Winning a Run-Off Election

With fifty states, thousands of counties and hundreds of thousands of municipalities, each with their own laws and regulations, it’s no wonder that election rules vary widely across the United States (not to mention across the globe).

One unique challenge faced annually by many candidates is the dreaded run-off election.  Some states and cities have election rules that state that if no one candidate receives more than 50% of the total votes cast, then the top two candidates will face off in a run-off election, often held 4-5 weeks after the initial contest. 

Many times, areas with run-off elections don’t hold traditional primary elections, instead allowing many people to compete in the general election, which produces either a single winner or two top-vote getters to compete in a run-off. 

No matter the format, run-off elections pose distinct challenges for candidates of any party or ideology.

The Best Strategy: Avoid a Run-Off

It is easier said than done, but the single best strategy for winning a run-off is to avoid one.  Your campaign should work hard to win the election and avoid the additional time and expense of a run-off election.  Of course, this isn’t always possible.  If you are forced into a run-off, follow this three step strategy:

Step 1: Plan

As with any aspect of a political campaign, you have to have a plan if you’re going to win the run-off.  Don’t assume that your general campaign strategy will carry you through the second campaign without significant changes or additions.   Develop a strong plan for winning this new election.

The best time to develop a run-off election is before the general (first) election.  If you live in an area with run-off elections, create a plan for winning the general election outright… then create a contingency plan for winning the run-off.  Writing this plan early will give your team a good picture of the resources and strategies you’ll need to win the secondary campaign, as well as allow you to hit the ground running should you be forced into a run-off.

Step 2: Resource

The timeframe for run-offs is generally short: more often than not, your team will have just 3, 4, or 5 weeks to win the second election.  This means you’ve got to spend as much time out communicating with voters as possible.

In order to do this, you’ll need to resource your campaign – fast.  Your team will likely have spent most of your money (and exhausted most of your volunteers) trying to win the general election.  Because of this, you’ll need to get started (the day after Election Day!) raising money and recruiting volunteers for the run-off campaign.

Get on the phones right away.  Tell people what you’re going to need, in terms of dollars and people, in order to win.  (This is one reason you need your plan to be in place before general Election Day).  Then ask them to contribute time or money to the effort.  There’s no time for follow-up calls… the election is in a couple of weeks… get them committed right away.  (For more information on resourcing your campaign, check out Political Fundraising 101).

Step 3: Get Boots on the Ground

Finally, get your volunteers and staff back out on the campaign trail immediately.  Get boots on the ground… knocking on doors, doing lit drops, placing more yard signs.  You’ve got your plan .  You’ve resourced your campaign.  Now get your team motivated and get them started.  There’s no time to waste.  (For more on working the grassroots, read The 5 Secrets of Successful Grassroots Organizations).


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