Becoming a Campaign Staffer

Basic advice for the ambitious

Dan Dawson
Dec 25, 2013 · 4 min read

West Wing and House of Cards have emboldened many ideological and ambitions young people to pursue political careers. While this work is celebrated by the popular media, the witty repartee of fictional politicians and their staff is seldom reality. The actual experience can be long, tedious, stressful and disappointing.

Despite this grim future, there are those who cannot help themselves. They are driven to compete in an over saturated, ego centric, wasteland of personalities and persuasions that both kill and create incredible ideas and personas that determine the future of our nation.

For those willing t0 take their chances, here are my recommendations…

A few things you ought to consider before pursuing a career as a political staffer of operative.

Before throwing a year plus of your life into a political campaign, you must consider the following:

  1. Everyone starts at the bottom, although “the bottom” is relative to who you know and what you bring to the table.
  2. Be ready for low pay, high pressure, long hours and little recognition.
  3. Acknowledge, you are not as smart as you think you are.
  4. Don’t do this job for the money, to get laid, for glory or ideology.
  5. If you are doing this to get elected you are in the wrong profession.

If you can realistically accept these tenets and have an idea of what you want to accomplish, then you are ready to begin thinking about a future as a staffer/operative/hack/flack/whatever-you-get-labeled… so here goes.

Step 1. Start Early

It is far easier to move across the country to work a statewide race when you are 23 and unattached than when you are 32 and married. While I have seen a few people past their 30's quit their job to work on campaigns, it is a rare thing. You will benefit from being a young person in a traditionally stodgy environment and if you are smart you will find a mentor. Since everyone begins at the bottom, it will feel far less belittling to knock on doors and work a phone bank as a young person.

Step 2. Assess your Connections

Yes, having family and friends who are close with a candidate or political consultant will help you. Take some time to consider who around you is well connected and take the time to make some phone calls. Once you make contact be direct and honest about what you are looking to do. Chances are the person on the other end of the line will be happy to help you land a first gig on a race, especially if you are willing to work long hours for little pay.

Step 3. Let Staff know if you have Special Skills

If you are a graphic designer or can build a website, tell the campaign manager. If you have photographic or video equipment, and know how to use it, keep it on hand. Campaign budgets are always tight. Typically, the Lion’s share of what is raised is dedicated to TV advertising and Direct Mail advocacy campaigns. A smart manager or consultant will always look for ways to cut expenses, so the prospect of having a staffer code a microsite is a godsend.

Step 4. Make yourself Available

There is nothing a campaign manager loves more than a staffer that is willing to make themselves available at drop of a hat. Some of the best consultants I have worked with started out as eager volunteers and staffers. Work hard, make an impression. Never forget that.

Step 5. Accept you don’t know Everything

Eager and willing staffers are loved, but don’t overdo it and don’t go over the head of the consultant or manager. Watch, listen, learn but be slow to offer up unsolicited advice. Follow the words of President Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Step 6. Give high level Staff their Space

Always remember, you are an entry level staffer. If the manager doesn’t invite you out for beers with the consultants, don’t feel bad. When you are beginning, those around you are determining wether you are someone that has the skills and personality to succeed in a very strange profession. Be friendly, but not overly clingy, willing but, not a brownnose.

Working as in politics is strange.

It is not for everyone, but for the few deranged individuals willing to bust their ass for pennies, it can be one of the greatest life choices you can make.

Thanks to Spencer Pitman.

    Dan Dawson

    Written by

    UX Researcher & Digital Strategist living in Atlanta. Building Vernacular Labs, a Digital Design shop. Recovering political operative.