Everyone in the business of politics is now trying to glean lessons from the 2008 cycle. Add to that list all the young operatives-to-be who are still in the classroom, hoping their coursework will help launch a stellar career. What are the smartest things these fledgling politicos can do to set themselves apart from their peers? We asked several of the nation’s top academics for their answers…
Apply your online skills
By Julie Germany, director of George Washington University’s Institute of Politics, Democracy and the Internet
The last few election cycles have increasingly relied on the Internet to drive fundraising and mobilization, and we have every reason to believe the Internet will play an even greater role in future elections. Students should learn to apply what they already know from using the Internet in their daily lives—from organizing parties on Facebook to posting videos on YouTube—to politics. Internet literacy is a skill set many students already possess. They don’t have to learn it, and older consultants will continue to look to them to help with blog outreach, video editing and online activism. However, this expertise isn’t merely technical. You can design a fabulous website or platform, but unless you really understand how to apply those skills to campaigns, you will miss the boat. This includes understanding how ideas travel through a social network and how to organize people. If you can combine a practical understanding of politics with a technical understanding of the Internet, you’ll be a great addition to any campaign.
Focus on statistics
By Donald Green, director of Yale University’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies
One thing will be constant, no matter how campaign operations evolve: The student who has dreams of becoming a political operative needs to take two or more courses in statistics. Even those who manage campaigns, as opposed to doing survey or evaluation work, rely implicitly on their knowledge of statistics. Statistics teaches students to be critical consumers of causal arguments. The process of crafting campaign strategy boils down to weighing competing arguments about cause and effect, each of which makes a claim about costs, benefits and probabilities. There’s no better preparation than a couple of demanding courses in statistics.
Get out of the classroom
By Ken Rogerson, director of undergraduate studies, Duke University’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy
The best learning happens when ideas and concepts are put to the test outside the classroom. Take advantage of internships (don’t always look for those coveted “paid” ones), volunteer opportunities (with both political and non-political groups), field trips (from the local community to study abroad) and work experience.
Second, stay comfortable with the technology, but don’t let it become so much a part of your life that you don’t think critically about its implications and potential uses. The college-aged generation could be the source of the “big” technology ideas the next presidential candidates will use in their campaigns. Finally, really begin to grapple with your own ideology. The two big U.S. political parties are so broadly defined they may not represent everything a young person believes. Ask yourself hard questions about the relationship between moral judgments and government, between religious belief (or the lack thereof) and politics, and between sweeping political promises and individual needs. Young people who can clearly articulate their political leanings without getting emotional are a valuable commodity.
Know the new winning strategies
By James Thurber, director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies
First, students need to learn about the strategies and tactics that worked in the 2008 presidential campaign. Sen. Hillary Clinton and her adviser Mark Penn, for example, learned the hard way that caucuses count. She won in the primary states at the end of the campaign, but it was not enough to overcome President-elect Barack Obama’s early wins in the caucus states. Students need to understand the techniques and strategies of organizing in those caucus states.
Second, students need to know all of the online/Internet techniques for bringing in campaign contributions from small donors. Obama has written the book on the democratization of campaign fundraising, and anybody entering politics now would do well to study how he brought in small contributions from more than three million donors.
Third, students need to learn how to build a campaign from the bottom up with volunteers who show up and work. Obama learned about voter mobilization from the Republican 72-Hour Project, but he turned it into a month-long project that involved a wave of new voters and volunteers. Early voting and mobilization of volunteers was a key part of his campaign. Students need to know all about grassroots mobilization and building networks of volunteers.