Possessing a general understanding of politics, and specifically campaigns, is a valuable asset for building public pressure to make progress on your organization’s core issue(s). Understanding the dynamics of the election cycle will better equip you to engage with elected members of the Legislature in the halls of the Capitol; mobilize your supporters to ask questions of current elected officials and candidates, attend public political and campaign events with a strategic purpose, and to know how to talk to people integrally involved in an inherently political system.
F. Understanding Political Campaigns
For advocates thinking about how to play a part in political campaigns (to the extent allowed by law and their particular tax-exempt status), gaining a deeper understanding of what motivates candidates and the relationship between the candidate/elected as a person and as a public figure should be a priority.
The following is a brief overview of some key characteristics of what motivates candidates in political races:
- Fundraising is viewed by the media, by donors, and by political commentators as a sign of strength or weakness; money, and “cash on hand,” also usually means the difference between winning or losing in closely contested races.
- Candidates care about money, but typically not at the expense of their core beliefs and values. It is a myth that most candidates or politicians (most often used as a pejorative) care only about money. Successful candidates know that raising money is how they promote their message, gain name recognition, demonstrate strength and viability (the ability to persuade and turnout voters to win an election in their favor), and defend themselves from attacks from the opposition.
- Name recognition (also referred to as “name ID”)
- Many voters cast ballots having no idea who they are voting for in races other than the President or a higher profile race like the U.S. Senate. So-called “low information” voters traditionally rely heavily on whether or not they have heard a candidate’s name before. If they haven’t, often many voters reflexively vote for an incumbent (who they’ve probably heard of) or simply don’t vote at all.
- Media exposure
- Reaching voters
- Championing a cause or being known as a champion for a particular cause or an influential group
- Many politicians will engage with groups, either something basic like taking a meeting, filling out a questionnaire about their positions or thoughts on a particular community issue, or attending an organization’s events. However, the extra support that could make an elected official or candidate a true ally may need some political or campaign benefit. In some cases, this could be allowing that political figure the ability to be seen as a champion for the cause or for the issue.
- Ability to speak or be recognized at a well-attended public event
- Drawing a contrast between themselves and their opponent
- Staying largely in line with their political base
- Or, at least, not upsetting their base; sustaining enthusiasm among a candidate’s political base to vote for them is an important concern in any election.
- Novices (first-time candidates, candidates with minimal campaign experience)
- “Also-rans” (not their first race, but may or may not have won a race at some level)
- Seasoned veterans (have likely won a race at some level before, may or may not be incumbents now, and generally know the ropes)
- Incumbents (proven winners, and have different stakes and equities than challengers and first-time candidates)
- Experts (most likely incumbents or incumbents seeking “higher” office)
- Challengers (could be any of the above categories, but do not currently hold the office they are seeking)
It is generally smart to be cautious around issues or processes that are widely considered by political actors and commentators as intractable, or so hyper-polarized that action on them is extremely unlikely. One of these more sensitive types of situations usually involves appropriations, budgets, and government spending. Another type could involve hotly contested polarizing issues like abortion, funding for social welfare programs, or the role of religion in society. Environmental problems probably wouldn’t touch any of these issues, but the parallel is important to make in the environmental advocacy context. Many conservatives consider climate change and the climate crisis as partisan or polarizing as abortion. Advocates should be aware of who they are speaking with, how ideological the elected or candidate might be, and whether their issue could be caught up in a political football, of sorts, in which no one ultimately wants to handle “the ball” or seeking a solution is kicked to the sidelines to be dealt with some other time.
Additionally, promises are cheap—if a politician thinks that they can make a promise and reap an electoral benefit, they will want to make them. Keeping candidates and elected officials accountable on their promises requires the ability to communicate about that promise, about the expected action or position they promised to take, and what actually happened. This is one reason why being able to engage more politically in the campaign process, but also in the legislative process, is crucial for so many groups. Putting money behind some form of public communication about a promise made or broken from a candidate or elected official is one way to deliver on keeping politicians accountable. If a politician thinks that a group has real money to dedicate to campaign cycle communications to their voters or constituents, they will be much more likely to either not make a hard promise to begin with or to follow through on the action they promised to take. Things happen, and politics and campaigns are complicated, so a promise made or broken is not always nefarious; but accountability is important regardless of intent or motivation. A functioning, strong, democratic political system turns on accountability.
Town halls can be an effective way to reach both voters and the general public; to inform and educate people on the issues, but also on where political candidates stand; and to organize public participation around the important and complex ways in which an issue is affected by the political process.
Town halls are frequently hosted and conducted by nonpartisan charitable organizations, like the League of Women Voters (which is a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization). So long as candidates of both parties are invited, and that the organization does not express a viewpoint about any of the candidates in the race, this would likely be considered as educational or as promoting civic engagement.
Town halls focused on one type of issue, or on a singular problem, can be most effective at bringing attention to the community’s needs and your organization’s goals.