Building Political Coalitions

by Joe Garecht

(This is a long article, but it’s worth it: building great political coalitions has been the secret to many local, state, and national campaigns’ success).

Modern campaigns, whether national or local in nature, focus on building coalitions of people who are targeted by the campaign’s message. These coalitions do part of the work of the campaign, by drawing in new members and spreading the campaign’s message to interested parties. Which coalitions each campaign should build is a question of strategy, and will be discussed in another section of this site. This article assumes that various groups have already been targeted, and will focus on the nuts and bolts of building those coalitions.

Dual Option

The purpose of coalitions are to build grassroots organizations supporting the campaign and candidate. In utilizing coalitions, the campaign has two options: use pre-existing coalitions to build the grassroots organization, or build coalitions from the ground up. Each has advantages and disadvantages. These options can be used individually, or in conjunction, to effectively build support for the local campaign.

Pre-Existing Coalitions: Groups, Organizations and Clubs

Pre-existing coalitions exist in every community and neighborhood. Church groups, community organizations, parent teacher associations and civic groups are examples of already formed entities with active members who share common concerns.

The distinct advantage to using pre-existing coalitions is that they are already packaged — a group of like minded individuals exists with structure and organization, and often includes “doers” rather than just “sayers.” Of course, there are also disadvantages. The group has set leadership and direction, and may be reluctant to feel as if it is being assumed by a campaign or somehow upended. The key is to make the groups “partners” with the campaign, instead of trying to make them part of the campaign.

Groups that the campaign wants to partner with should be approached before an individual announces his candidacy, or shortly thereafter. By meeting with the group leadership and asking for support before the campaign starts in earnest, the campaign makes groups feel part of the decision process, begins the relationship with positive communication, and improves chances that the group will be more favorably disposed to the idea of partnering with the campaign.

When approaching the organization, a candidate should meet with the leaders of each group, and eventually with the entire leadership hierarchy. It is important for the candidate to be frank about his stand on issues pertaining to the individual organization. Nothing kills a coalition faster than dishonesty in initial meetings. The campaign should ask for the outright support of the group, if this is possible, although some groups may not (or may be legally unable to) support political candidates outright. The leadership of such groups should still be approached, in order for positive inclinations toward the candidate to be created.

Campaign Goals

There are several goals for the campaign when partnering with existing groups and organizations: First and foremost, the campaign wants to gain votes, and the group is a prime source of voters. Second, the campaign should seek to garner volunteers from the group. Third, press coverage may develop out of endorsements by key groups. Finally, financial support from the group, or its members, can be raised for the candidate through the partnership.

In return for these things, the campaign should promise to keep the group updated on its activities through continued contact, including future meetings between the group’s leadership (or entire membership) and the candidate. The organization will want to feel as if it is “in the loop,” and the campaign must make sure that this happens.

From the Ground Up: Building Coalitions Where None Exists

For the ambitious campaign, building new coalitions can be the source of great grassroots support. The advantages of building new coalitions are that the campaign can independently direct the growth and substance of the coalition, and can ensure the coalition’s support. The disadvantage of building a coalition from the ground up is the time it takes to do so. This may be overcome by using volunteers with extensive community contacts and available time to head up the coalition building process.

As of the time of this writing, even national organizations, such as the Republican National Committee, recognize the value of building new coalitions and are launching major initiatives to do just that. For the local campaign, coalitions can be built around key issues, such as education (parent groups), crime (civic/community organizations), or any other key local issue. Coalitions can also be formed regionally (by neighborhood or town) or by trade/profession. The range of possible coalitions that local campaigns can build is almost endless

Starting Out: Identifying Groups and Members

The campaign that wishes to build its own coalitions should first map out what types of coalitions would be most beneficial, based on the campaign strategy. Is crime a major issue the campaign plans to raise? Then a “Concerned Citizens for Jones” coalition can be built. Does the candidate plan to address education? Then the campaign may wish to start a “School Parents for Smith” or “Teachers for Harrisson” coalition.

After deciding on what coalitions to build, the campaign needs to determine how to get members to join. The campaign need not worry about getting thousands (or even hundreds) of members to join the coalition. Often campaigns find that one dedicated member is better than ten are not committed to the campaign or the candidate, and simply sign on to get the campaign to “stop bothering them.”

Campaigns should be careful to include coalition building in all of their activities. When a candidate goes door-to-door, and meets a teacher who supports him, that teacher should be asked to join “Teachers for Harrisson.” When the candidate speaks at a community organization’s candidate’s night and is asked about crime, he should recruit new members of “Concerned Citizens for Jones.” As the campaign rolls on, the coalitions will continue to fill up and form a valuable grassroots asset for the candidate that can be used not only during this campaign, but in future campaigns as well.

Value: What Campaign-Built Coalitions Can Do For You

Once the campaign starts to grow its coalitions’ membership, it needs to include those members and groups in its campaign strategy. The candidate may want to think about sending out a regular newsletter to the group, if it is large enough, and representatives of the organization should be briefed on the campaign’s activities. The group can also be sent targeted literature and fundraising appeals.

The campaign should also seek to have the coalition members spread the word about the campaign and its message. Coalitions are a good source of volunteers, and members can often be asked to have candidate coffees in their homes, introduce the candidate to neighbors, go door-to-door, and participate in efforts to get out the vote on election day.

Thank You!

After the completion of the campaign, win or lose, a candidate must be sure to send thank-you’s to every member of the coalitions the campaign built. After attaching their names to the campaign and working hard for a candidate’s success, these members will feel as if the candidate’s win is their win, and his loss is their loss. If the campaign wins, the group should be maintained as a source of grassroots support, and a ready made coalition for the reelection campaign. If the campaign loses, the candidate should maintain contact with the group, which will more than likely be ready to sign up for the next campaign.

Coalition building is an important part of any local campaign’s strategy, and can be an effective tool for quickly building grassroots candidate support.

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