The 10% Difference

by Kenneth J. Drum

Much is made of a candidate’s vote margin over their opponent without the general public knowing it. In fact, it’s often used by state legislatures to determine the political boundaries for the following ten years. The so-called “re-districting” is usually based on whether districts can be drawn that are safe for both political parties. It’s not surprising that incumbents like “safe” districts. As mentioned in a previous newsletter, incumbents win about 85 percent of the time.

The major political parties like to create safe districts. Both political consultants and legislators tend to use a standard of 45-55 % as a guide to whether a district is competitive or safe. Hence a ten percent window for candidates to consider.

Using the results of previous elections, any district where the winner received more than 55 percent in a general election is therefore considered safe. Likewise, any district where winners receive less than 55 percent is considered competitive. Anything less than 45 percent is usually considered a lost cause for either major party. These benchmarks can play a critical role in determining campaign budgets, the quality of interested candidates and the building of a campaign organization. The same yardstick can be applied to safe districts during the primary election.

For safe districts the name of the game is to win the primary if your party has the advantage. For competitive districts, candidates usually must fight through both a primary and a general election. Whether you are an incumbent, a challenger or seeking an open seat the ten percent difference must be taken into account when making a decision to be a candidate. Challenging an incumbent in a safe district will take a monumental effort as well as a lot of money.

Incumbents sometimes will lose an election in a safe district. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does it is usually due to a single issue or a failure on the part of the office holder to effectively communicate with constituents. An incumbent in a safe district is mostly vulnerable in a primary election. Surviving in the primary as a practical matter is the real election. These days challengers to an incumbent during a primary usually come from the extremes of the political spectrum.

For an incumbent it's often a contest between principles and pragmatism. An incumbent has to defend their voting record. At the same time they have to demonstrate a "core ideology" that appeals to primary voters. That makes the primary voter a different breed of cat. Recently, there have been several instances where incumbents lost when they took a "pragmatic" approach to winning the primary. However, it's also true that several of the successful primary challengers lost in the general election when the electorate considered their principles too extreme. It's wise for incumbents to emphasize both their core principles and their voting record in every election in order to fend off challengers.

Sometimes aspiring candidates believe that running for public office is a good way to get their name in front of the public. Some even think it will help them in business. In most cases, it’s a bad idea and it doesn’t work. All these folks accomplish is to brand themselves as losers. However, that depends upon the type of campaign that was run and the closeness of the election.

First time candidates who lose their election within the ten percent benchmark are often successful on a second try for public office. If not, they usually get more votes than the first election. They fare much better than other losing candidates who garner less than 45 percent. The second time around the below 45 percent candidates usually get fewer votes.

There is a clear message here. Don’t run for office unless you’re serious about winning. And, a close loss may actually help you the next time you seek office.

Question: The election in 2014 is pretty far off. When should a candidate announce their candidacy and when and how should a campaign be organized?

A candidate does not have to have a formal announcement to begin their campaign. That's usually reserved for higher offices and is more of a show than substance. The best time to start a campaign is when you decide to run, whether for the first time or for reelection. A candidate should not decide to run for office on the basis of "we'll see how this goes". You have to run with the idea of winning. First time candidates many times are attracted by the policy issues but can't seem to get their mojo working beyond that. Too often a lot of time is spent on policy issues and not enough on organization. It's the classic example of "paralysis of analysis".

Getting Up and Running

Running to win and knowing how to win are two different matters. First time candidates often don't know where to start. It's not a bad idea to talk with others who have run for office in your area. People who have both won and lost. Since some campaign tactics work in some elections and not in others it's best to try to find out how successful candidates organized their campaigns.

The next step is to develop a written campaign plan. Basically, you have to identify your major strategies for fundraising, developing contacts, communications, putting together an advisory committee and developing a preliminary budget. It's a good time to start gathering your team.

Involve Others

You can't (or shouldn't) run for office by yourself. You'll need the help of others. That's why it's important to get people committed to your campaign. For that reason alone, it's never too early to start. Two of the most important people in a campaign should be onboard in the early stages of the campaign. The campaign treasurer and the campaign manager.

Many campaigns are structured with 100% volunteer help. That's ok as long as you have dedicated people and a winning strategy. Many local campaigns use a mixture of paid or contracted assistance and volunteers. A word of caution here. There are certain campaign activities that may require expertise beyond the abilities of most voluntary help. Activities such as polling, literature preparation, media production, website development, campaign management, social media programs, etc, might require a paid professional. These activities must be considered and budgeted for at the onset of the campaign.

Fundraising is Crucial

It's important to start fundraising early. Many first time candidates view it as an unpleasant activity and is therefore put off to later. That's a big mistake. The way to begin is to start with the people who know you the best. Relatives, friends, colleagues and those who respect your work should be asked to invest in your campaign. The best fund raiser in any campaign is the candidate. Raising campaign money is often seen as a test of a candidate's credibility. It's not wise to plan on someone else raising the money to fund your campaign.

This article was reprinted with permission of Kenneth J. Drum & Associates, 8404 Mallow Lane, Naples, FL 34113. Copyright 2013. Kenneth J. Drum & Associates. All Rights Reserved. For more information about the author go to:

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