5 common (and costly) campaign “pre-launch” mistakes, and how to avoid them

Launching a political campaign is a process, not an event.

Sure, a successful, splashy announcement accompanied by an energetic show of support and favorable media coverage is, of course, an important component of the launch process. Long term success and scalability are ultimately determined by the prep-work that takes place prior to an announcement, as well as the critical first 100 days that follow.

With so many moving parts, it can be difficult to prioritize and execute effectively. Fortunately, many of the most common areas of oversight are predictable and avoidable, and we discuss 5 specific examples below:

Mistake #1: Failure to Establish Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

Many traditional campaign tactics and activities have become so intrinsically connected to campaign culture that they are now taken for granted.

EXAMPLE 1: A campaign team member is staffing the candidate at an event. Most campaigners understand that they need to carry campaign literature, collect business cards, collect voters contact information. Assuming the campaign has this event staffing part covered, what happens now?

EXAMPLE 2: Your team had collected information from event attendees at a registration table. Now what?

EXAMPLE 3: The candidate has made a few fundraising calls in the car between campaign stops, and scribbled down some notes on the back of a call sheet. Now what?

Ideally, your campaign team should have simple answers to the “now what?” questions in the form of standard operating procedures.

Action Item:

  • Establish solid, repeatable, and agreed upon SOPs for even the simplest tasks. This might seem tedious at first, but to quote Retired US Navy SEAL, Lieutenant Commander Jocko Willink “…discipline is the pathway to freedom.

  • Empower those team members who are performing those tasks to develop their own SOPs, and then make adjustments as needed.

  • Make certain that objectives are defined. Don’t allow the campaign to use time and energy doing anything simply for the sake of doing it.

Mistake #2: Failing to Budget Time (Realistically)

Most campaigners are acutely aware of the fact that time is a finite resource, and the candidate’s time is the most valuable line item in your time budget. It is imperative that the entire campaign team, including the candidate, have an accurate and realistic understanding of just how much — or how little — time the candidate has available to devote to campaign activities.

Over-estimating availability leads to poor candidate management and misguided scheduling priorities.

Action Items:

  • Create an aggressively realistic “Blackout Calendar” to block off every possible prior commitment, standing appointment, or potential obligation. Include everything from travel time to walking the dog, and everything in between.

  • Institute a system for scheduling that evaluates potential additions to the candidate calendar by a standard set of criteria.

  • Manage candidate time according to the best use at each phase of the cycle. As the campaign progresses, priorities will need to shift accordingly.

Mistake #3: Mismanaging Volunteer Support

This happens most often with first-time candidates or early in a political career. Before an announcement, many candidates will have a core group of earnest and steadfast supporters that includes their family, close friends, work colleagues, and political acolytes.

Some of these folks might have valuable skills or assets that they can bring to the table, but most importantly, they bring energy, enthusiasm, and a desire to help. There is a right and wrong way to empower your campaign’s “Day Ones.” A smart grassroots campaign understands how to channel this energy in the most productive manner.

Action Items:

  • Make certain that there is a clear delineation between official campaignand volunteer activity.

  • Produce simple, accessible, and sharable volunteer “Field Guides” outlining the best ways to help the campaign.

  • Explain and demonstrate the value of these volunteer activities. If supporters can’t appreciate why you are asking them to engage in a particular activity, they will be less inclined to participate.

Mistake #4: Failure to Consider Donor Psychology

Managing donor outreach and donor relations can be tricky. This remains one of those areas where you can still make the argument that it is more of an art than a science. People who give to political campaigns are truly a rare breed (political contributors who have given more than $200 make up less than 1% of the adult population at large) but at the end of the day, they are human beings.

There are a number of potential pain points in the political giving process, and even the most well-heeled and politically savvy donor prospect can be difficult to convert if you haven’t gotten out in front of the potential barriers.

EXAMPLE 1: A donor shows up to an event and forgot her checkbook. Do you have a backup like a card reader, or at the very least, a laptop with several browser windows open to the campaign’s online donation portal?

EXAMPLE 2: A donor prospect has questions about regulations and prohibited donations? She has made a pledge to contribute but wants to clear it with her employer’s compliance counsel first. Have you prepared a compliance letter with guidelines and relevant statutes?

These are simple things that if overlooked, can result in missed opportunities. Campaigns are fueled by generosity. The least you can do is make it as easy as possible for donors to contribute.

Action Items:

  • Understand — and stand prepared to concisely articulate — relevant campaign finance regulators and prohibitions.

  • Anticipate potential barriers to conversion and plan to address them accordingly.

  • Treat donors like team members, not ATMs.

Mistake 5: Overlooking Contingency Planning

Planning is easy. Pivoting is not. Anticipating challenges before they arise can make it easier for your team to recognize when a pivot is needed, and develop evaluation criteria to inform your decision making. Most challenges will not require a massive course correction. The objective is to be prepared to recognize the critical pivot points and have a plan in place to mitigate the situation.

Don’t just set goals. Instead, think about goals as “conditional expressions” that inform the campaigns “program.” Each goal (condition) should be accompanied by a corresponding course of action, much like an If-then(-else)statement informs a computer program. If the plan remains the same whether or not the goals are met, then your goals are aspirational at best, but ultimately arbitrary, and should be reconsidered.

Action Items:

  • When pulling together the campaign blueprint, keep it simple and plan for contingencies.

  • Construct a system for periodic debrief, assessment, and re-assessment, taking new information and developments into account.

  • Adopt a mindset that is flexible enough to know when to pivot, yet confident enough to know when to persevere.

Dante Vitagliano is a partner & co-founder at Pinnacle Campaign Strategies