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The Top 3 Reasons Why First-Time Candidates Lose

I’ve got some bad news for you. Most first-time candidates lose.

According to Open Secrets, in every congressional election since 1964, no fewer than 85% of incumbents were re-elected to their seats. Most years, the reelection rate is well over 90%. The trend holds true up and down the ballot. It’s not impossible to win as a political novice, but it is also not easy.

If you’re considering a run for office, one of the best things you can do is understand the reasons why first-time candidates lose. Simply knowing the reasons won’t magically mean you won’t fall prey to them, but it will enable you to mitigate them as much as possible, positioning yourself to be more successful. As the old GI Joe cartoon used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Here are 3 of the top reasons why first-time candidates lose based on my personal observations of scores of campaigns with which I’ve worked:

The System Is (kind of) Rigged

I don’t believe that our system is hopelessly corrupt, but I do think that elected officials do whatever they need to do to keep themselves in power.

I’ve heard the horror stories over and over.

  • One candidate I know was fired from her job because her well-connected opponent pulled strings with the owners of the company for which she worked.

  • A candidate in Illinois faced a costly legal battle over the signatures he collected to be on the ballot. He won the court case but spent most of his campaign budget doing so, leaving him in a terrible position to continue his run for office.

  • A first-time candidate in Florida was encouraged by the local police not to hold any campaign events after they received threats of violence from an “anonymous” tip.

  • Candidates across the country have been denied equal access to voter information and data from state political parties when they challenged incumbents in primaries.

In congressional and state legislature races, first-time candidates are often facing incumbents who benefit from the way their district is drawn. Every 10 years, based on new census data, districts are redrawn. This process in most states is controlled by the state legislature which uses it as an opportunity to ensure the election of members of the majority political party.

If you’re running for office for the first time and challenging the political establishment in any way, you’ve got to understand how hard of a task you are undertaking. It’s important. It’s noble. It’s the right thing to do. But it is oh, so hard.


You’re not alone. Nobody likes to ask people for money. The thought of doing fundraising might make you feel sick to your stomach. That’s why so many first-time candidates resist doing it. And it’s a big reason why they end up losing.

The money gap between incumbents and challengers is staggering. In 2020, $1.4 billion was spent on campaigns. The vast majority of that money was controlled by incumbents and their political action committees (PACs). That money is used to hire staff and consultants, to advertise on television, online, radio, mailers, and billboards, and to have the technological infrastructure to run a campaign.

Political Inexperience

What do Mitt Romney, Bernie Sanders, Mike Huckabee, and Cori Bush all have in common? They lost the first time they ran for office. In fact, you’d be shocked at how many politicians did the same. It’s hard to run for office, especially the first time.

You are an expert in some area of life. It may be nursing. Or education. Or climate policy. Or sales and marketing. Or leadership. If you are a first-time candidate for office, you likely are not an expert at running a political campaign. Doing so can feel like you’re making it up as you went along. I know I felt that way. That’s why I’ve put together the Campaign Readiness Checklist that will walk you through, step-by-step, how to get your campaign launched well.

Sign up here to get immediate access to our FREE downloadable PDF - Campaign Readiness Checklist from You Could Run. Click Submit and check your email.

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