Let me tell you a story about a candidate I once worked for – and how that candidate lost the party endorsement in a race where the party endorsement truly mattered.  I want to tell you this story so that you can learn from his mistake, because his mistake was ever so avoidable.  Here’s what happened…

Setting the Scene

The candidate I was working for was running for statewide office, and had decent name recognition.  He had previously held statewide office, and had as good a shot as anyone of not only getting the state party’s endorsement in the primary, but of winning the general election as well.

This candidate was running in a race where the state party always made an endorsement (don’t get me started on whether or not endorsements in primaries are a good idea), and where the endorsement mattered.  Because the state was so big, winning statewide candidates relied on local party operatives to help them win – and the local parties normally took their cues from the state party’s endorsement.

Long story short: the endorsement mattered, and our candidate had a good shot to get it.

Where the Story Goes Wrong…

Our candidate came out of the gates strong… getting good press coverage, raising some early money, making waves with some well-crafted policy statements.  The candidate also successfully got some “old hands” on board… respected names in statewide politics that added to the sense that our candidate was the clear frontrunner.

In this particular campaign, I wasn’t involved in setting strategy – I was focused 100% on fundraising (we built a fundraising team and successfully raised the money we would need to be competitive).  The campaign was being run by someone relatively new to statewide politics, and a candidate who preferred to run a “rose garden strategy,” campaigning from his office and occasionally from the road, but who limited the number of road trips and meetings he would do in the hidden hamlets and villages in this hugely rural state.

The combination of an inexperienced campaign manager and a candidate who preferred to stay at campaign HQ led to one major oversight on the part of the campaign: the failure to focus on gaining the commitments of state committee members, who would be crucial in winning the state party’s endorsement.

A Major Oversight that Cost the Endorsement… and the Election

In this state, the state party endorsement was made at a statewide endorsement meeting where several hundred committee members voted on who to endorse in the primary election.  The candidate had already made it clear that he wanted to get the endorsement – going so far as to tell the press that without the endorsement, he likely would drop out of the race.  This meant that securing the endorsement should have been the campaign’s first priority.

In order to gain the endorsement, the campaign should have run a “whip operation” (similar to a congressional whip team) to solicit commitments from committee members to vote for our candidate at the party’s endorsement meeting.  This would have required the candidate to go out and meet with committee members one by one or in small groups, and then to follow-up with them to ask for their vote.

Unfortunately, despite urging from many on our campaign team, the campaign never built a strategy for reaching out to the majority of the state committee members.  As you can imagine, the results weren’t good.  Ultimately, when it became clear that the state committee was going to endorse another candidate, our candidate (who had made it clear that he was unlikely to run without the endorsement) decided to drop out of the race.

What You Can Learn from His Mistake

Here’s the moral of the story: if you want to win a party endorsement in your primary election campaign, you can’t just sit back and wait for it to happen.  You have to be proactive.  You have to get out there, build relationships with party leaders and committee members, and make a plan for asking for their support.  Endorsements don’t just happen – you have to work for them.

Of course, another moral for this story is this: be very careful about making promises to withdraw from the campaign if you don’t get the party endorsement.  The party doesn’t always get it right.  In our case, the candidate that the state party did endorse got crushed by his opponent… our candidate would have fared far better, and ultimately may have won the general election.

Photo Credit: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy