I’ve had the privilege of working with first-time candidates from varying professional backgrounds, from attorneys to business people to military veterans to small business owners. Of these candidates, some will hit the ground running and excel from day one, while others struggle to hit their stride or never find it, irrespective of their professional background.
Most important for first-time candidates is a clear message about how their professional background has uniquely prepared and qualified them for the particular office they are seeking. This is particularly important if you are running against an incumbent or against someone with electoral experience in another office. Having a varied professional background, such as a candidate with both military and business experience, can be a major plus and can help you make the case that you are uniquely qualified through a variety of personal narratives.
First-time candidates will find that many of the skills they have acquired in their professional lives will be applicable, and what drove them to success in their occupation may do the same in politics. However, it is also important to remember that, while they may be an expert in their given field, this is their first real foray into politics, and they need to surround themselves with professionals with extensive experience. There’s no need to repeat the mistakes of others that have gone before them, and there’s no excuse for not adopting the best practices consistently used by successful campaigns up and down the ballot.
On the subject of personal or familial life, having a particular background isn’t always a deal-breaker, but it can certainly help to be similar to the majority of the voters in the electorate, especially your targeted voters. When asked why they support a particular candidate, voters often say they understand them or are “one of us,” underscoring the importance of relatability. Similarly, if you’re running in a district where a majority of voters have long-standing ties to the area, it certainly helps if you have lived there for most or all of your life. If you believe your family background or ties to the district are a real asset, don’t just assume voters are familiar with them: make it a central part of your campaign through solid messaging that effectively portrays your similar background.
For first-time candidates who lack a similar background to the majority of the voters in their district, solid messaging can also neutralize this problem. Focus on the issues that are important to voters and highlight things you’ve done in your professional or personal life, such as your business’ services or volunteer work with area organizations. Using effective imagery in your advertising can show that you relate to voters and will stand up for them. For example, if you don’t have children but are in an area where the majority of voters have families, you might use lots of pictures of interactions with young families in your advertising, use testimonies from parents in your direct mail, or even have a parent speak on your behalf in your TV or digital advertising. You can even mitigate differences through events by say, staging events at schools or family-oriented community events.
Being a successful first-time candidate does not require having a particular professional or family background: it requires you utilizing it well through good messaging.