Monday, February 12, 2007

For Lincoln's birthday:
So you want to get elected?

Copies of letters that Abraham Lincoln sent to a great-great grandfather and a great grandfather have come down to me. In the summer of 1860 the future president wrote, in part:

Springfield, Ill.
Sep. 13, 1860
My Dear Sir.
Your short letter, with the newspaper containing your excellent speech at Rochester, was duly received, and for which I thank you sincerely. ...
Yours very truly,
A. Lincoln

Springfield, Ill.
July 29, 1860
My Dear Sir,
Yours of the 21st was duly received and I thank you sincerely for the information it contains. Some of our friends here are a little anxious about the attempted fusion of all opposition to us in New York, but I suppose our friends there, including yourself, will take care of that matter.
Please let me hear from you frequently,
Yours very truly,
A. Lincoln
Understand, Lincoln was campaigning. In those days before not only television, but also telephones, he was doing exactly what any candidate for office still must do: he was coddling, cajoling, cheering, and thanking his friends who acted as his agents in spreading his message and organizing his voters. That summer before he was elected, he wrote 1000s of those letters.

Recently I was approached as I sometimes am about whether I think a particular individual might be able to win a local election. I asked three questions.
  • 1. Was the potential candidate gripped by an almost fanatical belief that (s)he was the person for the job? Nobody should declare candidacy who isn't certain (s)he wants to win. Running for office is disruptive of normal life, painful, enormously demanding -- you shouldn't enter that arena unless you really choose to take on the task of winning with a whole heart.
  • 2. Can the potential candidate list, on paper, 75 people who will somehow work to get her/him elected, whether by donating money or labor? I think I first got this test from the section on candidate recruitment in Women for a Change: A Grassroots Guide to Activism and Politics though I can't find my copy today to be sure. The test makes sense; the number 75 is larger than most people's immediate family and friends, enough to reach into the broader circle of acquaintances who are representative of the voters, yet not so huge as to be impossible for someone who reaches out to people.
  • 3. Is the potential candidate willing to do the outreach, whether by fundraising, by going door to door, and by attending odious function after boring dinner, by turning my of their life over to campaign staff, to get elected? Campaigning is a grind, but in whatever form suits your election, you have to do it if you are serious.
Lincoln did that work. Will you, potential candidate?

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