47 Lessons Learned in Politics

  1. A successful campaign must have a strong, but adaptable strategy that can be put onto paper.
  2. There is no such thing as a bandwagon effect—people will not choose to cast their vote for you simply because they believe you will win. The reverse is more likely to be true.
  3. A united party is essential for victory. If you have a contested nomination, you must secure the endorsement and support of the unsuccessful candidate(s).
  4. Timing is critical. Use sound reasoning on when and where to take positions and make statements.
  5. If something works, use it until it stops working, i.e. certain ads, messages, etc. The opposite is also true; if something is broken, admit it and fix the problem immediately.
  6. Make sure you message is clear, simple and effective. Successful campaigns will target specific groups with a specific message, but all messages should be easily understood by everyone.
  7. Negative attacks are better left to third parties and friendly media, if possible. You should be viewed by voters as the “nice guy.” (see also #23 and #27)
  8. Do not underestimate the power of radio. While there are flashier advertising mediums, few give you better bang for your buck.
  9. Unpopular national administrations often have a significant impact. If you are facing this challenge, you must successfully localize your campaign.
  10. Perception trumps reality every time. It doesn’t matter what you are as much as what voters think you are.
  11. Every aspect of your campaign should remain as simple as it can be, while still being effective.
  12. Secure the votes of your base before going after other votes.
  13. After securing your base, don’t be afraid to invade opposition territory. If you speak to a group of 100 Democrats, you won’t lose any votes, but you may gain a couple.
  14. What you say in one corner of your district will be heard in the others.
  15. Don’t self-destruct. Always choose words carefully.
  16. Do not allow your opponents charges to go unrefuted. Between the candidate, the campaign and third parties, all opposition charges should be answered before they are repeated and stick.
  17. Use endorsements primarily to compensate for your perceived weaknesses i.e., if you are a white collar businessman in rural Minnesota, secure the endorsement of prominent farmers and blue collar workers.
  18. Do not promise more than you can deliver during the campaign. Your credibility is put at risk.
  19. Know your own limitations and be willing to rely on outside expertise.
  20. No campaign is perfect and mistakes will happen. Decide immediately how to address the issue, keeping in mind that the best option is often to move on and forget about it.
  21. Dominate the dominant medium.
  22. Make sure your campaign is fun. Nothing hurts campaign morale and volunteerism more than boredom or pessimism.
  23. If you are going to go negative, your own credibility must be established first. Negative campaigning will backfire if voters do not find you believable.
  24. Voters are smarter and know more than you think. Provide them with information and a reason to vote for you.
  25. You cannot start your campaign too early. If you start late, you do not have fewer things to do, only less time in which to do them.
  26. Be confident, but never overconfident. Overconfidence will harm your perception among voters and hurt volunteer turnout. “I believe I will win, but the election will come down to the wire.”
  27. Do not oppose every position or statement by your opponent. Choose carefully, but make it hurt when you do respond.
  28. If you do not have a natural powerbase, you must start to build one immediately.
  29. You will never please everyone. This is true among voters as well as your campaign advisors.
  30. If you are a second, third, fourth-time candidate, avoid fighting the last campaign. Every campaign is different and you will need to adjust to the current climate.
  31. Just because you made a public statement doesn’t mean anyone heard it or remembers it. Stay with your message and repeat it often.
  32. Make sure you have an immediate communications system. Know how and where to contact essential campaign advisors.
  33. Be polished in explaining why you are running for office.
  34. Be ready to use late breaking news or recent developments to your advantage, but use discretion. Not all news stories are appropriate for immediate use by a political campaign.
  35. Although you should spend as much money as Minnesota law allows, how you spend your money is more important. A House or Senate candidate who spends $5,000 on fancy letterhead or a campaign headquarters is at an immediate disadvantage.
  36. All voices in a campaign are not equal. Different campaign advisors will have different levels of expertise and must be weighted accordingly.
  37. You need to have at least a basic understanding of the politically charged issues facing Minnesota. Always be able to recite the following:  What is wrong with the state, county, city, etc.?  What you will do to fix it?  Why your fix is better than your opponent’s?
  38. Every step the campaign takes must have a reason. The following questions should be answered:Why is the step being taken?  What do we gain from the step?  What are the consequences of not taking the step?  What are possible drawbacks of taking the step?  Is the step the best use of time and money?
  39. You need to have hundreds of good photos of yourself engaging in different activities around your district. Your portfolio must include a great headshot. More people will see your picture than meet you in person.
  40. Preempt negatives that are sure to be used against you in the campaign, but don’t volunteer negatives that may not be used by the opposition.
  41. Know what your opponent is doing. Keep track of the opposition’s public documents, lit pieces, public statements, finances, etc.
  42. Your enemy’s enemy may not be your friend. Carefully verify any information that comes from a former associate of your opponent.
  43. A positive public visual image is essential. Groom and dress neatly, drive a vehicle appropriate for your district, etc.
  44. Let your spouse/family take any reasonable role with the campaign that they choose. Your campaign will be miserable if you don’t keep the support of your family.
  45. This is your campaign and you have the right to make final decisions.
  46. The only way people will donate to your campaign is if you ask them to. Either you must self-finance your campaign or you must ask for money from others.
  47. Use the words “thank you” liberally. Always thank volunteers, staff, donors, etc., if you want future aid from them.

Adapted from Joe Napolitan’s “Napolitan’s Rules: 112 Lessons Learned From a Career in Politics” as published in “Winning Elections.” Joe Napolitan is a longtime political advisor and a founder of the political consulting industry.