Friday, April 18, 2014 · 10:57 p.m.

Ready to Run: Money, money, money!

Avoiding pitfalls in raising, spending and reporting

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This is part five of a seven-part series about running for public office.

Oh, to live in a utopia where altruism is the reigning reason for seeking a humble stint as a public servant and where hordes of super-enlightened voters make the right choices without having to be cajoled via the idiot box or the Internet. Ah, but where’s the fun in that?

Here in the real world, it matters not how noble your intentions, how sturdy your platform planks, how crystalline your persuasive logic if you don’t back all that up with enough cash. Yes, today we take your starry-eyed campaign on a bobsled ride through the grimy gutters of election finance.

There are three main activities related to campaign money: raising it, spending it and reporting it. Each topic is broad enough to warrant a book (indeed, many have been written), but suffice it to say that failure to give any of these the proper attention can deal a deadly blow to your effort.

Brandon Lewis, founder and president of MyCampaignTreasurer.com, says candidates need to learn best practices early, as fundraising is the hardest part of running for office.

"While most people wouldn't consider changing their own spark plugs unassisted, countless candidates plunge into their campaigns in a clueless condition when it comes to fundraising and are surprised when the results are abysmal," admonishes Lewis.

It can’t buy you love, but can money at least rent you an elective office? You may actually be well-off enough that everything it takes to win could come out of your own pocket. It may be tempting to skip this whole fundraising thing if you’re flush. This certainly has been done before.

Why would you consider asking for additional support in this circumstance? It’s simple. People want to belong to something, and they actually do want to help. Also, they like feeling like insiders.

Folks like knowing that their effort helped you get your winning message in front of other people. The word "contribution" connotes a sense of working together more so than the mere act of writing a check. (I don’t know who writes checks anymore, but if they do, you’ll take them.)

Know your limits, though. Except for those running in statewide elections, a person may only contribute $1,500 each to your primary and general election efforts, for a total of $3,000. Individual contributors to statewide candidates may give $3,800 per election. Unlike with credit cards, it’s fine to encourage people to "max out." They just can’t go over the limit.

Most people I know don’t have an extra thousand or three lying about. Many will only be able to afford to give $100 or less—often far less—and they need to feel just as important as your larger donors. Amass enough of them, and you'll raise your committed vote quotient in addition to having the funds to reach the ubiquitous low-information voter.

Every single contributor needs to be thanked in as personal a way as possible, starting with face to face. In a local campaign, there is no reason not to have a staffer or volunteer help you prepare handwritten thank-you notes. For larger efforts, digital responses to the email addresses you collect are more practical.

When you get the money coming in, you then have to make wise choices about how to spend it. A few recent examples are proof enough that a candidate can far outraise an opponent and still lose.

Part of the problem for new candidates is the inability to discern among the offers that come flooding in as soon as you qualify. What is a good buy for your campaign dollar? Some of this gets into the choices about how to effectively use media, which we will cover a little more thoroughly next time.

Vendors can be vetted, but another contingent lining up to siphon your campaign’s fuel tank has no defined business presence, despite being a mainstay in the perennial election cycle. These are the unofficial temporary workforce, akin to day laborers; political mercenaries, they appear the same as volunteers but will hold up signs for whichever campaign pays the most cash.

Brokers for the "paid volunteers" start calling along with the media consultants, yard sign sellers and print shops. It may seem attractive to recruit small armies of low-wage canvassers to help you persuade voters, but I would urge caution here. If the person isn’t doing it out of conviction that you should hold the office, how persistent will he or she really be?

And when things start to get murky in terms of where the money goes and for what, that’s another caution sign. Remember, all contributions, expenditures, in-kind contributions, loans and obligations must be reported; and if they are above $100, they must be itemized.

The deadlines for reporting periods are something else that needs careful attention because they’re not always equidistant on the calendar. Independent candidates follow the same preprimary and postprimary reporting schedule as partisan candidates.

You must report on time even if you don’t raise or spend anything during the period; else fines will be levied. Your treasurer should be on top of this, but so should you. The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance will not take "But I didn’t know" as an excuse.

Keep meticulous records; shop smart for services; research effective uses of fundraising strategies. Through it all, stay in close contact with the election commission staff. They will help keep you on track with the paperwork.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this most difficult part of running for office is the simplest. Looking someone in the eye and uttering something to the effect of, "I could use your help in this campaign. Can you give [name an amount] today?" without begging or being presumptuous is no easy task. I can barely stomach it.

But you can’t afford not to do it.

Joe Lance shares his opinions on civic matters and politics from an impassioned but nonpartisan perspective. You are invited to follow both of his Twitter accounts (@tnticket or @joelance) or email him at tnticket@gmail.com. The opinions expressed in this editorial belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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