Sunday, April 20, 2014 · 4:15 a.m.

Ready to Run: Organizing for success

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

After you have prepared in every other way, the special sauce that will deliver results to your campaign, and thus help you achieve those civic goals that made you want to run in the first place, is a well-orchestrated effort to get your voters to the polls.

I have to tell you that this is not the easiest part of this series to write. I really do want you to have all the tools you need to successfully run for office, but my own turns as a candidate never took me this far, nor have I any experience at organizing as part of another’s campaign.

I’ll tell you another reason why this topic is foreign to me: I do not rely on being canvassed in order to get myself to the polling place. I don’t need a phone call reminding me to vote for a particular candidate, as if I would somehow accidentally pull the lever for another. I imagine you are somewhat similar.

But surely you recall how many people you meet who, when asked about an upcoming election, nonchalantly dismiss its importance. When pressed, they can’t remember exactly what year it was the last time they voted. Dismal turnout records bear witness, election year after election year.

So you must acknowledge that humans tend to need a social aspect to something in order to want to participate—if not just straight-up nagging—and your campaign must tap into that need with warlike ferocity.

Remember the core team you put together as you started planning your campaign. You will have been inspiring and coaching them to be your zealous advocates, and this enthusiasm will infect others rather naturally. But you need to help nature in order to see a good harvest. It’s kind of like gardening.

Whichever person is playing the role of volunteer coordinator has a mountain-sized task. The oft-repeated "it’s like herding cats" comes to mind. It would be all too easy to simply amass helpers, adequately train them and set them loose on the district at large. You would see some results.

However, effectiveness depends on the best use of your people and resources. There is homework to be done, in the form of making your team aware of turnout history in each precinct. Study the last three elections. Capitalize on already-primed neighborhoods because these will be your most valuable places to expend effort.

The approach boils down to a single word of advice by Jeff Wilson, executive director of the Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature Foundation: "targeting." It is a difficult word to write for someone whose goal is to broadly increase citizen involvement everywhere. You have to leave that to me and my ilk, and you have to be as calculatingly precise as an eye surgeon.

When it comes to muscle, there’s no need to start from scratch, says Chris Acuff, a doctoral student in political science. He advises taking advantage of built-in networks found in neighborhood associations, community organizations and civic clubs.

"You know those people are already engaged [and] reliable," Acuff says, adding that at-large volunteers "aren’t always dependable." Build a coalition, but beware of factions, jealousies and groups promoting their own interests over your objectives.

Of course, if you are running with political party backing, even in an implicit manner in a nonpartisan election, a support framework of experienced organizers is available. This is one side of the trade-offs discussed earlier in the series. Independent candidates have to scrounge harder, but getting people to commit to getting people to commit to vote is not easy anywhere.

I suppose that, if you have become a powerful persuader, selected the right office, nailed your platform, developed the right team, raked in enough contributions and bewitched the media, you might not need as much emphasis on turning a chaotic gaggle into a sleek turnout machine. But hey, if you’ve gotten that far, you may as well dazzle us voters with your prowess.

So what are you waiting for?

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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