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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Campaigns not designed to win

There are an estimated 500,000 different elected offices across the country.

Most of them have little to no opposition. Even in primaries, often the preferred candidates are identified ahead of time. The political news coverage focuses on the federal races, and the very few that are even considered 'competitive' - so what about races that aren't "competitive" and are more of a long-shot?

They're still worth your time. You'll get the best mainstream experience by working for a competitive race, preferably a federal one. But local campaigns teach you many of the same skills, you absorb many important lessons on a campaign for any race.

Long-shot campaigns come with their own unique challenges though. Often the candidate isn't in the race to win, they're there to make an ideological statement, they're there to set themselves up for another race down the line, some are even running because it's a way for them to feel relevant and important in their community.

Long-shot campaigns are interesting, but you can often avoid the predatory consultants and vendors, because there's rarely any money. You often can't have paid staff on long-shot campaigns. Money is tight, the media ignores you, and it's a tough race. So where's the benefit?

These kind of campaigns force you to focus on connecting with the public and building a voter database of motivated supporters who will vote for your candidate. You learn how to communicate with brief phone calls, with brief flyers. You can't afford mail and graphic designers, so you rely on in-kind donations and worn-out copiers.

You learn how to run and win on the cheap, how to reach people the most efficiently and effectively.

Practically though, there are several major problems and considerations:
1) Win Psychology/Momentum: Positive attitudes count for a lot. When you have a good campaign morale, volunteers enjoy coming, donors feel good about donating. A good psychology can solve a lot of other problems, and can also translate into positive rather than pitying media coverage. But many long-shot campaigns have bad morale. They have cynical people, or they have crazed zealots so far out of the mainstream that they are a drag on enthusiasm. Long-shot campaigns can sometimes be great things where an overlooked candidate gets a chance to get into office through hard work. Other long-shot campaigns are crazy people with crazy ideas who never have a chance. Working for crazies isn't bad, but it's important that they have a win psychology and positive morale. You want a candidate who believes that they have a chance of winning, no matter how remote.
2) Apathetic Candidates: No candidate enjoys fundraising. Some tolerate it better than others, but no one truly enjoys it. An apathetic candidate will have a hard time taking time off work, spending time away from family, to sit in a room and dial for dollars. They'll have a hard time working low-attendance rooms to generate enthusiasm for a campaign that they know is a long-shot.
3) Crazy Ideas/Inexperience: Many of these people have never run a campaign before, and most of them have never won. Their experiences might rely on quirky, quacky and silly ideas: "We need to blitz with more yard signs than ever before!" - or - "We have to buy more billboards than anyone else" - or - "We need to be buying ads on Rush Limbaugh's radio program all the time" -- inexperienced people with authority often abuse it, and try to test out novel new ideas they heard somewhere. Getting dragged into this can be a real debacle. A referendum campaign I worked on spent thousands on an after-election reception for its vendors, but wouldn't spend a dime for voter identification three weeks prior. Campaigns will spend tens of thousands on dead-end amateur TV ads, but won't spend on effective things like lists, voter ID, turnout.
4) Projecting Blame: It's not rare for people to try and blame one person for an entire campaign's defeat. The entire failure of Team Romney was laid at the feet of their pollsters the week after the election. For smaller campaigns, it's easy for bad candidates to say "I had a bad manager" and to even lie and say "they stole" or some other nonsense instead of owning up to their own failures. When these ships sink, the captain is not honorable on many of these campaigns. 

Many of these campaigns can offer lessons that are relevant, vibrant and important for the rest of your career in politics. Many of these campaigns can also tax your savings, ruin your morale and sap your spirit. Some campaigns can do both. But the point is, you want to weigh your options when you're approaching these different types of campaigns. Some people would rather stuff envelopes on a winning mainstream campaign than be a campaign manager on a long-shot campaign. Being acquainted with a winner is sometimes better than being best friends with a loser.

Some long-shot campaigns are great, and you should jump at the opportunity to be a part of their team. Others, however, are thankless, soul-crushing experiences that you should run from. Hopefully this can help you determine where you're at in your career, what's important to you, and how to distinguish between things that will help your career, and those that will largely be a waste of time.

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