How to win a municipal election in 6 (not so easy) steps

We asked five campaign managers and political experts how to get elected. Here's what they had to say.

We asked 5 campaign managers and political experts how to get elected. Here's what they had to say

The municipal election is Oct. 22. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Scores of candidates are eyeing political office for the Oct. 22 municipal election, but only a handful will stand out from the pack.

We asked five experts and successful campaign managers how to win a municipal election. Here's who they are and what they had to say.

Paul Mason: A Dundas-based organizer of NDP campaigns, he's worked on campaigns for Wab Kinew, Wayne Gates, Chris Charlton, Rick Glumac and Deron Bilous, as well as 2014 Hamilton mayoral candidate Brian McHattie.

Aidan Johnson: Hamilton Ward 1 city councillor who isn't running again in October. He won the 2014 election over a slate of five other qualified candidates with the slogan "Ward 1 for everyone."

Joe Fuld: Founder of The Campaign Workshop, a Washington, DC-based political consulting firm. Fuld has served as the northeast political director of the Democratic National Committee, and he's managed 10 Democratic political campaigns across the U.S. He also writes campaign-related blog posts such as 9 Political Campaign Tips.

Chris Cutler: Mayor Fred Eisenberger's campaign manager in 2014, and the current campaign. Also served one term as a Flamborough township councillor.

Kim Wright: Oversees the municipal affairs practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a public relations and communications firm. She is based in Toronto and has more than 25 years of experience with federal, provincial and municipal governments.

Supporters waved signs as Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner, now an MPP, shook hands on James Street North in May. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Have money

In politics, much like the rest of life, money makes it easier to see a way to victory.

"You have to be prepared to spend your own money," Mason said, "as well as put together a team and fundraise."

Money buys signs, advertisements and campaign literature, all necessary for a good campaign, Mason said. "Hamilton is a big sign community."

In 2014, those who had run for mayor estimated it costs about $200,000 to make a good run for the position. Some get away with less. Eisenberger, for example, spent $106,000 in 2014. Much of that money went to signs, ads and campaign material.

Each ward has a different spending limit. In 2014, the Ward 1 spending limit was $23,504.50. Johnson spent $20,215.71, of which $18,819.10 was fundraised. He outspent all but one of his competitors.

Money helps, Johnson said. But he still thinks it's possible for someone who doesn't have deep pockets to win.

"Happily we're still at a point in Hamilton where money is not the be all and end all," he said. "It's mostly about door knocking and hard work."

Fuld agrees. Money is important, but it's not as important as knocking on doors. "Knocking on doors, having personal relationships, building those relationships can get you around that deep money aspect."

Brian McHattie ran for mayor in 2014 and bought a new pair of shoes for all the door knocking and community meetings he was going to attend. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Knock on doors. A lot of doors. All the doors

Winning an election means knocking on doors, and you should do it. A lot.

Nothing can replace the value of "good old fashioned getting out to meet people," said Mason.

"Door after door. That's what candidates need to be doing. I can't stress that enough. You need to physically be out there."

In 2014, Johnson knocked on every door in the ward — some of them twice. It got his name out there, but even more, people shared their questions, concerns and "practical realities" with him.

Cutler and Wright say it's important to attend community events for the same reason.

"Go to every barbecue, every street festival," Wright said. "You have to go where the people are."

Mayoral candidate Fred Eisenberger used a booth at the Rockton World's Fair to promote his campaign in 2014. (Sunnie Huang/CBC)

Don't worry so much about Twitter

Respondents said it's important to have online presence so people can look up who you are and what you believe, and engage with people. But nothing is as important as door knocking.

For mayoral candidates, social media is more important, Cutler says. The city is too big for one team to knock on every door.

"A lot of people do get their news and information from social media, whether it's Twitter or Facebook or Instagram," he said. "It's become their main source of information."

Social media is important, Johnson said, "and I think door knocking is more important."

For that reason, Wright said, social media shouldn't take up too much time. When she sees someone really active on social media, she wonders what part of their campaign they're neglecting. "It's part of it, but it's more air game than it is ground game. Municipal elections are won and lost on the ground game."

Fuld concurs.

"Not everyone is on social media," he said, "but everyone has a door."

Aidan Johnson, third from left, took part in an all-candidates debate for Ward 1 in September 2014 and won the election with the slogan "Ward 1 for Everyone." Jason Allen, second from left, is running again. Sandy Shaw, third from right, ran provincially for the NDP this year and got elected. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Build your name year-round

There's an old saying, Mason says, that elections are won between campaigns. Fortune favours those who stay busy and in the public eye for the four years between elections. And that's definitely the case municipally.

Volunteer, he said. Get involved with neighbourhood associations. This also gives you a base to galvanize for support when the time comes. Winning an election requires mobilizing more than just your family and friends. It also helps you meet big-name citizens who will throw their support behind you.

Keep a database

Wright recommends candidates keep a database of voters they encounter, along with any pressing issues they talk about. Midway through the campaign, approach them again.

"Keep track of who you've met," she said. And keeping track of their concerns helps you recognize trends.

"If there are issues you know are becoming ward-wide issues, you may want to have a policy statement," she said.

You can also use it to circle back to them later in the campaign, and they may help you donations, volunteering or even just a sign on the lawn.

Don't just react, stand for something

Know why you're running, our experts say. Know what you stand for and how to communicate it.

The theme of Eisenberger's 2014 campaign, Cutler said, was "economic development, poverty reduction and prosperity for all." So every time he communicated, he made it about that.

"Every candidate has a path to victory," Cutler said. "It's whether you can find it or not.

"You can't run a reactive campaign. You need to determine what it is that you need to do to win and not run a campaign that reacts to every move of the opponent."

And most importantly, he said, "you have to know what you believe in."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca