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?
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.
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.”