by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Being a candidate for elected office is like being a fish in a fishbowl. Everyone is looking at you from all sides, and danger lurks in the deep. As one candidate recently told me, “It is a heck of a lot different being inside the fishbowl looking out than being outside looking in.”

As a biologist by trade, I have been carefully observing the natural history of candidates and campaigns, and I want to share what I have learned about how some of them make it from small-fry candidate to big-fish officeholder.

One of the first things a fingerling candidate must do is figure out who the kingmakers are in the community and their party. The candidate must try to woo as many of these people as possible. Acting behind the scenes, these folks work tirelessly to get their candidates elected. Getting their endorsement and help is a great asset. You can swim on without them, but others will be more eager to help you if they see one or more of these folks are on your campaign committee, are acting as your treasurer or are cooking hot dogs at your fundraiser.

Next, a candidate must make a choice about hiring a campaign consultant. In the age of mass media, most candidates simply can’t get by without professional help. You can tell which candidates have not hired a consultant – their campaign materials look like children made them, which is often the case.

Not that I am against child labor, but today’s campaigns are more like marketing campaigns, and most candidates need help to develop a clear message. The options range from traditional ad agencies and graphic artists with a political bent to full-time political consultants – bottom feeders who can win elections but rarely consider what is right or wrong.

Fundraising allows the small candidate to grow and swim faster. Candidates running for an office that is “down ticket” – county dogcatcher, for example – need to develop some fundraising skills quickly. The candidate can only tap his friends for so much, and there is a group of “usual suspects” invited to everyone’s fundraiser. These folks can quickly develop a bad case of fundraising fatigue, and if the candidate has waited until June to start raising money, he is one dead fishy.

Then the candidate must solve one of the most complex mathematical and geographical questions ever devised: Where to place yard signs? Some seem to use a random number generator to distribute signs; others use mapping programs and databases to select the best sites.

Still others develop a specific technique and stick to it: find as many people as you can who live at intersections and put two signs – one for each road – on their lots. The danger here is greater than you might think – some people will vote against a candidate because they see a yard sign on a particular person’s property.

Then comes the Tribune interview. Each candidate gets his or her audience with Hank Waters, Jim Robertson and some other sharks at the Tribune. In a low-turnout primary or spring election, the Tribune endorsement can mean the difference between winning and losing. Candidates who blow this interview might be found floating belly up on the side of the fish bowl.

Last, the candidate must decide where to have the election night party. If a candidate is considering having it at her own house, she probably knows, consciously or unconsciously, that she is not going to win. These “parties” are more like death watches: “Surrounded by family and friends in the comfort of his own home, the guppy campaign came to a dignified end when the county clerk announced all precincts had reported at 8:25 p.m. A memorial will be held on Sunday.”

From outside the fishbowl, each election looks similar. A number of our fellow citizens jump into the bowl and submit themselves for our inspection.

Being reasonable people, we simply elect the best fish. That is the ideal, but not reality.

Perhaps someday there will be a better way to grow mature officeholders from candidate fingerlings, but for now we should all be grateful that so many good people in Boone County have jumped into the bowl.