In this article, I will seek to lay out information which will be useful to any aspiring politician. The ways to success may differ according to each individual’s situation, but they all share common traits. All paths share some necessities that need to be acquired and some pitfalls which need to be avoided. It is thus crucial to know what one should keep an eye out for. After all, politics can be like a house of cards: one wrong motion can make it all tumble down.
1. Going into politics is no cheap matter. The 2016 election cycle saw a total of $2.5 billion spent all in an effort to get candidates elected. Fundraising is often the difference between the success and failure of any campaign. The more money a candidate has earlier on, the easier the path to victory. In the 2004 general elections, 95 percent of House races and 91 percent of Senate races were won by the candidate who spent the most on his campaign. This isn’t only true for any one campaign but for the whole of somebody’s career. Money flows to where the power is -- if someone wants to track a candidate’s fundamental positions it will pay off pretty well to see where that candidate received the money that started his or her career.
As far as data shows, small donors are good for talking points, but the big donors are the ones that get a person elected. A data chart of the 2010 source of funds for congressional candidate breaks it down in the following manner: 11% comes from candidate self-funding, 23% from PACs (Political Actions Committees), 13% from small donations by individuals, 48% from large donations by individuals, and 5% from other miscellaneous sources. This pattern seems to hold largely true both for those seeking national and state offices. If the pattern does ever change it does so with large individual contributions taking up more space in higher offices, such as for Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) comprising 66%, and candidates on lower levels having to heavily rely on their own pockets. Looking at the slate of the Congressional races this Nov in Virginia it is easy to see that every winning candidate had 100% to over 1000% more percent funding than the losing one. The difference this money makes is particularly emphasized in more contested races, such as that in District 5, where Jane Ditmar raised $1,151,763 in comparison to Tom Garrett’s $524,428. Neither of them had incumbent advantage. Jane won. This pattern holds true for every state whether it is a swing state or not.
Therefore, if a person wants to run for office they need to have some well-endowed friends, or friends who can channel strong backers. The alternative to this is to facilitate a very strong and passionate grassroots movement among individuals and small time donors. The most recent and famous example of such a movement would be that of Bernie Sanders. His campaign, Bernie Sanders 2016, raised a total of $228,171,330, and was comprised largely of small donations ($134,684,156 or 59.03%). This sort of campaign still, to some degree, relies on major individual donors however, as evidenced by the $97.1 million contributed by them in this instance. However, this is not a reason for despair. There are almost always contributors and organizations which share the beliefs of candidates and are willing to contribute to them. People band together for all sorts of reasons and a candidate looking for support needs to be passionate, clever, and in the right place. After all, people who have shared the beliefs of any candidate in the past spent their time and energy to make the lives of their successors easier. Why not take advantage of such opportunities? Most people do. A lot of times though, die-hard supporters cut straight from one’s own cloth are not enough. One also has to battle over the support of swing supporters, corporations like Pfizer, AT&T, and Motorola, who are not committed to any particular side. These sort of donors are not primarily ideologically driven. Often, they end up splitting their donations nearly evenly between the two parties. These supporters are usually always available to grab and their existence can be of great benefit to any novice candidate, except for when the candidate is running against an incumbent.
2. The worst opportunity for a candidate to kick start a career is against an incumbent. In what is known as the incumbent advantage, incumbents enjoy the support of majority of PACs and swing-contributors. The types of groups which a candidate running against an incumbent can bet to get support from are ideological and single issue groups, along with labor unions. Yet these prefer to direct their money towards the incumbent 75% of the time. So, the following lesson can be drawn from this: statistically it is better for a candidate to wait rather than run against an incumbent. The incumbent has both the advantage in terms of donors and the people, to whom the candidate can say, “You’ve elected me and I therefore have experience, unlike my opponent.” Exceptions to this are dependent on extraordinary circumstances.
One such extraordinary circumstance is the election of Gov. Ted Strickland (D-OH) who had the misfortune of taking office in Jan 2007, right before the full swing of the Great Recession. This was cataclysmic for his future prospects. As the incumbent, he took both blame and praise alike. In this instance it was the blame of governing one of the worst affected states in the nation. Being thus tainted he lost, albeit narrowly, to the Republican challenger John Kasich in 2010. That such events can have long term effects can be seen in the fact that Gov. Strickland lost his bid for U.S. Senator this past November, after being campaigned against as “a governor who ran the state's finances into the ground.”
However, cataclysms are not the only events which can lead to opportunities for newcomers. Incumbents and establishment figures often provide the nails for their own coffins in the form of scandals. Another governor, Jim Gibbons (R-NV), had a stellar record. As a Nevada native, a war hero, and a Congressman, he had all the makings necessary for a successful governorship. However, it wasn’t the Recession that did him in. It was a series of scandals, including extramarital affairs, which made Gibbons morally repugnant to the Nevada GOP leadership. They feared losing both donors and the public. So Gibbons ended up losing the 2010 GOP primary to his successor, Brian Sandoval. Sandoval has gone on to win two gubernatorial elections. This is the power of scandals over incumbents. They always have some effect. However, they are most effective when both true and indisputable. Reputation takes a lifetime to build but only seconds to destroy.
3. Every aspiring politician should have the ability to find and keep talented advisors. Advisors serve an important function and are often the crux behind every politician’s support system: no one can be a specialist at everything. This can be quite problematic, especially if someone is asked to manage a project without having the best background for it. At this point one either has to find an advisor or face the prospect of bad performance. The better choice is obvious. Throughout history there have been various pairs of statesmen and their advisors. Augustus and Agrippa, Louis XIII and Richelieu, Carter and Brzezinski are some of the more famous examples. Although in more recent times leaders have favored panels of advisors, the ability to make sure that those advisors have certain qualities is still relevant and crucial.
It is important that advisors are capable, innovative, and loyal. To have an advisor who is either going to end up as deadweight or sell-out to the other side is worse than to have no advisor at all. An advisor who simply does what is told is bearable but serves limited use. Someone who is intellectually flaccid may help bear the load of whatever comes up but does not contribute the necessary brainpower needed for growth and addressing concerns. Therefore, it is good to develop the discernment needed for finding advisors who are not only capable but more than walking corpses. The earlier this potential can be found and the advisor brought into the fold the better. It will allow for the advisor to be an organically integrated part of the team.