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How to Run for Office

Former New Hampshire Governor John Lynch shares his advice about running for elected office.

Since mid-2013, John Lynch has served as a clinical professor at Tuck and faculty for the Center for Business, Government & Society.

He’s known to students as their animated, collegial teacher in the course The CEO Experience. But he’s much more well known for the job he held just before he came to Tuck. From 2005 to 2013, Lynch was the governor of New Hampshire and arguably the most popular governor in the state’s long history, having been elected a historic four consecutive times.

Clearly, Lynch made the right choice to run for office. Occasionally, Lynch has gathered Tuck students and alumni together to explain the decision-making process that led him to launch his first campaign for governor (and first political campaign, period) in 2004. In order to do that, Lynch had to cast his mind back to that segment of his life, which turned out to be something of a transition.

From 1994 to 2001, Lynch was the CEO of Knoll, Inc., a national furniture maker which he helped turn around and take public. After that, he coached a U.S. Junior Olympic Softball team and served as the chairman of the board of trustees of the University System of New Hampshire. And he complained often to his family about then-governor of New Hampshire, whom Lynch accused of creating a “culture of corruption” and cronyism at the State House. Lynch sensed he could do a much better job, but struggled to decide to run. Ultimately, it was his family who convinced him to give it a try, which is rare in politics. “They said to me, ‘stop complaining and do something about it,’” Lynch recalls.

There are people who run for governor because they think it’s a prestigious job. Well, it’s five percent prestige and 95 percent just sweating it out and making decisions.

For Lynch, deciding to run for governor was akin to standing at the edge of a cliff and jumping off, hoping that he made the landing. He didn’t take the leap lightly. While his family encouraged him to jump, he had done a lot of hard thinking before launching himself into the contest. When he explains that thought process to students and alumni, he begins by asking everyone in the audience to close their eyes and think about running for governor, and then he asks them to raise their hands if they are nervous. If someone doesn’t raise her or his hand, he tells them to close their eyes again and think some more. “Running for elected office can be nerve-wracking, daunting, and scary,” Lynch tells them.

With that out of the way, Lynch goes on to share a few key considerations to make before running for office.

Do you really want the job?

In order to answer this question, you have to do enough due diligence to get a good understanding of what it’s like to be governor. The first thing to know is that the governor is surrounded by people all the time. “It’s like a tsunami of people coming at you,” Lynch says, “and every night you’re at three different events, and frequently on Saturdays and Sundays, and you’re on call 24/7. If you don’t like people, you shouldn’t run for governor. There are people who run for governor because they think it’s a prestigious job. Well, it’s five percent prestige and 95 percent just sweating it out and making decisions.”

Why do you want the job?

Running for office is like applying for a job, and the job interviews are constant, in the form of debates, media interviews, stump speeches, and casual conversations with voters. Like any good candidate for a job, you need a clear message about why you want it. A famous example of what not to do is Ted Kennedy’s interview with Roger Mudd prior to his unsuccessful 1980 presidential campaign. Mudd asked Kennedy why he wanted to be president, and Kennedy gave a vague and stuttering longwinded answer about the dynamism of the United States.

Can you assemble the team?

A gubernatorial candidate needs a lot of support from his team to reach and persuade voters. The short list contains a campaign manager, fundraiser, press secretary, policy expert, field organizer, scheduler, and driver.

“You need a good campaign manager who knows the endgame,” Lynch says, “or where he or she wants to be at the end of the campaign. In the last few weeks of the campaign, it’s so important to have momentum. It can swing the election by 10 or more points. A good campaign manager knows how to build momentum.”

In the last few weeks of the campaign, it’s so important to have momentum. It can swing the election by 10 or more points. A good campaign manager knows how to build momentum.

Lynch found his team through his deep roots in New Hampshire, where he has lived since 1970. His campaign manager had run previous campaigns since 1984, and had served as a chief of staff to a previous governor.

Can you raise the money?

Lynch’s first campaign for the New Hampshire governor’s seat cost millions. That’s a lot of money, but in the national context it’s small change. Running for governor of California will run you $200 million. A campaign for a U.S. Senate seat costs $100 million. A presidential campaign, meanwhile, tops $1 billion.

Lynch raised his campaign finances by contributing his own money and getting donations from friends and family, past donors to Democratic and Republican candidates, and third-party organizations such as the Democratic Governors Association.

It’s harder than it sounds. Lynch had to do “call time,” four hour stretches of sitting in a room and calling potential donors to ask for money. “I hated that part,” Lynch says. “I did everything I could to get out of it.”

Can you deal with the media?

If you want to run for office, you need to be comfortable interacting with the media. “It’s a learned skill,” Lynch says. “It’s not something that most people are good at naturally.” Lynch was a CEO before he ran for governor, but that didn’t automatically endow him with media skills. In fact, many CEOs delegate media appearances to their PR team. But Lynch gained confidence from his experience talking to stock analysts during the quarterly earnings phone calls for Knoll, and from interacting with the media and the legislature while he was on the board of trustees for the University System of New Hampshire. 

Lynch teaches one of the most popular courses at Tuck, The CEO Experience.

As a candidate, Lynch received media training from his PR team, and he rehearsed answers to common questions. Still, sometimes a reporter would put a microphone in front of him and ask a question he didn’t know the answer to. “You just do the best you can,” he says. “Sometimes you say you just don’t know. Sometimes you can answer the question you want to answer. You can also elevate the question to a higher level, which makes the answer a little easier.”

Market Research

Just as in the private sector, where companies do market research about their products and their competitors’ products, candidates for public office also research their market. Mostly through phone polls, Lynch’s campaign researched questions such as name recognition, priority of issues, messaging, and favorability. “This allows you to see which messages resonate more with the voters, and you use that information in the development of your speeches and television advertising,” Lynch explains.

Position on Issues

There are hundreds of public policy issues, and as a candidate you need to have an informed opinion about each one. With help from his policy expert, Lynch studied the relevant issues so he knew enough to answer questions from the public and the media.

Can You Get the Votes?

A candidate determines how many votes she needs to get elected by looking at the trends of the previous 10 elections. Say you need 350,000 votes to win. Where are they going to come from? You divide the state into towns, wards and precincts and set vote targets for each one. Then you get city, town and ward organizers to get the word out, identify people who will vote for you, and get those people to the polls. “It’s a huge organizational effort,” Lynch says, “which is why a good field manager is crucial. They recruit the organizers and the volunteers on the ground.”

Segmenting the Market

Most politicians segment the voting market in predictable ways: Democrat (left, middle), Independent, and Republican (moderate, conservative). Then they zero-in on their base: the people most likely to vote for them. “The pundits say, You’ve got to protect your base,’” Lynch says.

I was never a partisan Democrat. I cared about people on their own level, not where they fell on the political spectrum.

But Lynch didn’t think only of his market that way. He segmented his market as the citizens would define themselves: police officers, fire fighters, teachers, children, veterans, business people, and the elderly, among others.

“I liked this way better because it reflects who I am,” Lynch says. “I was never a partisan Democrat. I cared about people on their own level, not where they fell on the political spectrum.”

What to do on Election Night

By this point, most of the work is done. Lynch wouldn’t take it easy, however. He stayed out shaking hands at the polls until they closed around 8:00 p.m. He would usually go to a friend’s house to wait for the results. That’s when a candidate starts contemplating a tough question: What if I lose? In Lynch’s first election, he had a comfortable lead for most of the day, but the margin began shrinking in the afternoon. That’s bad for a Democrat in New Hampshire, because votes from the conservative small towns are reported last. At one point, the margin was down to 15,000 votes. “I was very anxious,” Lynch says. “My wife tried to console me by saying we did the best we could.”

Lynch never lost an election, so he didn’t have to deal with failure on the public stage. But it’s a good idea for a candidate to prepare herself or himself for the possibility. “You put your heart and soul and money into it, and you either win or lose,” Lynch says. “It’s a tough game.”

That All Said…

“Being governor is a great job,” Lynch relates. “The governor has an enormous ability to make a real and positive difference in the lives of so many people. So, if that is something that motivates you, go for it!”

Governor Lynch welcomes inquiries and feedback. He can be reached at john.h.lynch@tuck.dartmouth.edu