5 Things I Learned from Losing an Election

AAUW SAC member and Elect Her alumna Dana Smith presented one of the NCCWSL 2015 Women of Distinction.
August 31, 2015

Women are more than half the U.S. population, yet they make up less than 20 percent of members of Congress. I learned during an Elect Her training that a key reason for women’s underrepresentation in elected office is not that women can’t win; it’s that they don’t run. When women run for office, they win at the same rate as men, but women don’t run at the same rate. One big reason is that the confidence gap — and in part, a fear of failure — means that women must be asked to run for office not once, not twice, but seven times. But is losing an election really a failure?

I would know. Last year, I ran for student government president at Purdue University. I lost the election. However, I learned that there are other (more important) ways to define success. Here are five lessons I learned from losing.

1. Supporters are everywhere.

My running mate and I developed a radical platform that focused on social justice issues related to sexual violence, racism, and LGBTQ rights — issues that haven’t been prioritized on our campus. During our two weeks of intensive campaigning, we were consistently surprised by how many supporters came out of the woodwork. People I had never met before wore our T-shirts and messaged me on Facebook sharing how much our platform resonated with them. I was energized by meeting peers committed to social justice work, and I learned not to underestimate my own convictions and the issues that mattered most to me.

2. Speaking up makes a difference.

The great thing about elections is that voters are eager to learn about your ideas and initiatives. At the president and vice president debates, my running mate and I discussed social justice issues that other candidates failed to address. Although we didn’t win, our campaign succeeded in starting much-needed conversations on campus and planting the seed for change. Speaking up is a key part of running for office, but it’s not something that should only be done during an election. Running for office helped me learn how to speak up on difficult subjects, both in an election and beyond.

3. Leadership skills will get you far.

Campaigning is basically a weekslong crash course in leadership skills. Raising thousands of dollars? Learning to delegate tasks? Meeting hundreds of new students each week? Yeah, I hadn’t done those things before, either. I learned how to delegate responsibility, fundraise, do outreach, manage a team, and make quick decisions. These leadership skills will not only inform my work as president of Purdue’s AAUW student organization, which I helped establish, but they will also continue to empower me in the workforce.

4. Relationships are key.

Campaigning requires a team, and you are in charge of working with all its members. It’s impossible for one person to simultaneously plan events, schedule appearances, design T-shirts, canvass libraries, film a campaign video, and maintain social media accounts (among other things). So my running mate and I enlisted our friends who had strengths in these areas, and we let them run with it. I learned to focus my energy on building a water-tight team of talented individuals who were committed to our campaign goals. I couldn’t have made it as far as I did without my team, and I learned the value of fostering relationships, including when to ask for help.

5. After this, I can tackle anything.

The hardest part of running for office was taking care of myself along the way. I struggled with lacking sleep, not being able to get to the dining hall before it closed, and (on top of everything) trying to keep up with homework. Campaigning was hands down the most taxing two weeks of my college career. Looking back on it all now, if there’s one thing that I know to be true, it’s that I can do anything. After surviving this election, I’m confident in my ability to sustain future campaign work, both on campus and off.

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If I chose to define my campaign’s success solely as winning the highest number of votes, then it would be fair to say that I failed. But my goals were much larger and more complex than that. I sought to take a stand on the issues that mattered most to me and to shift the campuswide conversation on social justice. By these measures, my campaign was an unmatched success.

If the fear of failure is keeping you from running for office, know that failure is impossible. I encourage you to run in an election and to define success on your own terms.

This post was written by AAUW National Student Advisory Council member and Elect Her alumna Dana Smith.


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