistakes and consequences, look at what can be done to prevent those mistakes, and then come back to the question, “Do candidates have to run twice to win?”

Note: These mistakes are not offered here to pick on any specific candidate. Rather the list is offered to expose frequent patterns of decision making that reduce the chances of winning.


I’ve listed a few possible consequences underneath each kind of mistake.

1. Make an impulsive decision to run. (mistake)

  • Start behind and never catch up. (consequence)
  • Can’t articulate why running in the first place.
  • Assume connections and contacts are large enough to have a clear read on the interests and priorities of the district.
  • 2. Lack of preparation for the alternate universe of a candidate’s life.

  • Don’t know how to cope with the pace, the focus and the lack of a personal life.
  • Make a decision to run and then find out that the problem you’re trying to solve isn’t really decided by the office you’re seeking.
  • It’s work and it’s not work everyone wants to do. The candidate has to be willing to do the work of running. No exceptions.
  • 3. Take too big a first step. Scope and scale are problems in everything.

  • Lack the breadth and depth of contacts to raise the money.
  • Lack of support from key influencers to speak on your behalf.
  • Lack of volunteers to help you accomplish the work of running.
  • 4. Make a series of poor decisions in the opening days of their campaign and can never recover from the impact of those decisions.

  • Hire low performing consultants.
  • Hire the wrong staff.
  • Hire no staff and think you can do it yourself for an office that is too high profile.
  • 5. Assume a win number is the same as a strategy. (A win number is the answer to how many votes a candidate will need to win.)

  • First, there is no one win number. This is a projection based on past voter participation in a similar election, which only holds true if the turn out stays the same. An incredibly poor assumption that has been proven wrong in countless races.
  • Second, even if a projected win number is precise, that is just the end goal. Without strategy and tactics, it’s just another wish.
  • 6. Assume that because THEY are running elements of the process can be ignored. Ego often makes people think that their presence in the race changes the circumstances.

  • Don’t take seriously the responsibilities of the candidate.
  • Don’t raise the appropriate amount of money to be able to communicate with the number of voters needed.
  • Don’t make the appropriate voter contact for the office sought.
  • 7. Assume their race will be like a presidential race. Don’t laugh. This has happened with many a candidate, at every level of office sought.

  • Deliver a message that does not fit the office they are seeking.
  • Expect services and support not appropriate to the office.
  • Become angry that they are not getting the same level of media coverage.
  • 8. Think they have to be coy and try to not stand for anything to avoid losing people.

  • Lose voter trust by withholding honest responses.
  • Gain a reputation for being a lightweight with the media because they refuse to answer questions.
  • 9. Avoid or dismiss self-research. This is research done to understand how your opponent might attack you in the final weeks of the campaign.

  • Lose the opportunity to integrate this information into the decision on whether or not to run.
  • Lose the opportunity to inoculate against an attack.
  • Lose the opportunity to decide how to handle and be prepared for the attack.
  • 10. Lack of relevant interest or experience to the office sought.

  • Lack of understanding of the role.
  • Lack of enthusiasm for the role.
  • 11. Confuse message with a slogan. Or confuse message with an agenda. Generally confused on message.

  • Focus on a slogan misses making an emotional connection with the voter.
  • Focus on an agenda and list of plans misses making an emotional connection with the voter.

    Preparation. Even the simplest tasks require an element of preparation. Why would we assume that seeking public office does not? In order to have cereal for breakfast one has to have bought the cereal and milk, have a bowl and a spoon, and the ability to understand the ratio of milk to cereal. While the task is simple and mindless to most of us, it requires experience and preparation. Candidates require preparation as well.

    Training is an important part of preparation. Many of the problems listed above can be avoided through participation in trainings. These trainings are designed to give you an overview of the many different aspects of the campaign – legal and financial reporting, your role as a candidate, how you can and cannot work with other organizations, and different resources you can utilize to achieve your goals.

    Many organizations provide training. If you decide to run and don’t participate in any training, you’ve made a mistake. In fact, it’s a good idea to have participated in several trainings because you’ll pick up something different from each one and the points that are repetitious give you time in between trainings to reflect on what this could mean for you, the district and constituents.

    Democrat-focused trainings are better suited to help candidates than non-partisan trainings. The non-partisan trainings sound like a good idea, but they spend too much time avoiding areas of conflict between different political party viewpoints and leave out specific processes and resources available based upon party affiliation. That information is very valuable to candidates. The non-partisan trainings also stay away from the structural support systems available within the different political parties. Those structural supports are an important component of the campaign reality and they differ between political parties.

    Camp Wellstone, Democracy for America, EMILY’S List and many other organizations offer two and three day training models. These are best treated as introductory trainings, but not comprehensive preparation.

    Emerge Iowa has a great program for women candidates that is more comprehensive, as the program is paced across several months. This allows participants time for reflection between sessions and follow up with subsequent speakers. The opportunity for on-going discussion on how this would work is very useful to help each participant figure out what type of office they want to hold, and make plans that would fit that specific campaign. It’s based upon a model that has been utilized since 2006 and has a high success rate, meaning a large number of people who go through their program run for office and win.


    Since 2005 I’ve been convinced that training is not enough. The best candidates have a diverse base of substantive community contacts, not just people who recognize them, but have committed work, volunteer and leadership relations with people across the many different sectors of the community. They are civic leaders and often at the top of their local professional groups.

    Yet, those same “best candidates” fail at the same rate as new and not as connected candidates. How? Why? Because they are experts in their own field of endeavor, but once they walk into Campaign Cosmos, they are beginners. Poor assumptions in any line of work can cause problems and campaigns are not exempt from the consequences of poor assumptions.

    Executive coaching is a line of work where professionally educated coaches work with leaders to help them improve their performance. In the case of coaching political candidates, the executive coach has campaign experience to augment their formal training as an executive coach.

    This form of leadership growth has been used with people who hold leadership positions in all kinds of organizations and businesses, where the coach works one-on-one with an executive coach to achieve their professional goals. These are senior level leaders, not low and mid-level employees. The sessions are customized and confidential. An executive coach works with the leader to establish goals they want to achieve, helping problem solve different situations, but not tell the leader what they should do. They provide additional context to help a leader understand the complexity – the ripple effect of an action – so each leader can make the best choice for their leadership style and work.

    This is not at all like working with a coach for a sport. A sports coach is highly directive, much more like the role of a campaign manager. An executive coach is invested in helping you evolve to be the best executive you can be, not to stand on the sidelines and signal plays.

    In fact, I believe in the need for candidate executive coaching so strongly that I created an executive coaching program for Democratic candidates and invested in training to become an executive coach.

    Do candidates need to run twice to win?

    Only if they don’t prepare. When they run without preparation, they make mistakes the hardest way possible with the hope they can overcome the mistakes the next time they run. Sometimes they can, often they can’t. Why not prepare? Then run for the office prepared to win the first time.

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