The Hill Life: Diving into the Campaign Crucible

Oct 26, 2011

2012 will mark my sixth season of campaigning and my third presidential election in this business called show. When I look back on a decade filled with stale pizza, warm beer and mo sleep, I feel ill prepared to do it all again.  But even if I’m not particularly enthusiastic about this extra long election season (Really, Iowa, January 3rd? Really?), I still believe that campaign experience is essential to a successful career in politics.  

So I thought that I, with helpful additions from some friends who campaign full-time (the poor bastards), we’d talk a little bit about finding work on campaigns.

Start Now. If you want to work on a campaign in 2012, you need to start looking for those jobs now.  Paid positions fill up quickly. 

As my friend Tash explained, “You don’t know how many people walk into my office in April or May wanting a paid gig.  I tell them all the same thing, the paid positions were filled in January, but if you want to volunteer your welcome anytime.  Early birds get worms, and all those cliches.”

Make Plans. It is deeply unlikely that you will be able to find a good campaign job where you live.  Most junior staffers will be sent elsewhere, to places you didn’t even know exist, for pay that seems criminal.  So before you start applying for jobs, think about whether your financial situation would allow you to move next week.

Ask yourself: Can I get out of my lease or sublet?  Where do I put my belongings?  Do I need to take the semester off of school?  Can I afford to do this without going broke?  Etc.

Use Your Network.  Before you crack open the Internet to find a campaign job, ask your network for help.  Who do your professors, employers, friends and mentors know who can help you get a job on a campaign? 

Apply Online. Brad Traverse has camapign jobs listed on his site, as does Tom Manatos.  Pay the money, read the postings carefully, send resumes, follow up after three days.

My friend Melanie found her first campaign job on Brad Traverse.  “It paid a pauper’s purse and it was in Nevada. But I would never have found it otherwise.”

Don’t Overestimate Your Qualifications.  This is the BIG one, mentioned by every person who I asked for advice on this post.

Tash: “If you have no campaign experience, you have no campaign experience. I don’t care that you ran for student council in 8th grade.  If the ad says, “Must have campaign experience,” it means it.  Don’t waste my time.’

“And while we’re on the topic of qualifications, I don’t care how many fancy degrees you have.  Education is no substitute for shoe leather.  If you’ve never worked on a campaign, my 20-year-old intern knows more about strategy than you do.”

Melanie: “Never tell me you’ve worked on the trail if you haven’t.  If I find out you lied on your resume, I’ll fire you on the spot.”

Laine: “It’s easy to get campaign experience.  Take a job as a paid canvasser or volunteer for a couple of months and then try to find a paid position.  Just like on Capitol Hill, you have to work for free or cheap to make your bones in this business.”

Your goal on a campaign is always a paid position.  If you don’t get one straight out, take a free job and work your ass off.  Maybe someone will notice and promote you, or maybe you can make a move to another campaign after a few months. 

But this is one of the primary reasons that you need to start applying for these jobs now.  Because a person who has 11 months to get promoted is more likely to move up the ladder than a person who has six months or three months.

This Life is Not for Everyone.  As a junior campaign staffer, you will probably end up filling one of four jobs: grassroots, advance, press assistant or finance assistant.  You’ll knock on doors, manage interns, handle travel plans, write releases and Tweets til your fingers bleed and spend your whole day compiling spreadsheets.  This is the glamorous work you signed up to do.

If you think that you’re a political wunderkind who’ll be included in strategy discussions, high-level meetings or other Aaron Sorkin-approved activities, you’re wrong.  You’ll be the one tallying call sheets over stale pizza while the inner circle discusses strategy.  No one starts out at the top or even in the middle.  So if you aren’t ready for 20-hour days cold calling people at home or knocking on doors, this is not the gig for you.

Final Thoughts.

Tash: “Don’t go presidential your first campaign.  Those are huge operations, and the odds that anyone above your direct supervisor will ever know your name are slim.  If you want to learn, excel and advance, choose a Governor’s race, a statewide race or a critical state legislature race.”

Melanie: “Have a plan B.  If your candidate loses the primary, you’ll go from 60 to zero in 2.2 seconds.  So know where you plan to start looking for other work before that happens.  Otherwise, you’ll find yourself watching the election night fun from your parent’s basement couch.  Most candidates lose, your guy is not so exceptional that his safety can be guaranteed.”

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  1. Zouaf says:

    Love the blog but why would anyone choose this life? It seems brutal, all for pitiable wages and having your fate decided by ungrateful voters every 2 or 4 or 6 years. What keeps you going??

  2. EAC says:

    I've been volunteering for a party for the past year-not because I wanted a paid job, but because I believe in what the party is trying to do. Someone came in a few weeks ago looking for a staff postition and our field director told her that he would be happy to take her resume, but that she would probably have to get in line behind the long term volunteers; at least those who want staff jobs. Long term volunteers have taken the time to get familar with their turfs and build relationships with those in the political arena. I'm not so sure that your advice to “volunteer for a few months” is going to be all that helpful at this point. If you had posted this six months ago……. But good luck to those who are aiming for a job on the campaign trail.

  3. Belle says:

    There are some races with late primaries that haven't gotten going yet. There are also situations in which a person will come out of a primary and need more staff. So it is possible to volunteer for a few months and pick up employment, but your more likely to be moved from being a volunteer on a large campaign to being sent to a paid position on a small race.

    I once got a campaign job on a state Senate race because I was an unpaid volunteer on a US Senate race and the state Senator hired one of our mid-level staff away to run his campaign post primary. It happens.

    Also, it depends on where you are and where you're willing to go. It's hard to find paid campaign gigs in cities, but if you get experience in a metro area, you might be able to take a paid grassroots position in BFE. Esp. in the DC area and NYC areas paid jobs are slim because supply far exceeds demand.

  4. PrettyPavo says:

    As someone who has just recently taken her first paid position on a campaign, which wraps up hell or high water in 13 days but who is counting, I'd love it if you (Belle) would do a few posts about campaign attire/attire while traveling on the trail. Personally, I've been handling mid-range finance work on a Southern Mayoral race in my hometown which has been great. But – I'm about to go on the road and would love to hear your take on what makes it in the bag, so to speak.

    Sidebar – As the organizer of several fundraisers I cannot tell you how many times I've had to talk to young interns about 'event attire'. I also direct all young females to your blog as “required” reading.

    Thanks and keep up the great posts!

  5. Belle says:

    PP-Look back in October of 2010 and 2008. There were some posts on campaign attire back then.

  6. Kaylee says:

    I've heard campaigning is one of the areas where volunteer experience “counts.” Is that true? I've worked extensively as a volunteer on several local, state, and national campaigns, but have no paid volunteer experience. Would it still be worth my time (and, more importantly, the time of those doing the hiring) for me to apply to positions that require experience? I'm not talking “I ran for 8th grade class president” type experience, but it also hasn't been “I volunteered with this campaign from the beginning until the end every day for 6 months” type experience. It's more that I've done campaign trips, phone banks, door-to-door campaigning, volunteer coordinating (in college, but for Congressional campaigns), etc.

  7. A says:

    LOL–as an Iowan, I have to agree that January 3rd is obnoxious. However, we're all saying “Really Florida?!” and “Really New Hampshire?!”

  8. Belle says:

    Kaylee-Absolutely volunteering counts. Everyone knows that not many campaigns pay, so most people working there are volunteers. Just make it clear in your cover letter and on your resume that you have this experience and detail what you learned from those experiences.

  9. Emily says:

    Belle, you nailed this. As a recovering politico, I agree with everything. Especially the fact that volunteer and work experience means a thousand times more than a billion degrees. A MA means nothing if you don't know what GOTV means!

  10. Katrina says:

    Belle, it's almost as if you were reading my mind. I'm a college grad this coming spring. I made the decision yesterday to seek out a job on a campaign post-graduation and put-off grad school until after the election is over. This post only reaffirmed my decision and I'm going to hit the ground running looking for positions. Thank you!!

  11. Helena says:

    Good advice. The incorrect use of “your” instead of “you're” (not once, but twice, by my count) was irritating, though.

  12. Belle says:

    Yes, I have trouble with homophones. I think I'm getting better about it, but I write late at night and sometimes it's not so good. Since you might be new here, you should know that my long term position on typos has been that if they really bother you that much, you should read elsewhere.

  13. Amy says:

    Hi Belle, great post. I was lucky enough where even after my candidates nomination didn't go through, I was able to get a paid gig for the last month on a high profile candidate's campaign. I would love to see a blog post of what to do after the campaign to ensure your odds of getting a job post campaign are high and successful.

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