Many people who have never participated in any kind of political campaign think participating is less to be excited about than scheduling a root canal. For those who have volunteered or worked for a campaign, the experience is quite different. It is energizing to be around people who are excited about issues, public policy, and—of course—a candidate for elected office. Being a part of a campaign means being on the front lines of learning voter turnout strategies, collaboration techniques, and cooperation skills. It means the fun and stories to share with others years later. It is an experience that provides new perspective to politics. For a citizen lobbyist, there are two specific reasons and ways to get involved in political campaigns and, depending on your goals, one or the other will be more helpful to you and your issue.
If you are lobbying for an issue that is relatively unknown or the candidate for the office(s) in the current election have not gone on the record about, it is often a good strategy to get these candidates to answer a question about your issue. You can go about this indirectly through a questionnaire that you send to candidates. Many state and national organizations have done this and continue to send such surveys to candidates to get an overall picture of the candidates’ views on particular issues. However, there is no guarantee the candidates will answer the particular question or even return your survey.
Candidates for every elected office usually host some kind of public forum where the public is allowed to ask questions. These can be chats at a local restaurant or formal questions-and-answer sessions. Be prepared with several questions about your issue and don’t be afraid to be the first person to ask a question. You don’t know how long the candidate will take questions or when something will happen to end the session. If you can, take a friend to record you asking the question and the candidate’s answer. You can do it yourself, but engaging the candidate and paying attention to the answer should be your focus. Also, the reaction of the rest of the audience may be interesting—and sometimes even better than the candidate’s response, so be sure if your friend is recording that he or she pays attention to those around you both.
If you get video that is best because it will show the whole scene. No matter how the candidate answers—good, bad, ugly—you will have a record and can use it to gain attention to your issue. This has worked numerous times for groups and persons advocating issues that might not otherwise have gotten attention. YouTube and other video-sharing sites are great tools for spreading the words of political candidates after you get them to talk about your issue. Many national and federal public officials begin their careers in local and state offices so reaching these officials when they are at a more local level when a citizen lobbyist has easier access and when these officials are less likely to be concerned about the future consequences of being honest about how they feel about your issue are fantastic reasons to get local and state public officials on the record about your issue as soon as you can.
Of course, sometimes there is no question about where a candidate or incumbent sits on an issue. If one candidate would clearly be better in an elected office than one or more other candidates, then it is a great option for a citizen lobbyist to actually volunteer or work for a campaign of such a candidate. There are a dozen ways to assist in a campaign—and each campaign will have different needs. As a citizen lobbyist, keep the following goals in mind. First, you want people in the campaign to know why you are volunteering for the campaign—that you believe this candidate will be good for your issue and that you support this issue. Second, you want to become acquainted with the people who are most involved with the campaign and you want them to know you. These are the folks who will likely become staff if your candidate wins and you will want them to know you were a dedicated worker/volunteer during the campaign—and why you worked so hard. Third, even if the candidate loses, many of the campaign workers and staff will go on to work in politics, public policy, or other campaigns, or be candidates themselves. This kind of networking is invaluable. You want to know them and you want them to know you.