Have you heard the famous proverb: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again?”
For Lee Cohen, trying again proved very successful.
In 2012, he ran for student body president at Indiana University South Bend and lost by just 57 votes. This year, running against two other candidates, Lee received 55.9 percent of the vote, while the second place person received 35.9 percent and the last received 8.2 percent. In other words, Lee overwhelmingly won 1.5 times more votes than the second highest candidate and 6.5 times more votes than the third.
So, what changed?
First—Lee increased his name recognition.
After his loss in 2012, he spent this past year getting more involved on campus and making good relationships.
“In 2012, I had zero name recognition on campus,” Lee told me. “I internalized the knowledge that people aren’t voting for you…They are voting for the idea of you, for the idea of who you are and what you symbolize. Branding yourself carefully and meticulously is imperative –you will become a symbol and a fad. People will sell you to their friends in their discussions with one another without you needing to lift a finger. By branding yourself, you become a discussion topic. Following my first run for office, I had established name recognition and a strong reputation throughout the year.”
Second—he got help.
In 2012, his campaign team consisted of just him. This year, he recruited a slate of folks to run with him on a conservative platform ticket.
“In Morton Blackwell’s Laws of the Public Policy Process, his sixth law states, ‘Give ‘em a title and get ‘em involved,’ and law #29 states, ‘You can’t beat somebody with nobody.’ Going it alone in 2012 was an uphill battle, so it drastically helped to establish a team of good candidates and have them well organized,” Lee said. “I gave it 110 percent in 2012, but still came in shy of winning. This year, I gave it 120 percent and had 10 others working for my victory. Together, we more than doubled the prior year’s numbers.”
“I established a team of candidates with similar viewpoints, creating a powerful coalition. Our team was campaigning against another well-established team of 13 candidates—one presidential candidate and 12 senate candidates. They were all very well connected with the student body and the student housing,” Lee said.
But having a strong coalition isn’t enough to win elections. Having a strong message is also important.
“I ran for Student Government Association president because I felt that students needed someone who would represent their interests and not act merely as a rubber stamp for the university’s administration,” Lee said. “I sought the office because I felt that funds were being spent inappropriately and that the student activity fee – an additional fee that students have to pay alongside tuition – was being used as a second, quasi-tuition increase in order to pay for things that the university should be paying for on its own dime through its general fund.”
There were four executive positions open–president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer. There were three people ran for president and 24 ran for 12 open senate seats.
“My team of candidates held a better, more conservative philosophy regarding how student funding should be spent,” Lee said. “This next year, I will be working to establish a system whereby our student government can offer representation to students who are the targets of bias in classrooms and in grading—especially if these biases are rooted in discrimination against a student’s worldview, political orientation, or conservative viewpoints—as well as stand guard against restrictions that could impede upon conservative clubs and organizations on campus.”
Third—by studying how to win, the election outcomes changed in Lee’s favor.
In 2009, Lee came to DC for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
“At CPAC, I met Kent Strang from the Leadership Institute and had the opportunity to work with both him and Brenda Alves who was, at the time, the intern coordinator for LI,” Lee remembered.
He was encouraged to apply for LI’s summer 2009 internship and was accepted. While at LI, Lee took nine trainings, including the Campaign Management School, Television Workshops, Public Relations School, Conservative Intern Workshop, Direct Mail School, Youth Leadership School, and LI’s Public Speaking Workshop.
Lee took Leadership Institute training. He studied his notes later. He prepared for battle, and then won.
“LI taught me everything I to know about campaigning,” Lee said. “Without the Leadership Institute, I couldn’t have understood what I needed to do in each unique situation in order to secure a victory for myself and our team.”
Fourth—he implemented political technology to his benefit.
The ninth Law of Public Policy Process states: Political technology determines political success. Lee said he implemented this law on his campaign.
“Technology allowed us to speak to thousands of people at once in 1,000 places, all with the click of a button. All the while, we were getting out the vote in person! I utilized Facebook ads early on; printer templates for flyers, posters, and table tents; stickers; email blasts; and, most effectively, text message blasts,” Lee said.
“We worked our GOTV while simultaneously email and text blasting our voting block. I tested my software religiously. There is nothing worse than being right on the front lines of the battlefield when your email blasts are being marked as SPAM and your text messenger is not functioning. I learned the importance of triple checking that everything is in working order and having my email blasts functioning and ready to go on a timer days in advance,” he explained.
Fifth—he made sharp campaign materials and used them effectively.
“I learned that campaign materials which are sharp, understandable, and motivating are highly effective,” Lee said.
He continued, “Good materials, concise talking points, and easy-to-follow voting directions help voters see the value in supporting you and convince them that the time it takes to vote for you is well worth it. Aside from flyers and posters, we had a secret weapon: table towers. We printed hundreds of them and prepared them so that they could be unfolded and set up in seconds. We systematized our campaign materials.
“Then, during the early morning of Election Day, we covered the campus with them. They were impressive, effective, and attractive; people loved them,” he explained. “They emanated professionalism and branded us effectively. I ran into a ton of people who said that they voted for us simply because they saw our table towers and followed the voting directions on it.”
Lastly—he got out the vote and ran an aggressive grassroots campaign.
In 2012, there were 877 voters. In 2013, there were 1,601 students that came out to vote for the candidate of their choice. That’s almost double the number of voters.
Lee received 55.9 percent of the vote, while the second place person received 35.9 percent and the last received 8.2 percent. And, all nine of their slate’s senators won!
“This year, I established the campaign strategy months before the campaign,” Lee said.
He waited to announce he was running for president until his decision was made and his team was formed.
“I began collecting voter contact information in person weeks before the GOTV effort even began. I would go classroom to classroom and give a brief three-minute spiel with handout materials. Following the spiel, I would ask for their pledged support and vote, and then I collected their email and phone number for GOTV far in advance of Election Day,” Lee said.
But working hard during the campaign isn’t enough; one must finish strong.
“I decided to run through the finish line, and then keep running until I could no longer see the finish line in my rearview mirror. Slowing down isn’t suicide, but it is detrimental to your margin for error,” he shared. “The more you withdraw yourself from the game, the smaller that margin of error gets and the more your wiggle room shrinks. By running our campaign at full steam toward the end, we secured a massive victory.”
In just two years, he went from underdog loser to the most prominent leader on campus. Now he gets to change his campus toward more conservative ways next year as president.
Lee learned that failure is just an opportunity to learn from mistakes, correct them, and become stronger and more successful.
“The Leadership Institute is the premier political activism training institution in our nation,” Lee said. “There is nowhere else that you can receive the level of in depth training, knowledge, and experience that LI supplies. There is simply no substitute for learning the art of winning political campaigns from those campaign managers and consultants who work in the field day-to-day and provide their expertise at LI trainings."
Come to the Leadership Institute to learn how to prepare for a future run for office.
Register for LI's week-long Future Candidate School in August.
“LI has not only given me the skills for successful organization and campaigning, it has also facilitated long-term friendships for me in the field of politics and nonprofits that will allow me to advance in a career where I can advance conservative principles,” Lee said.
We look forward to where Lee's career will go. Follow Lee on Twitter @CohenLee.
Please congratulate and welcome Lee Cohen as an elected leader at Indiana University and as LI’s Graduate of the Week.
To nominate a Leadership Institute graduate or faculty member to be featured as LI's spotlight of the week, please contact LI's External Affairs Officer Lauren Day, formerly Lauren Hart, at Lauren@LeadershipInstitute.org.