No One Can Whistle a Symphony, Part I: Executive Summary

A year ago (or so) I defended my doctoral dissertation, No One Can Whistle a Symphony: Essays on Congressional Campaign Teams and Talent. I learned many things, among them that only committee members and parents read doctoral dissertations. So here it is, in bite-sized chunks! First chunk:

No One Can Whistle A Symphony: Executive Summary*

Political power is gathered, fashioned, and tested in campaign organizations. Here, future legislators learn the political ropes, political coalitions and agendas form, and many Americans participate in politics for the first time. Yet while U.S. elections are closely studied, largely absent from this research is an investigation of campaign organizations themselves or the people they comprise. This dissertation examines how campaign teams form, and their impact on U.S. elections and policy.

I argue that campaigns are most usefully understood as project networks, a type of temporary organization studied by management scholars. They are time-bounded structures operating on fixed-length projects inside of a larger network of permanent organizations that includes political action committees, consulting firms, and candidate support organizations. Through case studies of eight U.S. House campaigns during the 2020 campaign cycle, I find tensions between temporary campaigns and permanent organizations shape every facet of the campaign, including the distinct ways Democratic and Republican candidates structure their campaigns. At the center of the Democratic campaign network are the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a small number of political action committees. At the heart of the Republican network are large, privately owned consulting shops.

How do these tensions shape political campaign team formation? I find that while campaigns report hiring for professional experience, personal networks and ad hoc decision-making drive team formation in political campaigns. One result of this network-driven hiring is that campaigns tend to hire candidates that come from similar groups and backgrounds, to the exclusion of other groups, including women and people of color.

To take a closer look at campaign team experience and prior shared work experience, I build a database of all campaign personnel 2003-2016 from publicly available data on campaign expenditures. I find that hiring personnel based on shared prior experience mostly served U.S. House candidates well in elections from 2012-2016, earning them more votes and—at least for Republican candidates—more money. Hiring more experienced personnel, by contrast, was not associated with greater vote share or more money raised except in the case of Republican incumbents hiring Republican consultants.

What happens to these teams after the election? Conventional wisdom holds that political hacks make bad policy wonks. I combine the data on campaign personnel with existing data on legislative staff and find that from 2005-2016, representatives who hired campaign staff into their congressional offices were no less effective as legislators and did no worse at the ballot box in subsequent elections.

These findings advance our understanding of U.S. elections, legislative staff, and teams and organizations in politics. They contribute to our understanding of temporary organizations by extending the theory to a new, non-market setting. Most importantly, these findings help us understand an important component of the U.S. political system: the teams that work to determine who governs, and whose work shapes the attention of the electorate and the priorities of legislators.

* Technically, this is an abstract, rather than an executive summary. But who reads “abstracts?


Part II: Acknowledgements →

Part III: Academic Conclusion →

Part IV: Policy Recommendations →

Part V: Introduction →

Part VI: The Rest →

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