I have been asked this question a few times by different people. The answer varies wildly depending on your situation. Let’s say that you have 3 time frames to decide: 1 year away, 6 months and last minute. Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of each.
There are two important dates you need to consider. The first is “qualifying date” in which the government qualifies you to be a candidate. The next date is the election date when the voters chose who they want to represent them. The difference between the two dates can be two weeks to 3 months or more. Once you announce your candidacy or file papers and they become public, the secret is out. Anyone who wanted to run for that seat will start his or her campaign soon after you do. In addition, if you are running against an incumbent, they will go around to their colleagues and try to get early endorsements.
You should understand that only the people who qualify (meet the requirements for holding that office) before a certain date will have their name on the ballot. You can have your name on the ballot if you meet the rules for being a candidate, pay a fee or collect petitions from residents to get your name on the ballot. For instance, if there are 3 people running for a seat (Candidate A, B, and C) and Candidate A forgot to sign the correct paperwork and Candidate B neglected to submit the proper forms, then Candidate C will be the only name on the ballot that the voters can choose. If candidate A and B still want to run for the seat, their only option is to become a write-in candidate.
So let’s say you are starting your campaign 1 year out, the advantage is that you have time to get your campaign in order. You have time to raise money, get volunteers and get commitments in place for when you will need them. If you are planning to qualify for the ballot by getting petitions signed, you have plenty of time to canvass the neighborhoods in your community. This is a better way to qualify for the ballot because it enables you to talk to potential voters and have a face to face talk about the issues facing the community and you are not trying to pin them down to vote for you.
During petition collection, you should be able to collect signatures from everyone, regardless of party affiliation. So if you are speaking to a voter from a different party, just ask if they believe everyone should have the right to run for office and be on the ballot. Most voters will say yes and sign your petition. Again, this gives you a chance to speak with voters about the issue from a non-partisan position. It gives the voter from the opposite party the chance to see you in a different light without the party label. This will be helpful if they are a persuadable voter. You could take a vote away from your opponent if you make a policy connection with a voter from the opposite party.
The next scenario is if there is about 6 months from Election Day. Your time frames to do certain activities are shortened. I would advise that you one of the 3 pillars of candidacy in abundance that you can leverage to get the other two. I hope that you have positive high name recognition, or you can loan yourself money to jump start your campaign or you are well known in political circles to gain endorsements.
Again, you need to be aware of deadlines that are approaching to qualify as a candidate. Unless you will have a strong grassroots campaign, you should probably pay the fee to qualify. This fee will vary in cost for the office you are seeking. It would be best to start to get used to canvassing neighborhoods by collecting petitions. You will have a short window of time to collect petitions, but if you have done the campaign math (that is the bonus chapter in the book) you can calculate how long it will take you to collect petitions. If you do not have enough time, you will have to pay the fee to qualify to be on the ballot.
If you choose to get in the race at the last minute, you really need to have the 3 pillars of candidacy in your favor. This is a good strategy to use if you are trying to beat an incumbent. The idea is that the incumbent never has a challenger or has lost the touch of campaigning really hard over the years. Therefore, when you jump in the race at the last minute the incumbent will be caught off guard. This means that money sources might be dry for them, since it is late in the elections cycle money often gets donated early on and will be difficult for candidates to raise money late. Volunteers that would normally work for them have committed to other campaigns so they will have less staff support. An incumbent that does not think they will have a challenger will be working on other races to help their party. You challenging them at the last minute will throw everything out of whack.
If you choose the last minute approach, you need to make sure that you can start your campaign off with lots of momentum and energy. You need to catch the incumbent “flat footed” watching you sprint away in fundraising, grassroots community support and some notable organization endorsements.
After looking at those choices, I feel that running for office one year out is best. I am a believer in “slow and steady wins the race.” Examine all the options and factor in time frame of deadlines and cost of fees and whether or not to collect petitions. After that, make the best decision for your campaign that will give you the leverage to win.