The Psychology of Running for Office
Inside the mind of a political candidate.
Posted November 5, 2018
Why I Ran for Office
It started with a call from my friend Deb on a Friday night. This was a few months after Trump had won the presidential election of 2016. Along with several other members of our community in the Hudson Valley, Deb and I have been working intensely to try to raise political awareness and to help fight for positive change. Whether people agree with our politics or not, that’s what we are trying to do!
So Deb calls me and says this: “I got a position for you to run for.”
Hmm. I wasn’t really sure that I’d ever want to run for office. It sounded like kind of a big deal. But, of course, as someone who is fighting for positive change, I immediately saw that running for office has got to be one of the top ways to actually bring change about. I asked a few questions.
The position was for Ulster County Legislator. Apparently, the 10-year incumbent, who lives in my district, was set to run unopposed. And he and I have dramatically different views of what we all need to do to help advance things for the people in our county (and in our nation). And no one was slated to run as a Democrat against this incumbent.
As it happened, I was set to take a sabbatical for the fall when the election would take place. This sabbatical would afford me more flexibility in my schedule than I usually have. Hmm. OK, I agreed to do it!
I knew what I was getting into. Partly... I was set to run as a progressive Democrat in a predominantly conservative district in Plattekill, NY (while my address is actually New Paltz, our residence is officially in the Town of Plattekill). I was hoping for huge voter turnout on the part of the Democrats in the region to carry me across the finish line. I was hoping for the “Blue Wave.” Well, it turns out that the wave didn’t exactly emerge. I ended up losing in what was an incredibly high-energy and contested race.
I learned a lot, I met a ton of interesting people, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
This process led me to learn an awful lot about the nature of electoral politics in the US and about the psychology that surrounds being a political candidate. This post reveals some of the lessons learned.
Watch What you Post and Say
At some point during the campaign, the news story broke about the Las Vegas shooting. That guy had purchased semi-automatic weapons legally and then he destroyed the lives of dozens of people and families. Right here in the United States! As someone with strong opinions on the causes of gun violence in our nation, I was mad.
And I post a lot of things on Facebook. Here is what I posted that day:
As you can see, I set the privacy to “public.” That was intentional. When I feel very strongly about something, I think it is important to not shy away from speaking my mind on the topic.
So I got a Facebook message about two minutes after I posted this. It came from one of the top Democratic strategists in our area. A super-bright guy and a good friend. He essentially said that while he agreed with my statement, he thought it might not be wise to take such a strong anti-gun stance so publicly given that I was trying to get elected in what is a traditionally conservative district. I responded, politely enough, saying that I didn’t care. That speaking my mind on important issues is a foundational part of who I am and what my candidacy is about. He essentially said, “Fair enough—but expect some fallout.”
He was totally right, by the way—there was fallout. Someone in the district (whom I had never met personally but was friends with on Facebook) saw my post. Up to that point, this person had seemed supportive of my candidacy. She responded very negatively and strongly to my post, writing a comment suggesting that I had somehow betrayed her trust. I was not expecting that. Further, a few weeks later, she wrote a negative letter to the editor of the local paper about my candidacy. That kind of stung.
I still stand by my stance and my forthright, public approach to speaking out on issues. But I will say that if you ever run for office, you might want to think about this anecdote.
Lesson Learned: When you are running for office, pretty much everything that you do is under extraordinary scrutiny. I’m not saying to not stand up for what you believe in. I’m saying that when you do so, given how much disagreement there is on political and social issues, be ready for some fallout.
Energy Focusing on Your Opponent
There are essentially two approaches to campaigning. Steps that you (or others) take to elevate your case (positive campaigning) and steps that you (or others) take to bring down your opponent (negative campaigning). Nearly everyone starts out saying that his or her campaign will consist entirely of positive campaigning. That certainly was the approach that I took.
Until the situation…
If you ever run for office, I promise that you will run into all kinds of situations. On-the-spot fires that hit you out of left field. Sometimes like a ton of bricks. Without getting into too many of the details, let’s just say that during the campaign, my opponent did something very sneaky in an effort to obtain an additional line on the ballot. When I investigated what he had done and how he had done it, I was really mad!
At that point, I sort of had two choices. I could have just ignored it and moved forward. Or I could have addressed it.
I addressed it. I could not help it. And, as history has it, I did not really address it effectively—so, looking back now, I think I should have just left it alone.
For the first time in my life (and hopefully the last), I actually initiated a lawsuit. I am pretty convinced that I would have won the lawsuit and that my opponent would not have gotten that extra line on the ballot. But due to a host of reasons, I decided to let the lawsuit go midstream. Honestly, it was going to be too much of a hassle and too much money.
I had this idea that I would bring the story of what happened to local papers and they’d cover it and expose my opponent’s actions. Only one paper covered the story. And the article was deeply nuanced—I, myself, honestly wasn’t able to fully understand what my opponent had done based on that article, in fact. And no one else covered it at all.
I put a lot of mental energy into this whole debacle, for absolutely no benefit to my campaign.
Lesson Learned: As much as you can, make your campaign all about advancing your own candidacy and not about tearing down your opponent. This can be difficult to do depending on the situation. But at the end of the day, it really is best practice. My efforts to focus part of my energies against my opponent led to no gains whatsoever.
Advancing Oneself Versus Advancing the Community
There is a really strange psychological dynamic when it comes to the electoral process. On one hand, a candidate is just that—a candidate, someone who needs to win an election in order to emerge as an elected official. So being a candidate necessarily includes all kinds of activities that focus on advancing oneself. Like it or not, that is embedded in the process.
This fact cuts strongly against an important feature of our evolved social psychology. Generally speaking, we don’t really like others who are selfish, egotistical, self-promotional, or narcissistic (see Geher, Di Santo, & Planke, 2019). And there are good evolutionary reasons for this fact. People tend to gravitate toward others who are relatively community-focused or other-oriented.
Being a candidate puts one in a pickle. On one hand, you literally have to be focused on advancing your own name and your own brand. You have to win the election!
On the other hand, you need to convince others that you truly are an other-oriented, community-focused individual. Someone who truly cares about the welfare of others.
This psychological conundrum is one of the places where our democracy is kind of broken, I think. We have a system for electing official in place that encourages a self-promotional set of behaviors (campaigning) for people who will hold positions of leadership that are, inherently, all about working for the broader community and the greater good. That’s a tough one to dance around.
At some point, I had learned that a few people whom I considered friends early in the process cooled off toward my candidacy. I heard, indirectly, that they thought that my campaign was too aggressive and that it seemed, to them, to be all about me. Yeah, you can imagine that this kind of stung. My guess is that this is a somewhat common issue given the fact that our electoral process promotes self-promotion in campaigning while it promotes other-oriented actions at the stage of being an elected official.
Lesson Learned: Hey, if you’re running for office, odds are that you truly care about making things better. Odds are that a large part of you wants to be part of the solution to the problems that exist in our world. The system for getting elected, however, pretty much requires self-promotion. Balancing these facts effectively is a critical part of effective campaigning.
A Note of Appreciation to the Candidates in Tomorrow’s Election
While I have my own political biases, as we all do, I will say that I am always impressed with someone who goes out of his or her way to run for office. Maybe I’m optimistic, but I truly believe that the lion’s share of people who run for office have good intentions. I believe that the majority of candidates for all kinds of elected positions want positive change for the greater good and that they want to be part of the solution.
So, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, or anything in between, if you are currently running for office and are up for election tomorrow (11/6/2018), I say: Thank you for your effort. It takes a ton of time. It takes a ton of money. And I know that you’ve run into all kinds of situations which are not always pleasant. I thank you for your efforts and wish you the best on Election Day and moving forward.
A Note to Citizens
I wrote this piece partly because most people don’t know much about the psychology that goes into running a campaign. It is a bear of an experience and each candidate for public office, whether you agree with that person or not, is someone who is going above and beyond in an effort to help effect change. And this fact is just another reason that exercising your right to vote is essential if you are interested in helping make this world a better place.
Below is another Facebook post that I wrote. This one is about revolutionary war heroes James and Hannah Caldwell, both of whom died at the hands of British soldiers so that we would have the right to elect officials today.
Want to help make for a better future? Step number one is to vote at each and every opportunity.
Running for office is a beast of an experience. It takes a ton of time and resources. And you will find yourself in all kinds of difficult situations. And you might lose a friend or two along the way. It is definitely not all peaches and cream!
This said, I say that we should have the highest respect for those who stand up and run for office. The lion’s share of these individuals are looking to make positive change on behalf of all of us—whether we agree with their positions or not.
If you don’t like the way things are going in this country, step number one is to vote at each and every opportunity. And don’t be afraid to consider step number two: running for elected office at some point as well. The experience is one-of-a-kind—and, who knows, you might just win and end up in a position where you can really shape our future in a positive way.
Thank you to all of the candidates who are putting themselves out there on behalf of our nation’s future.
Election Day 2018 is tomorrow, Tuesday, 11/6/2018.
See you at the polls!
DEDICATION: This post is dedicated to my friends, Antonio Delgado, Juan Figueroa, and Jen Metzger, who have been putting their everything into running for office here in our part of upstate New York. To say that you all have been inspiring would be an understatement. Thank you for your service! Stay the course!
Geher, G., Di Santo, J., & Planke, J. (2019). Social reputation. In T. Shackelford (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Science. New York: Springer.