Dust from the midterm donnybrook is settling, but the campaign world is already moving on. The dawn of a campaign cycle with an open race for the White House means lots of well-funded and well-staffed primaries, in addition to a general election campaign. Here are some tips on positioning yourself for campaign employment in 2016.
The first rule of thumb is “manage your expectations.” Regardless of how highly skilled you were at your last job, or what your GPA was in college, if you’ve never worked in politics, you need to be willing to start at the ground level. Most of the time, that means going out into the field as a canvasser or field organizer. Notice that I chose not to say “start at the bottom.” This is an extremely important distinction as there is no “bottom” in politics because every position is vital in a successful campaign or organization.
Working on a campaign, or in any political organization, is unlike work in other industries. It requires a basic understanding of how campaigns run, and that only comes from actually doing the work. And no matter how many campaigns you’ve volunteered for, it’s just not the same as being on staff.
No Better Time than the Present
Whether you have experience working in politics or not, there’s no better time than now to begin charting your path to 2016. Many opportunities are available on the 2015 off-year races. Moreover, these are opportunities that develop the same skill sets and work toward the same goals as positions on larger campaigns. Unions, advocacy groups, direct mail consultants, fundraising and media firms, and pollsters are all active to varying degrees in off-year campaigns.
Location, Location, Location
If your goal is to work on a presidential campaign, then location is key. When primary campaigns set up shop in the early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, they look to hire talented staffers who have knowledge of the local political landscape. Look to see if state lawmakers are hiring staff, as this can be a great way to gain that experience.
Whether the top of the ticket is your goal or not, there are always battleground or swing states where a lot of attention will be placed during a presidential contest. Many of these states will also have targeted, high-profile congressional and gubernatorial contests, as well as important races in the state legislature. Work your network and get acquainted with the local players to identify the best opportunities for you.
Supply and Demand
There are some specific skill sets that are highly valued in politics, such as field, data and targeting, finance, communications and digital. Taking the time to invest in yourself and your marketability by participating in trainings in 2015 is a smart move. There are a number of great training organizations—both partisan and nonpartisan, which can help you gain or improve upon these skills. These trainings are also the perfect place to demonstrate that you’re a smart and hardworking individual, while simultaneously networking with folks, some of whom may be hiring. Some training is free or low cost, while others are more expensive. Be sure to inquire about scholarship opportunities.
Timing is Everything
There’s a method to the madness of hiring on campaigns. Knowing the schedule of when specific roles are filled can help you prepare. The first department to be staffed is finance: Campaigns need cash. Finance roles may be filled months before others, and will be needed throughout the campaign.
One of the next roles is communications, typically the communications director, as the campaign will need to get its message out and frame the opposition. The field department will be the next to be built up because the tasks of identifying, training, and managing volunteers are imperative. Depending on the campaign, the cycle, and your location, tap into your network to find out what the needs are and when opportunities may be available. And don’t forget to take advantage of professional associations and sign up for job listservs to keep abreast of openings.
Lucy Hall is the COO of Democratic GAIN, a professional association for progressives.