COVID-19 Update: To help students through this crisis, The Princeton Review will extend our “Enroll with Confidence” refund policies to cover students who enroll on or after August 1st. For full details, please click here.

A Day in the Life of a Political Campaign Worker

Political campaign workers specialize in the art of winning elections. The profession includes many subspecialties: Press and public relations, polling, opposition research, fundraising, logistical organizing, and a wide range of other skills to deal with the crises of a campaign. In large campaigns, specialists representing all of these skills work together to develop integrated campaign strategies; in smaller, local elections, one or two professionals will serve as jacks of all trades, putting to use this entire range of skills and developing their expertise. Technical and tactical skills are extremely important in campaign management, but the ultimate emphasis in the profession is on winning. Campaign professionals with a reputation for victory can have lucrative, prominent careers; those who participate in too many losing campaigns will have trouble finding work. This is a career for people who love the thrill of the chase. Many get into the profession by volunteering for a particular candidate they support and falling in love with the excitement of campaigns. In the weeks preceding elections, campaign professionals work full time, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, as they plan and coordinate down-to-the-wire campaign strategies. Deadline pressure is intense, as election day provides a final test of the staff’s campaign work. Many in the profession thrive on the pressure; others burn out and find other work. Campaign management is also highly public work. Pollsters and researchers may work behind the scenes, but the press and public relations specialists, and those who wish to rise to the top of the profession and become campaign managers, must feel comfortable working with the media. At the highest level of political campaigns, statements and actions of senior campaign aides are as those of the candidate. Some relish this visibility; others find it one of the profession’s major drawbacks.

Paying Your Dues

The career campaign professional’s first exposure to politics is usually as a volunteer for a campaign, perhaps over summer vacation while still a student. Volunteers perform the bulk of the low-level jobs in every campaign, but they are often found in positions of substantial responsibility in smaller, local campaigns. A bright, hard working volunteer can rise rapidly in a re-election staff, and this is often the best way to acquire the credentials that can lead to a career working on major political campaigns. In some of the profession’s disciplines, educational or career background is also extremely important. Training in statistics is a prerequisite to polling and voter analysis; many influential pollsters have doctorates in statistics. Many political workers begin as journalists and then put their knowledge of the media to use as press aides and campaign spokespeople. A degree in political science can also be useful. Some universities offer masters degrees in political management, itself a testament to the wide range of skills required to manage a campaign. This can also be an effective route into the profession.

Present and Future

U.S. campaign politics has changed significantly since the days of political machines like New York’s Tammany Hall at the turn of the century, when Thanksgiving turkeys were exchanged for votes. Ward captains who can mobilize small armies of volunteers to man phones and hand out leaflets still play an important role in political campaigns, but campaign management has become a sophisticated science. Demographic studies, focus groups and advertising consultants have become the field’s stock in trade, and management of these resources has demanded increasing professionalization in the field. The trend has been towards increasing budgets and technological sophistication-slick mass mailings and tightly choreographed press conferences and “photo ops” are now supplemented by Web sites, and chat rooms on the Internet. The cost of political campaigning has risen with every election in recent years. With the increased resources expended on campaigns have come increased opportunities for professionals with the ability to make effective use of them, and this pattern seems likely to continue.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Young campaign managers build reputations by managing local campaigns or by signing on in junior positions under a known manager running a large, well-staffed election effort. Often, young campaign professionals move back and forth between these options as job opportunities arise. Developing personal contacts in the field is vital, for managers with the prestige to get hired to run major campaigns have core groups of favored aides whom they take with them from campaign to campaign, and it is these favored few who have the best chance for a shot at running a large campaign of their own.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Those who remain in the field have worked through two or three campaigns and have begun to establish themselves. Some remain on the campaign circuit, moving from race to race as opportunities appear. Many move into more permanent positions in state and national party organizations, providing support to party campaigns and coordinating cooperative campaign efforts at different election levels. Others move into political consulting firms, which offer expert polling, media, or financial services to a number of campaigns in any given election year.

TEN YEARS OUT

By now, campaign workers have established themselves as managers. Those who left for the private sector, perhaps as consultants, exploit their contacts in the political world. Party officials have considerable authority over the allocation of their organization’s resources, and they have a voice in the setting of party priorities and platforms. Independent campaign managers have reached the point where they can count on senior campaign positions-as managers, spokespersons, pollsters-in each election year. There is significant job mobility at this level: Successful campaign officials often become senior political aides, and managers move back and forth between party and campaign positions.