This issue’s Shoptalkers: Kate Chapek, national women’s vote director on President Obama’s 2012 reelect; Lucinda Guinn, WOMEN VOTE! Director at EMILY’s List; Jen Harrington, director of operations at Conservative Connector; Casey Phillips, co-founder of Red Print Strategy.
C&E: Were all of you prepared for the realities of campaign life when you started out?
Jen Harrington: I was actually still in college when I started so I took a semester off to do the 2004 presidential campaign. That kind of life was definitely somewhat of a surprise, but at that age you’re at a point in life where it’s fun.
Lucinda Guinn: Working the Iowa caucuses in the dead of winter when it’s really cold wasn’t exactly a vacation, but it was kind of like summer camp for political hacks. We all went out and worked really hard, and it was absolutely fun.
Casey Phillips: I would go back on the road in a second. I loved it. The fact that my credit card bill got very high and my parents never understood what I was doing was a different challenge. They would always ask, “Why don’t they give you a raise?” And then you think about that and realize you’re the campaign manager and in control of your own salary. I would say, “Sorry mom, the campaign just can’t afford to pay me any more money.” But it was really a phenomenal time. It was just the best time of my life.
C&E: Did you all have parents or other family who just didn’t understand why?
Guinn: My parents didn’t understand. I still don’t think my parents actually understand what I do. They would talk about all the miles I was putting on my car and all the credit card debt and ask, “What are you doing?” And it does take a while to really learn how to save. I definitely had no idea. For the first four campaigns, I really had no idea how long you could go without working or what the job search would be like. So trying to train my family on these long periods of being unemployed was tough.
Phillips: You get good at it and you learn how to survive from December to March with no income. I did huge road trips across the country, crashing on couches while I was looking for jobs. You learn some tips on the road, too. Instead of putting everything back into my car, I would just go to FedEx and ship it all to my parents. That way I was at least able to see out of the back of my Jeep.
Guinn: At one point, I actually shipped my car. That was a big step.
C&E: What’s the best way to plan for the financial part? Do you just have to go through it a couple of times to figure it all out?
Harrington: I think everybody just gets blindsided by it the first time. I don’t know if there’s really any way around that. I just tell people to do something else in the meantime. Don’t just sit around while you’re waiting for campaigns to start hiring.
Guinn: And you may really have to live it once to learn lessons about saving enough to handle those periods. One thing I warn folks about is setting expectations. You’re probably not going to get your next job right away. You have to brace yourself for that. Think about what you want to do between campaigns, and maybe pick up some hobbies.
Phillips: I guess I was just bullheaded enough to where I assumed everything would always work out. I was way too overconfident. I also knew that if I had to I could go back home to the ranch and fix fence, or go bounce at a bar. I had the possibility of trying out for the WWE at one point. I really didn’t know what I was going to do, but I always knew it was going to work out. The people who I saw falling off course were the people who just didn’t want to put in the time to work hard. I saw people getting ahead because they worked as hard as they could, didn’t care about the credit and didn’t take themselves too seriously—all of the things the people we all know who fail in this business do wrong.
C&E: What is it that drives you all to do this sort of thing for a living, especially given all the time you have to spend on the road?
Harrington: I like the tactical aspect of it. What’s required to actually get the votes you need to win a campaign? And in the end, you either win or you lose. There’s a decisiveness there that appeals to a certain type of personality. If you outwork and outraise the other side, that’s just awesome.
Phillips: I’ve come to grips with the fact that it’s just a character flaw. I am an absolute campaign junkie. I don’t want to lose a Buffalo wing-eating contest, much less a campaign. I just don’t like to lose.
Guinn: I’m absolutely competitive in everything I do. So my goal when I got to the office in the morning as a manager was to make the other manager’s day suck. And of course we’re all in this because we want to make the world a better place and defend our own set of ideals, but you also have to be someone who’s willing to do this type of work.
Kate Chapek: I think it depends on where and why you started. For me, I didn’t even know campaigning was an industry. The first time I walked into a campaign office, it literally changed my life. It was the first time I had ever been in a place where so many people were working toward the same goal. I realize this sounds naïve, but for me it felt like an actual group of people working toward a common goal that wasn’t just about them. I recognize now that people have other motivations, but folks start of wanting to have an impact on people. That’s important.
Guinn: Picking up on what Casey said earlier, I would do anything to be 23-years-old again and be back on the road. There comes a point where you grow very tired of that lifestyle, and there came a point where I just couldn’t live on an air mattress in someone’s living room anymore.
Phillips: I figured out a way to get mattresses when I was on the road. I would go into town and head to the furniture store to talk to the delivery guys. I would say, “If you get a mattress that hurts someone’s back or that someone is getting rid of that’s relatively new, I’ll give you a case of beer for it.” Within two days, they would always call me. I would keep a plastic mattress cover on it just in case.
C&E: Any horror stories from living on the road?
Harrington: I was staying in supporter housing on this one campaign, and they had field mice downstairs where I was sleeping. I could hear them scratching in the walls at night, and sometimes I could hear them run across the room. I was staying with a really nice couple so I didn’t want to say anything, but what was supposed to be a four week campaign turned into three months.
Guinn: I had a squawking parrot situation in supporter housing on a campaign. I was already working very late and not really sleeping, but as soon as the sun would come up this parrot just started squawking. It wasn’t good. But I had to be very careful. These were nice folks who were letting you live in their home. They also may be donors to the campaign or supporting the campaign in a major way. So it can really be tricky.
Phillips: I had a sheriff show up and condemn the headquarters of a campaign I was doing. We got a free place for our headquarters—it was a home, but there were apparently some squatters up in the second story who I guess were causing some trouble. So I had to clean the place up a bit. I laid linoleum on the floor; I painted the walls. Before we could really get going with the campaign a sheriff showed up to condemn the building. So I basically pleaded with them to let us stay.
C&E: What did you all wish you knew before you jumped into the campaign life?
Chapek: I think I came at it backwards. I joke that if this profession was the alphabet, I’m dyslexic. I didn’t go through campaign training where I learned how to write a field plan or a finance plan. I didn’t know those pieces so I always just stumbled through and learned the hard way. That’s what campaigns are. You constantly need to adjust your plans along the way and that’s a really difficult lesson for young people. When you’re doing things right in a campaign, people don’t walk around giving you high fives all day. But when you make mistakes, you’re going to hear about it. You need to realize as a young person on a campaign that you will make mistakes, and sometimes those will be big mistakes. But that’s OK, because it’s how you learn a lot of the time. No matter how long you have done this for, you’re always going to be a student on campaigns.
Guinn: You never forget once you’ve made a mistake. And I think you absolutely learn more from the races you lose than from the races you win. Phillips: I made a big mistake on the second campaign I ever worked and I was fired instantly for it. The good thing was that I was hired back four days later. They called me back and rehired me for a different position in the campaign. They wanted me to work for them; they just didn’t think I was well suited to the previous role I was in.
Chapek: To young people on campaigns, here’s a good rule: Don’t make shit up. If you don’t know something, say so. I’d rather have you look at me and tell me you don’t understand what I’m asking you than to pretend you do. I did it when I was young, but I don’t do it anymore. There’s nothing worse than getting caught not knowing and then screwing something up. You don’t actually have to know everything. It really is OK to stop and ask.
C&E: Is there any such thing as work-life balance on the campaign trail?
Harrington: If you’re a staffer on a major race and you’re attempting to have a private life, you’re not doing it right. There’s just not enough time in the day to accomplish what a campaign needs to accomplish to win if the top staff isn’t focused. There are plenty of people who attempt to do this, but there’s a big difference between those people and the committed people. You’re not going to have date night every Friday.
Phillips: At least not with the same person. But seriously, having a relationship person stick around with you through those years on the road just isn’t all that realistic. And dating inside the campaign is not really a good idea.
Guinn: It’s a terrible idea, but sometimes it’s your only option. But Jen is right, if you’re on a major race and not really connected to it all the time, you are doing it wrong. But you do have to find those small moments where you have just a little bit of time to yourself. I know some managers who go to a movie every Sunday night and that’s really the only two hours they have to themselves all week. For me, I had to go to the gym and I started lifting. I like to run and bike ride, but I couldn’t be away from my phone for that long. I started lifting so that I could be on my phone during the rest periods, which I realize is crazy.
Chapek: Before I moved to D.C., I did a lot of races in California where I’m from. I worked there for a while before I started doing races in other parts of the country. But once I left, it occurred to me that it was so much harder doing races in L.A., because I always knew what I was missing. My social life was in Southern California. I’m a mom now; I have a 4-year-old girl. She was 2-years-old when I had the opportunity to go work on President Obama’s reelect. It was a really hard decision for me and my family.
My partner works here, and I initially thought that we could all just move to Chicago. That wasn’t realistic for him. And even if we did all move, at the end of the day it was still a campaign. I would be working really long hours and I wouldn’t be home in time to see my daughter very much anyway. He pointed out it might just make me feel more guilty, so maybe it would be best if I just commuted to Chicago.
During the campaign, a lot of women would tell me how amazing it was that I was a mother and still here mobilizing them. And I would have to point out that I wasn’t with my daughter during the campaign. I know people have a lot of opinions about the decision I made, but that was the reality. There was only one other mother at headquarters. She and her daughter lived across the street from headquarters and she had to balance that. It was excruciating for her; I watched her do it. So I don’t know which was better.
Phillips: I find that story fascinating. That’s a whole different level than me living in my car.
Chapek: And I lived in supporter housing in Chicago with this amazing same-sex couple who had two little boys. There was a lot of comfort in living with their family, because I was able to be around their kids a bit. That was a wonderful stabilizing thing, but I don’t know that I would do it again like that. The justification for my family was about my daughter. I had the feeling that the election was very important, specifically for young women.
C&E: Is there a certain point at which you all realize you have to stop being on the road constantly?
Phillips: I’m still on the road a ton, but I’m based here now. I got married and we bought a house. Sometimes I’m home, but I travel once a week to pitch or to shoot TV ads. That’s just something you figure out as you go. How do you balance the travel the career requires, but still have a family and make that work, too?
Guinn: I have made a conscious effort to stop going on the road. But we have so many competitive House and Senate races in really cool places. There’s a certain appeal in going on the road for those. I’m not sure the appeal of that will ever really fade for me.
Phillips: This comes back to something I think we’ve danced around here—this is an adventure. That’s what gets us out on the road and that’s what pulls us back in. We don’t know what’s going to happen in our careers tomorrow. Something could change that just totally changes what every one of us in this room does tomorrow. I think that’s part of what attracts us to this business.
C&E: And you don’t need a D.C. address as much as you did in the past. That can change the way you map out your career, right?
Chapek: As I’m seeing more and more, young people think they can just come to D.C. There’s now a culture of D.C. looking cool and interesting. You see so many people here now that are starting to plateau at 25 or 26-years-old. They’re stuck at junior level or mid-level and they can’t go any further, because they don’t want to leave D.C. They have a great time here and they have their life, but depending on where you want to go, you need more campaign experience. I’m now having conversations with folks in their late-20s who say they’re too old to go out on the road, but they’re also too old to have reached their limit in D.C. They say, “I think I have to go out on the road.” Well, yeah, of course you do. Do it for 15 months and you’ll be fine. We all did it for a lot longer.
Phillips: I could not possibly agree more. I get people who call me and say, “I’d love to come work for your consulting firm.” Well, how many races have you done? And they tell me they came here right out of graduate school or wherever. So I say, “I have a state Senate race in Oklahoma that I can send you out to work on.” And they say, “Oh, I don’t know about that. I’ve got a boyfriend and I really think I want to stay here.” Well, I can’t do much for you then.
Chapek: That’s why I think it’s a blessing for folks who did spend years on the road. Everything comes back to how many mistakes you made and what you learned from them. That seems so tough for folks these days who think that a year on the road is just so awful.