In most elections, incumbents have enormous advantages over challengers. Not only have they won election in the district before, and thus possess greater name ID, but they also have at their disposal all of the trappings of elected office: free mail to constituents, news coverage, patronage and increased fundraising ability. Despite all of these advantages, though, woe to any elected official who is seen as “losing touch with the district.” This warning applies not only to Congressmen, who can go to Washington and seem to “forget about home,” but also to local elected officeholders, who may be seen as “too big for their breeches” if the voters think they have lost touch.
To combat the perception that they are out of touch, smart elected officials operate a “permanent campaign.” While less savvy officeholders shut down their campaign operations during the off years, the truly challenger-proof incumbent never stops being in “campaign mode.” Even if the permanent campaign operation consists only of the elected official and his wife, the campaign should never truly die, and should be carried on through the off-years in a variety of ways:
1. Keep Your Organization Alive
To make sure that they have an ample supply of volunteers and fundraisers available at a moment’s notice, elected officials should never truly shut down their campaign organizations. Keep a small inner circle of campaign supporters active, and apart from your official office. This inner circle should work to maintain contact with your entire campaign organization, including volunteers, donors, and supporters.
2. Frequent Mailings
Incumbents should be sure to maintain frequent contact with their constituents through the mail. These mailing may be stand-alone pieces, or (more desirably) a regular newsletter mailed to each of the residents of the elected officeholder’s district. Newsletters and mailings should be information rich: tell your constituents what you have been up to (sponsored legislation, bill signings, events), what your schedule is for the upcoming month, and any items of interest that you are working on.
Another great way to reach constituents is by using mail to target residents who are interested in particular issues. Keep a list of residents who contact you regarding particular issues, or whom you met on the campaign trail and were particularly interested in various areas. When items of interest to these groups come up, send out a mailing detailing what is happening and how you are part of it. Elected officials should be sure to check applicable laws and ethics regulations before sending out mail to determine what may be included in taxpayer sponsored mailings (“franked mail”), and how campaign contributions may be used to pay for other off-year mail.
3. Website / Email
Incumbents should maintain a campaign website, separate from their “official” website, where they can post campaign related information. Use your website to keep your supporters and volunteers updated and “in the loop.” Make sure that your website is highly informative, and updated often, so that supporters visit your site again and again. Use email lists and newsletters to activate supporters, inform them of fundraising events, and spread your message at minimal cost.
4. Townhall Meetings
One of the most effective tools that elected officials can use to stay in touch with their districts is the town hall meeting. Work with local organizations and volunteers to setup meetings around your district where citizens can voice their concerns. Be well prepared and be sure to have literature and issue papers to hand out to those in attendance. Garner additional exposure by inviting local news media to the event.
5. Tours of the District
Besides simple town meetings, many incumbents have found it helpful to organize “tours” of the district. These tours should be created around a theme such as education or Medicare, and use imagery and language that emphasize the theme. For example, a school board member may want to create the “Back to School” tour, where he or she rides a school bus each day to a different school in the district and sits in on classes, PTA meetings, and faculty meetings, and speaks to a student assembly.
6. Proactive Speaking Engagements
Most incumbents realize that speaking engagements with groups around the district provide a good opportunity to garner support. Unfortunately, most incumbents are also content to simply wait for offers to arrive at their offices. Local elected officials should be proactive about speaking engagements – have your press secretary or volunteers work to harvest offers for you to speak throughout your area.
Imagine that you are an average voter, sitting at home one night in an off-election year. You hear a knock at the door and are surprised to find your local city council member, who has stopped by just to see what he or she could do to help you. Wouldn’t you be more likely to vote for that member again, and tell your friends and neighbors about the visit? Going door-to-door in an off-election year cements a positive relationship between you and your constituents.
The Campaign Never Ends
Getting re-elected requires incumbents to maintain a permanent campaign operation that constantly reconnects him or her with the voters. Elected officials must make sure that their constituents feel cared for, that they know who you are and what you are doing for them. By staying in touch with the voters and keeping their campaign organizations alive, elected officeholders can ensure that the voters will be happy to keep them in office.