Eight Rookie Mistakes to Avoid on the Campaign Trail
If you’re doing your job as a candidate or party leader, you’re going out speaking with a lot of people you haven’t met before.  When they don’t know much about you, it’s human nature to make quick judgments based on what little information they do have.

First time candidates, particularly for local office, often send signals that undermine credibility among potential supporters, costing them votes, volunteers, donations, or all three.

People make decisions based on cues and signals, and initial impressions can have a lasting impact.  Here are eight unforced errors you can easily avoid.

Loner = loser.  Speaking at the Chamber of Commerce lunch?  Showing up by yourself tells everyone you have no supporters in the room.  Instead, arrive with a volunteer whose job it is to accompany you while you’re chatting with people, helping in taking down notes for follow up, and carrying endorsement cards.  When working a crowd and confronted with that weirdo who wants to chew your ear off about privatizing sidewalks, have your body man leading you, setting up the next person to talk to, and politely motioning you to the next person when he sees you’re pinned down. Bonus: Let a member of the group you’re speaking to know you’re coming, and have him meet you at the door when you arrive and walk in together to show other members you have support already.

Flag ties.  Ronald Reagan was a great American patriot, and he didn’t have to prove it by wearing a flag tie — a novelty that you should probably put up on eBay.  Want to show your patriotism?  Wear a small flag pin on your lapel.

 Cheap-o pens
.  “Ok, let me write your number down.”  While you’re writing, the person standing in front of you is looking straight at your hand.  If it’s holding a two year old Bic with the end chewed off, you don't look as impressive.  Mont Blanc gets $450 for a pen not because it doesn’t matter, but because it does.  Yours doesn’t have to break the bank, but a proper pen sends a subtle signal you have your act together.


FREE OFFER! Business cards.  Companies like Vista Print have nice offers for “free!” business cards using very generic templates that people like me who meet candidates a thousand times have seen – about a thousand times.  While you’re at it, have Vista put “I’m not taking this race seriously enough to invest in sending the right message to donors, volunteers, and stakeholders.”  Spend a few bucks more on proper business cards that show you mean business.

“I lost weight!” shirt collars.  So you dropped 20 lbs walking all those precincts – fantastic!  But if you don’t trade in those collared shirts for ones that fit your new neck size, you’re going to look like an anorexic or an addict, and your sloppy appearance will show in all those photos posted to Facebook.

Bush or Clinton era shoes.  Look down right now.  If those shoes weren’t purchased during the Obama Administration, take them off, put them in the closet, and wear them for gardening.  When you’re at events, it’s surprising how often people are looking down.  High end Hugo Boss isn’t required, but they should be new and clean.

Dark button-down shirts.  If you’re wearing a black button-down shirt, a tie and a blazer, congratulations, you look like a bouncer at a bar.  Ditch the Sopranos look for now and go with a white or light blue shirt.  Still have doubts?  Turn on C-SPAN.  See any elected officials with your bouncer costume?  Exactly.

Rookie@gmail.com. That’s the message you’re sending with your “I’m using this email address until I lose” Gmail or Yahoo account.  For $10 at GoDaddy.com you can register your own private domain name, then sign up to have email to that address forwarded to your regular email address.

For women candidates: no question about it, you have a tougher job than the boys when it comes to attire.  The press pays more attention to what women leaders wear, just ask Hillary Clinton.  Yet in most cases, the target audience consists of voters and stakeholders, and not the press, so don’t worry about the writeup.  Rule of thumb: middle of the road.  Too flashy or too mannish and you’ll turn people off.  Not too much jewelry and definitely not too much perfume.  If you hug someone and they can smell of your Chanel an hour later, it was too much.  More food for thought in this New York Times story The Fashion Conservatives.

People are careful with where they invest their vote, their time, and their money.  Switching from amateur to pro before you hit the field helps you maximize the return on every hour you’re putting into your campaign.


Ron Nehring is a volunteer faculty member for the Leadership Institute, where he speaks at LI campaign management schools and activists workshops all across the country. Under Ron's leadership as the former chairman of the Republican Party of California, they raised more $73 million, permanently retired over $4 million in debt, and instituted a wide array of management and financial reforms. He currently serves as a consultant and is the chairman emeritus of the California Republican Party. Read his full bio here.

This “Expert Insights” article is a part of a regular series which delves into the mechanics of political technology. LI staff, faculty, graduates, and conservative friends are welcome to submit an article by contacting Lauren Day at Lauren@LeadershipInstitute.org