Running for office for the first time is hard.
You have to get up to speed on the issues affecting your constituents, run a campaign, raise money and try to stay sane. If you are battling an incumbent, they will have a big advantages: more money, existing support, and more experience campaigning.
Incumbents have another significant advantage over a first-time candidates: first-hand experience with job and policy issues. They will know the details of the city budget, they will understand how the country and state work together on road maintenance, they will understand how police are trained, etc. Regardless of your current involvement in policy, you are not going to have the breadth or depth of experience in the issues of the office you are seeking.
A candidate could spend lots of time researching and talking with people about the issues to thoroughly educate themselves. That seems reasonable, but is a big big mistake. Frankly, new candidates need to be focused on raising money, going to events that will provide good exposure, and asking for votes. Unfortunately, too many candidates get sucked into a policy wonk black hole and neglect dialing for dollars (sorry, but you have to do it if you want to be competitive) and door to door campaigning.
A candidate could always admit that they don’t have the knowledge or experience on a particular issue when asked. That may seem like a fresh and honest way to present yourself (I’m not just another bullshitting politician). This might be OK to do once, but I’d recommend avoiding it if possible. By saying that you don’t know, you will be putting the idea in voters heads that you are new and inexperienced. And if you stumble later, you will just confirm that this perception (aka a confirmation bias).
Instead, I recommend that a candidate learn 10 things about 10 things. That is, take the 10 biggest category of issues affecting your constituents and then try to have at least 10 things (concepts, facts, or ideas) that you know solidly about each one of those issues. It really is not that hard. You probably can list a lot of things right off the top of your head. This list will give you 100 things that you can talk about. If 10 things about 10 things seems like too much, then start smaller (5 things about 5 things).
Armed with your list of things that you do know, you can then answer about any question by relating your answer to one of your things.
Asked about lack of funding for sewer repairs in your fair city but know nothing about the issue or the sewer department? But one of your 10 things is the city budget, and you know that revenue is decreasing due to dwindling sales tax. So talk about the dire need to fix the city’s revenue issues so that other parts of the city infrastructure don't’ end up going down the toilet. Afterwards, ask one of your campaign volunteers to find out more about the sewer issues so you’ll know the exact details next time.
Or if there is an issue that is not as easy to tie to something that you know about, you can simply say “That is a great question, but the bigger issue that we are facing is……” and divert back to one of your things.
This keeps your initial research load lite while you focus on being a candidate, and you can let questions you receive to lead you to new areas of research.
There will be plenty of time to be a policy wonk ONCE you get elected.
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