No One Can Whistle A Symphony, Part III: Academic Conclusion

This is the third in a series of posts that include pieces of my dissertation, No One Can Whistle a Symphony: Essays on Congressional Campaign Teams and Talent. Here is the first half of the conclusion, written primarily for an academic audience:

“You’re only as good as the team you surround yourself with…you kind of live and die by them.” – A 2020 Congressional candidate

“For far too long, progressives have underinvested in talent,” reads the tagline of the website for Arena, a training program for progressive political candidates and staff. Founded in 2018, Arena is a relative newcomer to the world of training campaign staff. The Republican-funded Leadership Institute, by contrast, has trained a generation of Republican campaign operatives since its founding in 1979.

Academics have underinvested in the study of political talent, too. The time between the 1979 launch of the Leadership Institute and the 2018 founding of Arena mirrors the gap between two eras of academic research into political staff, one in the 1970s; and another that gathered steam in the 2010s, focusing in large part on legislative staff and campaign consultants.

This dissertation contributes to that second wave of research by expanding its aperture to include political campaign staff. In this conclusion I summarize that research, including where it fits into others’ work and what work remains to be done. I end with some observations and recommendations for policymakers, candidates, personnel, party leaders and regulators.

Findings and Contributions

In Chapter 3 I argue campaigns are temporary organizations. More specifically, campaigns are project networks: time bounded organizations operating on fixed length projects inside of a larger web of permanent organizations . This web includes party structures, political action committees, consulting firms and candidate support organizations. Many of the tensions scholars have found in project networks in other industries are present in political campaigns, too. One such tension is between the goals of the campaign and the permanent organizations around them, including the national party and, to a lesser extent, the consulting firms that serve them.

The other tensions identified by project network scholars have largely been resolved in this project network, though not always in a way that benefits candidates. Regarding the tension between individual and collective identity, for example, it is generally understood personnel have their own careers and firms to worry about. Each campaign is a part of those team members’ ongoing efforts to turn themselves into permanent fixtures of the political campaign network. The tensions between creating and transferring knowledge and crafting and standardizing practices are also mostly “resolved” in the campaign network. Function-specific knowledge and practices are transferred to function-specific consultants, while other knowledge and practices about campaign management remain mostly tacit and eventually lost as individual managers and consultants exit the system.

In political campaigns for the U.S. House, there are two project networks. At the heart of the Democratic project network are the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Emily’s List, an independent abortion rights political action committee. Democratic campaigns are mostly run by campaign managers, who oversee both staff and functional consultants. The Republican project network, by contrast, revolves around consulting shops that plan, organize, and execute Republican campaigns.

These two different systems shape the pathways through which political campaigns hire differently for Republicans and Democrats, but they share some commonalities. Candidates’ first hire, for example, matters in both networks, but it is more evident on the Republican side that the choice of a general consultant serves as a signal of the seriousness and viability of a campaign. Campaigns on both sides of the aisle hire almost exclusively through their existing and extended networks, though Democratic campaigns have begun to post jobs publicly. They do this in large part thanks to the absence of clear signals about the quality of campaign personnel; in an environment with such great uncertainty about the correlation between effort and outcome, it is next to impossible to judge the performance of an individual firm or staffer. Some campaigns go about this network-driven hiring carefully and thoughtfully, others less so. None of the campaigns interviewed here had an explicit, repeatable hiring process, nor was clear guidance on hiring forthcoming from party organizations or consulting firms.

One predictable result of this network-driven hiring is a tendency for campaigns to hire people from similar groups and backgrounds, to the de facto exclusion of other groups, including women and people of color. By the late 2010s Democratic campaigns had begun to wrestle with this question directly, to the point of making diversity and inclusion an explicit goal of some campaigns.

The tension between these two goals of Democratic campaigns—to win and to build a diverse bench of candidates and personnel—were just two areas of goal tension within campaigns. Surprisingly, neither hiring managers nor job seekers mentioned financial considerations in their list of motivations for hiring and joining campaigns. Despite the fact that campaign salaries and payments are publicly available on the Federal Election Commission’s website, salary was not part of campaign personnel negotiations. Interviewees expressed their self-interest in terms of competition, career, reputation, and power.

In Chapter 4, I answer quantitatively some of the questions raised in Chapter 3, finding that political teams’ history of working together, called team familiarity in management research, is positively associated with a candidate’s vote share and, for Republican candidates, the amount of money they are able to raise. Having a more experienced team, however, helps very few campaigns very little. It is not at all associated with greater fundraising and only associated with greater vote share when looking specifically at the experience levels of consultants working on Republican incumbents’ campaigns. Together, these results paint a picture of a mostly dysfunctional labor market, in which one of the primary signals campaigns might use to hire—prior experience running a campaign—doesn’t lead to better performance in fundraising or at the ballot box. On balance, candidates are better off hiring a team that has worked together before, than building a team full of veterans without a history of working together. More than half a century later, successful campaigns still follow the Daley machine advice, “not hiring nobody nobody sent” .

Chapter 5 follows campaign staff through the election and into Congress, where each year roughly 8% of legislative staff also worked in the prior election as campaign staff. Conventional wisdom is that political hacks make bad policy wonks, and that elected officials should not hire the former to do the latter’s job. I find, however, that elected officials who hire more campaign staff into their legislative office are no less effective as legislators than their peers, and do no better or worse in their subsequent reelection campaigns. While candidates may struggle to find competent staff in their campaigns, they are on balance able to use the campaign as a months-long job interview to find campaign staffers that will not negatively impact their legislative efforts.

Contributions to American Politics

The primary contribution of this dissertation is a straightforward one: it introduces campaign staff and campaign organizations as worth studying in their own right. It adds new knowledge about who campaign personnel are, what motivates their decisions to join campaigns, what motivates candidates and managers to hire them, the order in which they are hired, the different organizational structures that they inhabit, and how they impact campaigns. This knowledge contributes to scholarship on elections, Congress, and public policy theory.

The majority of empirical work on U.S. elections revolves around questions of campaign finance, incumbency advantage, ideological alignment, and electoral outcomes. A smaller corner of the elections literature focuses on campaign effects. This literature is focused mostly on campaign communications and events, and whether they have an effect on voter behavior. This work turns the focus inward, to the individuals making the decisions that might have those effects and the ones responsible for raising and spending the money that campaign finance scholars follow.

This dissertation, and in particular Chapter 3, also reintroduces organizational theory to the study of political campaigns. As discussed in Chapter 2, political science scholarship took an institutional turn in the 1970s and 1980s, while organizational scholars in management departments carried some of the same early literature on organizations into the study of their internal processes and outcomes. As a result, there are some forty years of insight from organizational theory that might be applied not only to the study of political campaign teams, but to the study of all types of political organizations.[1]

The second body of political science work this dissertation contributes to is the study of individual actors in and around Congress—a small but growing field of work that has highlighted the role of lobbyists, political campaign consultants, and more recently, legislative staff. This paper examines the history of those legislative staffers that have a history of working on political campaigns. A subset of this work specifically examines the networks that comprise those actors. This paper contributes to that body of work, too, by demonstrating the way networks of shared work experience shape political campaign hiring.

Contributions to Public Policy Literature

By contributing to this growing body of work on subsets of actors in the political process, this dissertation also contributes to theory on the public policy process. Many theories of the public policy process have explicitly structural roots. The motivating imagery of information processing theory, for example, is earthquakes and punctuated equilibria in evolution. This does not lend itself to asking questions about the motivations and behaviors of individual tectonic plates or gene pools. But the system that information processing theory explains is full of actors making individual choices. Understanding what drives those individual choices will give us insight into not just the structure, but the agency of policy change.

Another contribution is to literature on the influence of the campaign trail on legislative behavior. That work has focused historically on the potential influence of campaign donations and only recently on how the issues discussed in campaigns might carrying over into congressional behavior . Chapter 5 of this dissertation is just the beginning of examining who, in addition to the candidates themselves, might be the agents carrying lessons from the campaign into congress.

Contributions to Management Theory

Lastly, this paper contributes to management theory on temporary organizations and project networks. As these scholars point out, an increasing number of modern organizations are designed to be temporary. Within permanent firms, more work is organized temporarily, with internal task forces or external consultants leading short-term, fixed-end projects. Yet we know little about how these kinds of teams form, who they are made up of, or how their formation affects their performance. This paper offers a view into multiple teams in two project networks—one Democratic, one Republican.

By extending temporary organization literature into politics, this paper also contributes a new kind of case to that literature. As with much organizational scholarship, the focus of temporary organizations has been on market-oriented firms and industries. When I approached this dissertation, I first conceptualized political campaigns as an industry. More fitting, however, might be a more sociological lens of political campaigns as a “field of action,” a wider category of human behavior that can encompass fields, like this one, where the activity is partly but not primarily economic.

Future Research Directions

The number of future research directions suggested by this dissertation is an embarrassment of riches. I discuss many of them in the conclusions of Chapter 3, Chapter 4 and Chapter 5; so I include here only a few of the most promising. The first is continued work on campaign staff. One obvious area to be explored with existing data is gender pay equity. Others include the variation across campaigns in reliance on consultants versus full-time staff; the degree to which personnel are located within or outside of a candidate’s district or state; and the centrality of staffers in the broader campaign network.

This dissertation is also just one example of how much political science might benefit from borrowing theory and methods from management scholarship on organizations, strategy and entrepreneurship. Qualitative interviews for this dissertation surfaced significant variation, for example, in how campaigns conceptualized and conducted strategic decision-making. In addition to political campaigns, there are a functionally limitless number of other organizations in politics that have yet to receive much attention, including the DCCC, NRCC and other central party organizations; the candidate support organizations that have become influential in Democratic campaign networks; and the consulting firms that dominate Republican ones. Another piece of qualitative work might explore mobility across political consulting firms, especially among Republican consultants, tracing the football coach-like lineages of consultants mentioned by one interviewee and how they contribute to knowledge spillovers across campaigns.

Finally, future work can bring questions of teams and organizations back into study of the public policy process. Information processing theory, for example, focuses on policy agendas. Only recently have scholars begun to ask how and whether campaigns or legislative staff shape those agendas. Asking about whether campaign staff might, too, could be one next step in studying the crossover staff introduced in Chapter 5. Staff, just like their bosses, operate within the constraints of bounded rationality and heuristic-driven decision-making that are the understudied microfoundations of information processing theory.


[1] In the 1970s some scholars did work on what they called political organizations; but they were speaking narrowly of voluntary political organizations, such as local, self-organized partisan clubs .

Part I: Executive Summary →

Part II: Acknowledgements →

Part IV: Policy Recommendations →

Part V: Introduction →

Part VI: The Rest →

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