The Campaign Industrial Complex

Has the creation overtaken the creator? My personal experience is with the DCCC, but they’re not alone in this monstrosity. So please don’t assume this is an attack solely on one institution from one party — it is truly a bi-artisan industrial complex.

Don’t believe me? Then check out Campaigns & Elections — a trade group that meets twice a year — and generates a directory of every consultant you can think of listed by party affiliation.

One thing I have discovered is that most people have no clue how this process works — I sure didn’t until I was deep into it. So consider this my window into the world of campaigns, especially at the federal level.

In 2017, word got out that I was thinking of running for U.S. Congress in the Ohio 10th and I was contacted by a volunteer recruiter to discuss my background and my plans. He was a really nice older man, I might add. We’ve actually developed a fond friendship with one another.

Once he was convinced I had potential, he referred me to the DCCC and I was assigned a political director who proceeded to explain things to me — she’d send over a pre-launch checklist, ultimately lists of 3–5 consulting companies each for mail, media and polling. She told me to let her know when I could arrange a trip to DC to be interviewed. They also sent me resumes of potential staffers — particularly Campaign Managers and Finance Directors.

I finally went to DC in November of 2017, the day after the election-the beginning of the Blue Wave. I don’t recall being asked about my platform but they wanted to know how much I thought I could raise and how much I thought would be needed to win. After all, the primary job of a candidate is fundraising to run the campaign. Ugh.

I was introduced to several Members of Congress (MoC) who repeated the message — call time, raise $250k the first quarter to be taken seriously (by them, the media, my opponent), focus on call time, and did we mention call time?

I must admit, it is very cool to meet with MOCs because it gives you the chance to build relationships. It’s pretty heady stuff too when other Members call you out of the blue to congratulate you for running and to offer any help you may need. After some great conversations on the Hill, I went back to the DCCC office, sat down with my Finance Director, who proceeded to download my contacts into a .csv file so I could begin the process of rolodexing.

What’s rolodexing, you ask? That’s the process of going through everyone in your contact list, name by name, categorizing them by how you know them (family, friends, business, church, etc) and then attaching a dollar amount of how much you think they can give you as well as how much they can potentially raise for you (by asking their friends, etc).

Rolodexing becomes the basis for your call time. At some point, your finance team will do “donor research” where they go through public records to find out which party targets are affiliated with and how much they donate to other candidates. That’s how they determine the “ask” amount.

When you run out of people in your personal life to call, your staff starts researching other possibilities — donors in district, donors out of district, donors to other local candidates, donors to groups that support candidates, donors based on professions that might be aligned with your values, etc.

So what is call time? Torture. You sit in an office for 4–6 (ideally) with a 20-something next to you dialing the phone and handing you a call sheet with info on the person you’re calling to beg for money. Ideally the phone numbers will be correct (but since they usually aren’t, he/she will spend a lot of time on White Pages trying to find a current one).

You have an “ASK” — the amount of money to specifically ask them for, and then you are strongly encouraged to get a credit card number over the phone and complete the transaction before hanging up. If not, it becomes a “pledge” and if it doesn’t come in within two weeks, you’re back on the phone “pledge chasing.”

Through all of this, he or she is prompting you to follow your script, putting post it notes in front of you with suggestions or reminders, pushing you to make the ask, to confirm the email address, to get the credit card number, to ask to follow up if the donor says “I have to talk to my spouse about it.”

The fastest way to upset your call time manager is to not make a specific ask, or to not make one at all. They hate nothing more than logging “unknown” in their pledge tracker spreadsheet, and I must admit, it makes pledge chasing a bit awkward. They really don’t like long calls, and they’ll keep notes of the conversation so the next time you call you can reference did their wife come through surgery ok, is the grandchild out of the hospital, how are the kids? They’ll also note if you left a voice mail, no one answered, or you left a message with someone other than the person you were calling for.

Ideally you’ll be on the phone 30 hours a week, you’ll make 40 calls per hour and connect with about 30% of them. Your call time manager will track the amount of time scheduled, the time you took for any breaks, the actual call time completed, number of calls made, number completed and the results — all of which will be submitted to the DCCC, EMILY’s List or any other group who has “adopted” your campaign. Everyone is discouraged from trying to interrupt you during call time. Other staff members will text your call time manager to find out when they can come in to ask a question.

The Holy Grail is to make the DCCC’s Red to Blue List — those targeted districts they believe a Democrat can beat a Republican incumbent. The problem is that even if you hit your fundraising goals, some other candidate might blow you out of the water and the DCCC will hold off endorsing you until the next reporting period. I never made the list, but I’m told that could be a blessing in disguise because the DCCC demands increase once you’re on it.

The goal posts can move on you as well. At least twice I received an email out of the blue from the DCCC Chair doubling my fundraising goal halfway through a quarter.

I’ve spoken with candidates who made the list but still received no financial help from the DCCC. I’ve spoken to others in the past who started out with help from the DCCC but they pulled out when they found another race they thought was more winnable. For that reason, we made a conscious decision to be self sufficient in our fundraising so we didn’t have to rely on their help. If we got it, great, it was icing on the cake.

The entire focus is on money, money, money. You will be told you need the money to get your message out. Especially if you are new to politics and don’t have name recognition. In that case, you can “buy it” which means TV ads, direct mail, radio, digital, etc.

But first, you have to have a baseline poll to see where you stand. Ideally it will be four focus groups over two nights. Then they’ll want to do 1–2 (or more) tracking polls — one before you start running ads and one after you’ve been the air a couple of weeks so they see how much you’ve moved the needle. Depending on that, you may need to schedule another photo shoot for more ads if they didn’t get enough footage to work with the first time.

All of this is really incredibly helpful to a first time candidate, until during call time you occasionally stumble upon other candidates who will fill you in on the entire picture. Or you read an article like this one and you recognize it all since it happened to you.

Then you realize you’ve been caught up in a machine.

The problem is the incestuous nature of it all — the DCCC has its stable of consultants that they want you to use; they refer campaign managers & finance directors to you who will follow their fundraising model designed to raise money to spend with those consultants. The consultants tell you in order to win, you need to spend $2.5m (or more) and if it looks like you’re going to come up short, they’ll ask you to loan money to your campaign.

Your CM and FD push you constantly to raise the money to spend with the consultants who will likely recommend them to the next candidate in the next cycle. Rinse. Repeat. Eventually the staffers want to become consultants, because that’s where the real money is.

Do I think the DCCC is evil? No. In fact, everyone I’ve worked with is a wonderful, talented person who wants to make a difference by getting people they believe in elected to protect our Democracy. The problem is that sometimes the creation overtakes the creator. Peter Drucker liked to say that if one person after another fails in a job, it’s not the people that are the problem, it’s the system. This system is out of control.

No one wants to take chances. Anything that takes you away from call time is discouraged. You may call someone who is an expert on local politics, knows some insight about your opponent, or who is part of a key constituency group that would be valuable to connect with — but it’s not a “call time” call so it should be done at a later time.

The problem is when is that later time? Every potential block of time on your calendar is reserved for call time. Self care appointments like getting rid of your gray hair, getting a massage so you can take an hour nap, or working out are discouraged until after the campaign. It gets to the point where you have to block out time for family or even showers. Your finance team becomes consumed with squeezing out every available minute of call time, even when you’re driving to appointments. Eventually it feels like they don’t report to you as the candidate, they report to their Finance Director at the DCCC.

When our field team was getting feedback that people just didn’t know who I was, I was told by my CM that I was welcome knock doors after call time or events — which I often didn’t get home from until 9–10 pm. Sunday mornings are at black churches and they complain that candidates only show up before elections, not realizing that when candidates are in their church, they’re not in their own.

It’s a grueling process. It’s exhausting. I joked at candidate forums that by the time October rolls around, the candidates are exhausted and running on fumes. That’s when we’re most likely to say stupid things or ramble instead of giving concise answers. And sadly, that’s the time when most citizens finally start to pay attention. It’s a wonder anyone gets elected!

Will I do it again? That’s the $64,000 question. Reality is that Ohio’s districts will still be gerrymandered in 2020, and the Republicans just got elected to statewide offices and will be able to do more voter suppression between now and then.

I have to determine if I can be of more help to my community inside or outside of politics. And it’s only been a month, so it’s too soon to tell. If I decide not to run, I will most definitely help a candidate who does.

When I think of the campaign process, I’m inclined to say no. Yet when I think of all the reasons I ran in the first place, it’s hard to walk away because the need in our community is too great and our incumbent really doesn’t give a damn about it. And the thought of doing a campaign my way instead of the DCCC way is exciting because then I could see if my instincts are correct or if I’m just nuts.

But at the end of the day, what matters is the votes, not the money raised.

Try telling the DCCC that.

If you have questions, please ask. If you are a candidate, please share your experience.