Hartley Brody

So You Want to Run for Student Government?

Hartley BrodyI’ve always been interested in student government, especially the delicate task of campaigning among your peers. In most student government elections, the default assumption is that your friends will vote for you, which leads to the common complaint that student government elections are just a big popularity contest.

However, there is often a surprisingly large part of your constituency that isn’t socially affiliated with any of the candidates. Securing votes from these people is essential to winning. The purpose of any campaign is to scoop up as many of these non-affiliated voters as you can.

But how do you connect with these people? There are several major traps I’ve seen people fall into that diminish the effectiveness of their campaigns. Don’t make the same mistakes!

1. Relying on a specific cool factor

You probably know your friends better than you know your average constituents, but your friends already know you. A common trap that candidates fall into is campaigning in a way that their friends think is cool, but that doesn’t reach outside of your existing social circle.

Your friends will support you through your campaign, but you need to make sure you’re listening to new voices. I’ve seen lots of candidates spend tons of time brainstorming with their friends trying to grow their campaign, but then ignoring outsider who have critiques and suggestions. These are the people you’re trying to reach!

Strike up a few conversations with some new people in your classes. Tell them you’re planning a campaign and see if they have any suggestions. Press them a little bit if they seem shy. It’ll help you gain some valuable perspective, and hopefully make a new friend (and vote)!

2. Trying to be all things to all people

The candidacy statement can be a major factor in securing votes from those who are still on the fence. This statement is your 20 second window to reach out and grab a potential voter while they’re browsing through the candidates. It needs to be compelling and it needs to be specific. Yet so many candidacy statements are just plain awful.

Most are peppered with motivational buzz words like leadership, experience, dedication, motivation…! This is a common mistake, since a lot of candidates assume that the voters are trying to learn more about what the candidates are like as people. But in reality, the voters aren’t that deep.

Voters would much rather hear about how you’re going to help them instead of hearing you blabber on about yourself. Identify several pain points that seem to be common among students. Figure out ways to address those, and include realistic goals for tackling those issues.

It’s much more powerful (and much easier) to convince someone that you can help them, rather than convince them to vote for you. This is what you’re shooting for.

3. Running an ineffective poster campaign

Posters campaigns are a great way to get your name in front of a lot of fellow students with minimal effort. But a lot of poster campaigns totally fail.

You’ve probably seen the posters that have several paragraphs of text around a formal-looking picture of the candidate. They somehow manged to fit their entire campaign message – including past experience, current projects and future commitments – onto a sheet of paper. When was the last time you ever saw anyone stop and read one of these?

Since you’ve already developed your campaign message to solve pain points for your constituents, you should make sure that your poster campaign supports these messages.

For example, if one of the things you’re trying to solve is to reduce the amount of waste generated around campus, come up with a few posters that speak to this message. Make them white and green, simple and pure. Maybe include a graphic or symbol that relates to your message. For the text, only include a tag line, your name and – if necessary – the position you’re running for.

The goal is to make it very simple for a passerby to associate that message with your name. Then, when they go to vote, hopefully they’ll see your name on the ballot, remember all of those quick little messages they’ve seen around campus, and decide that you’re the one for the job.

If you don’t know how to use photoshop, find someone who does. But don’t go crazy with the artistic side of the poster either. The point is to convey a simple message quickly, not to sit in an art museum.

4. Not allowing voters to find you

As much as you want to go out there an push your message onto voters, the most valuable people you want to reach are the people that are looking for you. For businesses and public office, a well-optimized campaign website is a MUST, but for student government elections, a social media presence should suffice.

My recommendation is to make an event on facebook, since it has built in reminders (“Vote for xxx!”). Avoid the natural tendency to be spammy and tell people to VOTE VOTE VOTE!! Instead, use your social media presence to echo your campaign messages and convince people that they need you in office, instead of insisting that they should vote for you.

Remember, you’re thinking about votes, but your constituents are only interested if they think you can help them. By reaching out to gain new perspective, coming up with a clear and compelling campaign message, and promoting your message effectively through posters and social media, you’ll be able to snag a lot of undecided voters and do much better at the polls.

What are some campaign tactics you’ve seen?