Ask Belle: Project Campaign Trail

Aug 13, 2012

Like many budding politicos, when I was 22, I wanted to be a campaign manager.  Then, I spent some time on the campaign trail doing voter outreach, helping with state legislature races and doorbelling for a presidential election, and I was cured of that notion.

Some people are cut out for the campaign life, and some people aren’t. I definitely wasn’t.

Political campaigns are one part college finals week, one part championship game and one part endless business trip.  You sleep very little.  You eat nothing but complex carbohydrates and fat.  You face a constant barrage of criticism from the other side and a list of work that never seems to end.  And, maybe, if you’re lucky, your candidate wins. 

It’s not all bad though.  Campaigns are like war in that they bond people for life fostering romantic relationships and life-long friendships.  They provide valuable skills and experiences that you can’t get anywhere else.  You learn more about the issues, how to talk to constituents and how to stay on message than you can in any other environment.  And I firmly believe that even if you just sign up for a 72-hour program before the election, that every person who works in politics or for an elected official should experience campaign life first hand. 

This week is part one in a series of posts that I call Project Campaign Trail.  We’ll talk about what shoes to wear while you’re knocking on doors or dropping lit, how to dress for an outside the Beltway fundraiser and what to pack for the party conventions.  Part two will be a more comprehensive look at what to wear, similar to what I’ve done in the past, but that won’t happen until mid to late September.

For those of you who don’t work in politics, don’t despair.  The advice in these posts will be applicable to business trips, casual Fridays and weekend attire. Except for how to jazz up a campaign t-shirt, that’s not applicable to any other field of work. 

As a kick off to campaign week, I actually need to solicit your advice.  Recently several readers have e-mailed me looking for advice on how to maintain romantic relationships while one or both partners are out on the trail.  I don’t have a reference point to provide them with good advice on this, but I’m sure that there are readers out there who can.  So if you have some advice or experiences that you’d like to share for the benefit of your fellow readers, leave them in the comments.


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  1. Been there, done that says:

    I imagine maintaining a romantic relationship on the campaign trail is much like maintaining a romantic relationship during any other long-distance scenario when one person is also in a really stressful job. I dated a guy through his deployment, which came with additional stress from his being in a war zone, but imagine the coping mechanisms would be similar for couples on the campaign trail.

    1. Make time for each other to keep in touch – time zones and crazy work schedules can make this tough, but it really is possible to find five minutes a day for a phone call or Skype session. Take advantage of the fact that you can use text messages, IM, email, etc. so that you feel like you are still communicating.

    2. Allow the person in the more stressful situation time to “download,” vent, etc., but make sure the person “at home” gets that chance as well – being “left behind” is stressful in its own way, and that half of the couple still needs emotional support. This is easier when no one is at risk of being shot.

    3. Try to find supportive friends. Take advantage of your SO's time away to catch up with your friends, do things your partner doesn't enjoy, etc.

    4. Remember: this, too shall pass. Make relaxing plans to reconnect when you are reunited, recognizing that one of you may need significant downtime after the election.

  2. S says:

    I am quite excited for this series of posts! I'm 22, on a state race while my S.O. is on a county race and after going from campaign finance to communications, I could use a fashion refresher.

  3. KW says:

    I was a field director for a state party while in a long term relationship, so here's my advice:

    If you're the person left behind, give the campaigner some space. He's not ignoring you on purpose, he's just busy. But do set up times to talk, and hold him responsible if he doesn't call. Being busy is no excuse to be completely AWOL.

    If you're the person out on the trail, go home before last call. I never cheated on my boyfriend, but I came wayyy to close more than once. Like Belle said, you bond with these people, and when you're lonely and drunk, things can happen. So don't put yourself in that situation.

  4. Sara says:

    Make it known that you're in a relationship. I didn't want to get too personal with the people I was campaigning with, but that bit me in the ass when another staffer confessed that he'd developed feelings for me. I hadn't mentioned that I had a boyfriend and felt bad about hurting him.

  5. Sarah says:

    My boyfriend is managing a race in California and I'm still in DC, so not only did we have to get used to being in a long-distance relationship, but also being in completely different time zones across the country from each other.

    We've found that scheduling a time each day, and having him work it into his work calendar really works. We leave room for flexibility if something comes up and our scheduled time needs to be rescheduled, but we try to remember that at that time, no matter what else is going on, we are each other's priority.

    Heading into the final stretch of the campaign is going to be difficult, but we've talked about it and no matter what, we're going to find time to talk each day and even if there are days where we can't talk for more than a few minutes, remembering that he's not ignoring me and that he is just incredibly busy helps.

  6. KiKi says:

    Agree on having a scheduled time to talk. It's easier to shift the time than it is to try to fit it in. When you can't talk, sending an email or text is an easy way of connecting. I had a friend recommend I get “The Book of Questions.” After so many weeks on the road, your brain is fried. You want to be on the phone to connect, but often don't have much exciting to say. Pick a question from the book of questions each day and have each of you answer it. It's funny, gives you something non-job related to talk about and responses will often surprise you.

    I am also a fan of leaving random notes. It can be in a suitcase if the other person is traveling, or around their home. Even a well-timed card arriving in the mail can lift someone's day and show them you put in some thought

  7. Amanda K says:

    I had my boyfriend visit me on a slow weekend while I was out on the trail. Sure, throwing him into the phone bank pool sounds like an awful idea, but when you are separated, you gain a greater appreciation for ANY time you spend together. Plus he is more motivated to work when you finish up a long day's worth of campaigning.

  8. Belle says:

    Amanda K: I actually don't disagree with that. I've head of spouses or SOs going out to help doorbell or phonebank. You still get to spend time together at the end of the day, and they get to know the people you're talking about all the time.

  9. XF says:

    I was the campaigner in the relationship, and one of my biggest mistakes was having certain expectations as to how much my S.O. should understand what I was dealing with/going through. I would bitch about work and somehow expected him to totally understand the complexity of campaigning. It was unfair to him. We weathered it out, but you need to be able to separate your identity as a campaign staffer and a partner in a relationship. Too often I would get on the phone at night as XR, staffer, and not XR, girlfriend.

    And I echo the advice to head home before last call. Young staffers with little sleep, stressful environments, and cheap beer do not make sound decisions past dinner.

  10. KateW says:

    My husband and I have been together for 7 years, and he always ends up going to work on state or federal campaigns every year. So whether its 2 weeks or 2 months, I know he is going to be gone for some amount of time. I, on the other hand, work for a corporation now and haven't been campaigning since college.

    I definitely agree with “Been there done that” – even if its just a few texts or a quick email, communicate every day. If you are talking on the phone, understand that your SO probably just worked 18 hours on 3 hours of sleep and might not be at his/her most talkative. As for me, I use this time to focus more at work, hang out with girlfriends, plan weekend trips to see college friends, watch girlie movies, volunteer more often, clean/organize the house, etc etc. I also Fedex a care package with some of his favorite snacks. And when he comes home, I always cook a really delicious meal, because Belle is totally right – the diet of a campaign staffer is terrible.

  11. Ellen says:

    My husband and I don't work in politics but we both work in an industry has you work crazy hours during the week, take up weekends, has travel, and also bonds you with your colleagues, so there seem to be similarities. When we first got together we didn't even live in the same state so we got good at the keeping the relationship going while apart.

    1. Leaving notes is a great idea that someone else brought up. We always did that and it is great because it makes the person receiving them feel like you are thinking of them when you did so days before. It took no time out of your current day! It is another touch point.

    2. Scheduling calls and visits etc. Putting them down like any other appointment makes it easier to keep and less easy to forget to make time for. Plus you can tell others that “I have an appointment” without lying!

    3. Always picking up the phone when your SO calls even if it is to say “I can't talk”. It makes them feel like a priority.

    4. Texting! It is easy to keep in touch even when you are doing something else at the same time.

    5. Facetime if you have apple devices.

    6. Be ok with tagging along/having someone tag along if you are visiting (or if you are being the one visited) on work things. Sometimes it helps with the distance if you experience what the other is doing. I can't tell you how many times my husband and I have put each other to work at our jobs!

    As my husband says “If you want to make it work, you do” and that is so true. If this person is really important to you and visa versa it won't be hard to stay in communication, be faithful, make time to see them or be willing to do goofy things like tag along to weird work functions just to be with them!

  12. Kristen says:

    “Except for how to jazz up a campaign t-shirt, that's not applicable to any other field of work.”

    That's totally applicable! Nothing worse than going to a trade show or “voluntolding” at a company golf tourney in an unattractive yet mandatory polo or t-shirt. 🙂

  13. M says:

    I've been on both ends – the one on a campaign, and the one left in DC with the other was gone. Basically – gchat. A lot. And, if the non-campaigner comes to visit, they should come with the expectation that the other person may have to work 80% of their waking hours, even on a weekend, but at least you'll get to sleep together and hopefully eat meals together.

    Also the campaigner can always step outside and make a call, I've found. A ton of campaign staffers smoke, all make coffee runs, and there's always and excuse to get away for 15 minutes. Secret truth – a lot of time on campaigns is spent bs-ing around in the office (if you're not a field organizer).

  14. vb says:


    Can you do a post on dressing for the Conventions?

  15. Belle says:

    M: That is true. I've def. worked or volunteered on campaigns where they put in 20 hour days but half of that was spent bs-ing. Drove me nuts when they would complain about how stressed they were after they'd just spent an hour discussing whether Melo or Lebron was a better bball player.

  16. Mary-Lynn says:

    “Except for how to jazz up a campaign t-shirt, that's not applicable to any other field of work.”

    Oh no! Those of us in software product management or marketing who have to go to tradeshows dressed in the cheapest, most boxy t-shirt with our “clever” marketing message on it could also use these tips.

  17. BC says:

    I work on the hill but have done campaigns in the past. I met my boyfriend on a campaign last cycle, we moved in together, and then he went out to manage another campaign. He's been gone a year now. The experience has actually brought us closer together. We're in the home stretch with only 12 weeks left, but these are some things we did to make the last year easier:

    – We committed to talking on the phone every day. I am usually the one that waits for him to call, since his work hours are more unpredictable, but we usually always talk by 10pm every night. I let him know ahead of time if I'm going out after work or at night, since it conflicts with our call time and so he's aware of what I'm doing. If he's planning on going out with campaign coworkers, he lets me know so I'm not worried and I know what he's up to. I never get mad if we don't connect, because we always text and keep each other updated. I have to be forgiving if he's too tired to talk or too stressed to talk about work or politics.

    – We made a goal of seeing each other every 2-3 weeks. We were lucky in that he works about 6 1/2 hours away from DC, so it's drive-able. During the first part of the campaign, when things were less busy, he came down to visit a lot. Now, I'm the one who comes to visit him more. We split the cost of gas or plane tickets, so there's not one person carrying the burden of travel. The time that we've spent together on weekends, however brief it was with work and time restrictions, made the last year apart bearable. We've been able to stick to our goal, but it hasn't been easy or cheap. But we decided that was what we needed to make our relationship work. Obviously other couples will have different needs.

    – We didn't hide our relationship. I started a new job in a new Hill office right before he left for his campaign job. I didn't talk obsessively about it, but I made it clear to my new coworkers (who became my new friends) that I had a boyfriend that I was very happy with. He did the same to his campaign staff, when they were brought on board. When he was in DC, I made sure to bring him around my coworkers and other friends I hung out with regularly when he's gone. When I went to visit him, he made sure to bring me out with all of his coworkers. It's nice to be able to put a face to a name when he talks about someone on his staff and it's nice to know that they know I exist. I work with almost all guys and he works with a lot of girls, so there could have been the potential for jealousy, but getting to know everyone has made it much better.

    – We made good use of our phone time. We found that when we lived together, we would just do things together and not actually spend a lot of time sitting and talking. Since we're forced to talk on the phone (or video chat), we have to think of new things to discuss. I learned more things about his childhood, his political philosophy, his goals for the future, and other things than I think I might have learned in the period of time otherwise. I think he would say the same about me. We learned to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation and it deepened our relationship.

    – We look forward to the future. There is an expiration date for this long-distance relationship and we're both very much looking forward to it. Knowing that he will come back in November and move back in is great. We regularly make plans for things that we want to do and goals that we want to meet when he moves back. We want to exercise together and eat healthier and look for a condo to buy. Having things to look forward to can make the time pass faster.

    – The thing that helped us the most is trust. I trust him to be faithful, to do his best to make this work, to respect my needs and wishes, and to be there when I need him to be. He trusts me to do the same. If our relationship wasn't good going into this, then this wouldn't have worked out at all. It helped that I had worked on campaigns before so I knew what it would be like. But just knowing that I can depend on him and he can depend on me is what really made this thing work for the last year. Obviously we have other priorities, but our relationship is very high up on our lists and we dedicate the time it needs and I trust him to continue to dedicate the time our relationship needs. I'm really not sure how this could work at all if we weren't on the same page and didn't trust each other.

  18. Maggie says:

    I'm sure you have everything all qued up and ready to go but I'm leaving for Convention on Thursday. Any way you can post that segment sooner rather than later? I need guidance! (PS- Super excited about this series!)

  19. LC says:

    Good topic, Belle! My husband and I have both been the person “on the trail” at various points in our relationship when we were both dating and engaged. Everyone above has great advice but I'll add my two cents.

    1. You need to have an expiration date! Whether it's the first Tuesday in November or next summer when you're done with law school, you can't make a LDR work without a time frame.

    2. You MUST see each other once per month or at MOST once every six weeks. We could always tell when it was creeping up on a month because our conversations would get shorter and snippier and we would start fighting about nothing. You really need at least one weekend in a month as an anchor to the reality of how much you love this person. Planning this out before the end of the previous trip also really helps so that you know exactly how long it's going to be until you see each other again. Really helps cut down on the airport or train station sobbing.

    3. If you're the person left behind, YOU MUST HAVE YOUR OWN LIFE. I can't emphasize this enough. When my bf was off doing a presidential campaign, I moped around D.C. for almost two years in a job that I didn't like and lived for the times when I would see my him. This was the WORST thing I could have done. It's really hard to get out there when your single friends are at the bars looking to hook up and you're not, but if you try to hang with couple friends you're a 3rd, 5th, 7th wheel of awkwardness. Honestly, though, this is my biggest regret. Do whatever you have to do to keep yourself distracted and happy–take classes, get into volunteering somewhere, take incredible care of yourself, whatever it takes.

  20. Belle says:

    Maggie-It's Wednesday at 1PM. Hope that's soon enough. I used mostly basics, but here's a hint: business casual dresses and comfortable shoes.

  21. CynthiaW says:

    “Except for how to jazz up a campaign t-shirt, that's not applicable to any other field of work.”

    Au contraire – we have “spirit day” once a week, which involves me wearing either an ugly school t-shirt or an ugly school polo shirt. So, I'm looking forward to your tips!

  22. Ellen says:

    I can't wait for the post about jazzing up a campaign t-shirt! I can't tell you how many times I started to write to you to ask something similar. I work for a non profit and have to wear logoed t-shirts and polo shirts at events all the time. I always struggle how to make it look appropriate for my development position and not make me look like I'm 12 (I get that comment frequently even though I'm 30).

  23. Mallory says:

    My boyfriend of nearly 4 years and I have been long-distance for nearly half of that time – a semester abroad in undergrad and now stints in grad school (in different cities, of course) for both of us.

    To echo earlier sentiments, always keeping in touch is key. Since we both have hectic schedules, we actually share our Google calendars with each other. That way, if I'm not responding to a text or phone call, he could look and see “oh, she's in class right now, I'm not being ignored.”

    We try to set aside a time to Skype every night but we respect the fact that school comes first – if one of us has a big assignment to finish, we limit our conversation to just a few minutes instead of the usual hour.

    Finally, the biggest thing is to respect and trust each other. While neither of us are social outcasts, we trust that we will handle ourselves in the way that we would if our counterpart was present.

  24. Edith says:

    The first place to go for advice on keeping up with your romantic partner while campaigning has to be Matalin & Carville's “All's Fair”.

    Other than that – if you aren't dating or married to a fellow political junkie, it can be rough going, and I have no advice in that arena. My guy was and is a fellow political nut. We long-distance dated throughout the 2004 and 2006 election cycles (primary and general) and the way we handled it was late-night phone calls, dates to watch “The Sopranos” “together” (we watched and then called each other to discuss), a lot of email and text messages. As to staying faithful – well, I think before you can do long-distance, especially if a lot of travel is required that keeps you even more separated, you have to have a commitment to one another. Talk about it beforehand, what the expectations are, and then be responsible. Campaigning is hard work and you're totally right about bonds that are forged. You have to be self-aware and you have to be accountable to someone.

  25. V says:

    Belle, Some of us will be campaigning down south (80 degrees and humid in November) so warm weather tips for dressing would be great.

  26. Lisa says:

    I'm on a campaign currently and dating someone who doesn't give 2 hoots about politics, long-distance, so it can be done! Honestly, I love that he doesn't want to obsessively dissect the latest poll numbers with me or scream and cuss about the latest (completely false) editorial. We talk about our families, pets, what we had for lunch, I tell him about ridiculous campaign hookups (seriously, the Olympic village has nothing on us), WHATEVER, and it's by far the best and most relaxing part of my day. Also, quick chats throughout the day, texting, gchat, all that is critical.

    ALSO, I think you have to just accept that your SO is going to have to work while you work, or at least hang out with you while you work. So it's good to have fun(ish) jobs for them to do. I always save up projects for my BF to do when he's in town. He's crafty, so I save jobs like, changing the light bulb in the campaign office, making my squeaky chair not so squeaky, making yard signs, etc. – instead of asking him to phone bank. I'll be honest, sometimes I get confused about why he's not over enthused to spend 12 hours of his Saturday in a campaign office, but that's why he always brings his laptop and just watches movies if he's bored, while I work. It's not exciting, but it's how we're able to spend time together.

    I think also having perspective helps. Neither of you is literally in a war zone, though it may feel like it some days. No one is going to die if you lose this election. If you want this relationship to last past November, you have to make it a priority.

  27. joyce says:

    Belle–would love to see you do a post on how to gently nudge male colleagues/the candidate the right direction on the campaign trail. Surely you have great wisdom to share in this area as well!

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