Money, Money, Money
Like it or not, fundraising is what make the political world go ‘round and ‘round.
Fundraising receipts aren’t a sure way to predict the winner, but if you were creating a March Madness bracket for political campaigns, you would clean up at your office pool by seeding candidates based on money raised and cash on hand (CoH).
Nevertheless, is it possible to win when you raise and spend less money than your opponent? Absolutely, it happens all the time.
The real key in fundraising is staying competitive.
If your opponent will raise and spend $250,000, you are well advised to raise at least $175,000 because that $75,000 difference means your opponent has the ability to spend roughly 50% more than you on paid media (paid media means direct mail, radio, tv, and all other forms of paid advertising, as opposed to earned media, which means getting one’s name in the news through press conferences, press releases, and the like).
Online fundraising is in the news a lot and it is a very important tool, but for most candidates – people who are running for the state legislature, city council, or school board, the factors that drive online fundraising are not in your favor. The so-called netroots, an aggregation of opinion-making bloggers and sites are the primary way that internet fundraising becomes a major factor for a candidate. It can also be driven by groups like EMILY’s List on the left (EMILY’s List helps only pro-choice Democratic women – and want to know how seriously they take fundraising? EMILY stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast, i.e., it rises) and the Club for Growth on the right (which only helps hard-line anti-tax and anti-regulation Republicans). Point being, if you are running for your local city council, chances are none of the major players have ever heard of you and the money you raise will mostly come down to the work you do offline (folks may choose to give to you through your website, but they will give only after you have done some old fashioned leg work).
So, how do you raise money?
There are three interconnected ways you raise money – call time, direct mail, and events.
Call time refers to time spent on the phone, by the candidate, dialing for dollars – literally calling everyone s/he knows, asking for money. As with all fundraising requests, the key points are asking for a specific amount, for a specific purpose, by a specific time.
Before calling someone up for money, a candidate should already know how much to ask for – whether it’s a maximum contribution ($500 in many local elections) or just $25. A good fundraiser doesn’t wait for the potential to suggest a dollar figure, but already has a specific amount in mind.
Candidates should be able to explain where the money is going and why the need it. For more political sophisticated donors, that explanation could include the need to have a strong showing in an early campaign finance filing, as a show of intent, but it can also be as prosaic as helping to pay for yard signs or the campaign’s first radio ad.
By a specific time means that a candidate, upon getting a pledge to donate, should establish when and how the money will arrive. Chasing down checks is a major part of fundraising and that process is made a lot easier if the candidate establishes that, for example, their spouse will coming by that person’s office on Friday to pick up the check. At the very least, one should make sure to ask the donor to put the check in the mail (or to go online to contribute) within 24 hours.
Direct mail is usually used for follow up solicitations and small donor solicitations (if you can expect to get at least $250 from a donor, make personal call!), but it also includes invitations to fundraising events that could be relatively high dollar.
If you’ve ever gotten an invite to fundraising event, you will see two or three levels of giving with names like “guest,” “sponsor,” “host,” or cutsey names like George W. Bush’s “Rangers.” Each level has a minimum amount attached (specific amount, remember!). Folks you expect to donate at the higher levels need personal attention and should get personal calls (I told you call time, direct mail, and events were interconnected).
Assuming this is now as clear as mud, you are probably wondering, yes, that’s all well and good, but who the heck am I calling/mailing/inviting to fundraising events? Who holds the magic secret of the list of names? James Carville? Karl Rove? Who!
The answer is, of course, you the candidate. Every one of your friends, your relatives, your college classmates, your business partners, casual acquaintances, players on your co-ed softball team, and everyone in your entire life who ever gave you their business card. This is your list. When you’ve run through that list, you go to your friends and ask them for the names of everyone they know. You go to local business owners, unions, and PACs, and you ask, ask, ask. You go to meetings of Republican or Democratic clubs and you ask, ask, ask. Kaffee Klatches and Kiwanis meetings. Church socials. Everyone you meet is noted and added to the master list.
Question: When does fundraising start?
Answer: Immediately. As soon as you know you will be running for election.
Nothing is more frustrating than hearing about a candidate who is waiting to start fundraising. I have met candidates running for re-election who decided to wait until five months out to start collecting checks.
When I do candidate training, one of the first questions I ask is what the most critical resource you have?
Many candidates will talk about things like enthusiasm, volunteers, community support. Some will get off track and explain to me why they are right on the issues. The more savvy candidates will mention money.
But they are all wrong. The answer I am looking for is time.
You can raise more money, you can knock on more doors, recruit more volunteers. But all of these require time. And time is the one resource you never get any more of.
The clock started ticking before you even thought the election. And it never stops.
If you look at the Congressional class of 2008, those (mostly Democrats) who defeated incumbents almost without exception started very, very early.
Larry Kissell, who is now the Congressman from North Carolina's eighth district, lost in 2006. He raised less than $400,000. In 2008, he outraised and outworked the incumbent by beginning to campaign for 2008 the day after he lost in 2006. That's starting early and that's how you win.
I have heard all the arguments about why it is ok to wait and explanations about getting the timing just right and riding momentum to victory like championship surfer. But I don’t buy it.
Momentum, the Big Mo’ is a fickle thing, mostly outside of your control. It’s not a wave you can see on the ocean, that can be timed just right. Efforts to harness it and time it require knowledge well beyond that of mortal man. You don’t see the wave until it’s right on your tail – which means that the best way to catch the Big Mo’ is be working your butt off longer than other guys on the ballot with you – write your plan earlier, knock on doors earlier, and start raising money earlier – so that when and if that wave appears out nowhere, you have the resources already in hand to take advantage of circumstances.