Public engagement is a critical part of electoral campaigning, for voters and candidates alike. It gives candidates the opportunity to communicate their platform and vision to voters. Conversely, it gives voters the opportunity to meet the candidate and, if necessary, articulate their concerns and offer feedback. Whether it be addressing a local labor union, or visiting a mega-church and meeting with some local reverends, public engagement is an intrinsic and important part of any campaign, from the top of the ticket, down.
Having worked in Field for the majority of my political career, I’ve often heard complaints that voters don’t see or know their candidate enough. This is certainly not specific to any community. I’ve heard it on the South side of Chicago. I’ve heard it in Southern Illinois. And you know what, it is fair concern. Voters have a right to see and know who might possibly represent them and their interests in public office, and candidates want to meet folks they might represent. And given the context of all the political issues in the world, the State of Illinois, and City of Chicago, the stakes are high and voters want to know that they will be protected.
Here’s the issue: a candidate cannot be everywhere. Shocker, I know. But with this innate struggle– the rightful expectation of voters to see and know their candidate and the truth that one candidate cannot be everywhere– comes a crucial conversation on managing a candidate’s time and developing a solid political program. Let me offer three main objectives to help determine the most effective use of a candidate’s time.
First, determine the foremost goals of your campaign political program. Each campaign is inherently different and with those differences come varying goals and priorities. On a competitive statewide campaign, building a strong surrogate program and obtaining key endorsements might be first and foremost. On a local aldermanic race, sit-downs with all the local pastors and vital community organizations might most crucial. In whatever case, a clear view of what relationships and partnerships are needed for a victory on Election Day will help structure and fully develop these goals.
Second, determine what is actually feasible in the context of other campaign department priorities. With any political outreach, scheduling will be determined based on the needs and requirements of other campaign departments. Typically this results in the seemingly innate friction between the finance department, and EVERYONE else. And painfully, but rightfully so. Fact: the operational apparatus of a campaign is linked to the amount of money raised. Can the campaign competitively go up on TV? How extensive can the mail or paid media program be? These are crucial, campaign cornerstone questions that ultimately determine a decisive victory from a loss, but are also determined by money raised. This is just one departmental example but, in the context of scheduling and prioritizing a candidate times, it is important to think about events and the political program goals in a much larger and broader scheme. This will help ensure noted goals are actually achievable.
Third, tier public engagement based on the first and second objectives. You have determined your goals. You have determined what is actually achievable. This provides a useful point of departure to establish what engagement comes from the candidate and what engagement from the campaign exclusively (i.e. staff or surrogate). Here are some questions that typically help speed along this tier-ing process:
- How many voters can we reach with an event?
- Beyond voter contact, can an event garner earned press?
- Can an event be beneficial to other campaign departments?
- Can an event help achieve the delineated goals of the political program?
These are simple questions that, applied to any campaign, can help determine what is most useful for the candidate’s time, and where the campaign can fill in the inevitable gaps. In the context of a statewide race, for example, the candidate might be able to make a large rally with 500 or more voters attending and confirmed press, but staff or a campaign surrogate can attend the smaller local township dinner at the same time.
The simple but hard truth is that not every event or function is an effective use of a candidate’s time. Now, that is not to say that every event or function is not important to the overall campaign, because it is. But the candidate’s time is the most valuable resource and must be allocated cautiously and strategically. This truth is the path to an overall victory, and separates a successful public engagement program from an inadequate one.