So, you still think you are interested in running for Congress, even after you read my previous essays? Great! I truly do believe we need good people, from all political perspectives, to become involved in the process of governance. And the more we can avoid the demonization of whatever seems to us to be the “other side” the better.
What can we learn from this? First the good news – in my experience as a political science professor at USAFA, a candidate, as a county party chair, and as a staffer for a US Senator, I have come to the firm conclusion that the vast majority of people involved in politics (on both sides of the aisle) are, in fact, good and honorable folks, trying to do what they think is in the best interests of the people of Colorado and the United States. There is tremendous cynicism today, and lots and lots of people think all politicians are crooks and/or idiots. But I can testify from my own experience that it is just the opposite. Don’t believe me? Run for office and see for yourself!
But now the bad news – regardless of how smart, honest, capable, and motivated you are when you run for office, without the needed level of funding, you are stuck in the mud. My last essay talked about money being the most important factor in a competitive campaign. There were a number of comments posted disputing that assertion – many of the comments insisted that things like character, honesty, issue positions, and such were all more important than money. I truly wish that was true, but the simple fact is that without the money needed to get your message out to the voters – that you are a person of good character, honest, with good issue positions – the quality of your integrity, your sense of honor, and your smart views – don’t matter at all. Brilliant candidates you’ve never heard of don’t get elected.
So let’s talk about the most important way that most candidates raise money for congressional campaigns – the candidate asks for it. If you are of a certain age, that phrase, “dialing for dollars,” is something you associated with your local TV station’s afternoon movie break, wherein the host would dial up some local person to ask if they knew the secret word. In politics, Dialing for Dollars means something different, though there is still a secret word you are hoping to hear – Yes!
It is a humbling experience to sit as a congressional candidate in a little room, with a phone and a call list, while a campaign whirls around you. But your job, and it is a job that no one else can do for you, is to pick up that phone and start asking for donations. So, who do you call and what do you say? There are a few tricks of the trade.
Think of the calls you are going to make as a series of ever-widening concentric circles of names. You start with what could be called your Christmas Card List. This innermost circle is made up of your family and friends. In theory, these are the folks who know you best, and should be your strongest supporters. So you call all of them. But assuming your last name isn’t Gates or Buffett, that list won’t raise enough money for the campaign.
So who do you call next? This is a major problem for many nascent campaigns, which is why (as I mentioned in a previous essay) serious campaigns need to hire a professional money person. Broadly speaking, the candidate needs to consider what groups of possible donors he or she might plumb. A logical first step is to go where there are people whom you can reasonably assume are likely friendly to your cause. Democratic candidates in Colorado will head for Boulder and Denver, making calls and getting meetings with political clubs and such. Republican candidates will take aim at GOP associations in Colorado Springs. Dems will reach out to labor unions, while their opponents will seek out business groups and such. And note: smart candidates will find ways to cross those lines as much as possible. You call the known party leaders that you hope will support you, and you always, always, always ask them whom they think you should call next. You call hours every day. In my own case, I ended up calling up to 8 hours every day. The goal was 100 calls per day. We’d send out 100 letters per day, with information about my campaign, and then three days later, I’d call those same 100 people. And then repeat, every day, forever (it seemed).
Helpful hint for perspective candidates: buy yourself a nice telephone headset and a comfy chair. And get ready to hear every possible voicemail message. There are the cute (“My mommy and daddy aren’t here right now”) and there are the direct (“leave a message”). There are the helpful (“I’ll be away from my phone until Wednesday”) and there are the cryptic (“If this is John, you know what you did”). I’d say that you get a machine, rather than a person, about 80 percent of the time. And you learn little tricks of the trade. My first campaign website was bidlack2008.com. After a few hundred voice mails wherein I had to spell out that site, I bought “votehal.com” and used that for the remainder of the campaign.
When you do get a real live person on the phone, the real work begins. You know how much you like getting those phone calls asking for money? Yeah, me too. But you are, hopefully, calling people who are at least somewhat likely to support your campaign. So you remind them of the letter you sent, about the clever information therein, and then you ask them to support the campaign with a donation. If they haven’t hung up on you by this point, you have a shot. I’d guess that I’d get a single donation for every 40-50 calls I made. Yup, that’s a pretty low batting average.
And there are some seriously angry people out there. On a single day in the campaign, I had one person I called say that they would have donated to my campaign, but because I bothered him at his work number, no donation. About an hour later, I had a similar experience, but this person said they would have donated, but because I called them at home, no dice. So, you can’t really win.
When I first started my dialing for dollars, my money person told me not to spend more than 3-4 hours per day on the phone. It was, he said, so hard, so stressful, so exhausting, that if you did more than that, you’d have problems. But we were not raising enough money with those few hours, so, as I noted before, I bumped it up to 8 hours. And it was hard, stressful, and exhausting. But ultimately, all the good things you want to do – reach out to people, hear their problems, think about solutions – simply can’t be done unless you raise the money you need to let the voters know you exist, and to do that, you need money.
So, get ready, future candidates, for hours on the phone that will challenge your sense of who you are, and what you want to become. Or, be rich. If you can choose, be rich and self-fund your campaign. But if not, the phrase dialing for dollars will forever become something very close to your soul. I can still hear some of the answering machines. I can still quote some of the angry folks, and I have permanently become a much, much faster phone dialer. Who knows? Maybe you’ll hear the secret word.
(This essay first appeared on ColoradoPolitics.com)
 Times have changed dramatically from the days when, as a former governor once told me, you could call a half dozen of your rich friends, ask them for $100,000 each, and be done with fundraising. FEC limits, to say nothing of the lack of billionaire friends for most folks, make this old system of fundraising not only outdated, but also illegal.