New to the Ballot: A Primer for First-Time Candidates

Recently, Grassroots Midwest’s Chairman, Dan McMaster, talked about the importance of serving your community as an elected official. In each of us is a potential leader.

We’ve had the opportunity to meet with many prospective political candidates, and some of our favorite meetings are with those passionate, promising individuals who are just starting to get more involved in their community. While the road to success isn’t typical for any two people, there are a few serious considerations of which novice candidates should be particularly mindful. Let’s address the most major:

Your Objective

No matter the candidate, it is most difficult to aim for the top seats first. It’s not impossible to step into a state House or Senate seat with no prior public service, but — especially for younger candidates — starting your service on a school board, city council, or similar local body is often the wiser choice for honing your political playbook. It puts you more in tune with your community, helps you build local connections and support, and is a natural stepping stone to higher office, giving you the time to invest in a long-term plan.

Your Experience

The electorate may sometimes favor an outsider over someone with a history of public service, but not often. Experience is still something a lot voters are looking for, so it is important that a first time candidate has a personal story that establishes and continuously underscores what you’re trying to portray. At younger ages, this translates to civic involvement, volunteer work, internships and, ideally, a few years in a job related to public service or local business.

Your Community

How you fit into your community is a major factor sometimes overlooked by ambitious rookie candidates. How does your story, persona, and vision represent the community you seek to serve? Even if you’re a bit of an outsider, it’s critical to understand the perspectives of the constituents, and even better to relate to them. Get involved and get to know your community.

Your Opponent

Elections are about contrasts. Knowing who you’d be running against is just about the most accessible information that could make or break your chances at a victory. Their history, accomplishments, voter support, resources, and reputation have to be weighed realistically against your own.

Slings are frowned upon in modern politics.

Your Funding

Knowing how to ask for money is more important than having it. Start with friends and family. Familiarize yourself with campaign finance records (usually available online) for comparable past races. These can be a great benchmark for the amount of money you need to raise. Make calls. Hold events. Whether it be a large donation or an in-kind service or a vote, your only hope of getting it is to ask for it.


Running for political office is exciting, but it’s a serious decision. Be mindful of the obstacles and make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into.

If you’re ready for the challenge, or just want some advice on how to get started, we’re happy to chat.

About the author: Steve Heikkinen serves as the Communications and Marketing Strategist for Grassroots Midwest, Michigan’s only bipartisan political advocacy firm.