This is the fourth in a series of posts that include pieces of my dissertation, No One Can Whistle a Symphony: Essays on Congressional Campaign Teams and Talent. In this, the second half of my dissertation’s conclusion, I write not for academics but for candidates, political professionals, policymakers, and citizens with an interest in campaign teams and staff. Click here for the research underneath these observations!
Practical Observations and Policy Recommendations
For candidates and political operatives. It will come as no surprise that candidates and campaigns hire mostly through networks and mostly based on who has worked with whom on previous campaigns. What may be less obvious is why that happens, what costs it carries, and how they might mitigate some of those downsides.
What I discovered in the course of this research were two key drivers behind the way that campaigns hire. The first is the temporary nature of campaigns; the second is the general uncertainty about which campaign activities lead to what campaign outcomes. The impermanence of campaigns, combined with their pace, turns hiring processes into quick, gut-driven affairs in which managers choose from among people readily at hand. The uncertainty of campaigns means that it is difficult to tell signal from noise in hiring; how is a hiring manager to know whether a campaign was successful at raising funds because of the finance director or because of the candidate? Together, these factors lead campaigns to hire through the dense networks created by shared work experience on prior campaigns.
This makes some strategic sense but carries a great cost. First, it means campaigns can’t identify and learn from their hiring mistakes in a structured way from campaign to campaign. They rely instead on untested rules of thumb, informed not by testing but from candidates and consultants that attribute their success to their own skill, rather than to chance. Second, it means campaigns move too fast to avoid the mistakes network-driven hiring are known to lead to. By hiring people who think similarly, they build teams with fewer diverse perspectives available in making difficult decisions. Third, hiring quickly means campaigns seldom understand the motivations of their employees, and lose the chance to place them in positions where they might be most effective.
As interviews for Chapter 3 revealed, Democratic campaigns now face another set of issues created by this pattern of hiring. Because unstructured hiring processes lead managers to hire who they know and who they are comfortable with, it means women and people of color are underrepresented among campaign staff. And though not shown here, it’s likely the case that the informality of hiring in political campaigns leads to disparities in pay. A series of recent sexual harassment scandals has highlighted what female staffers already knew: the world of politics and campaigns is a minefield of potential abuse of staff, who are only just beginning to organize themselves into unions in some Democratic campaigns.
Another effect of the way political campaigns hire is that political operatives, as shown in Chapter 4, do not stay political operatives for long. As one former staffer shared with me, there is no development pipeline in political campaigns. Only when this staffer left politics for work at a consulting firm did they have a boss who asked them about their short-term and long-term career goals.
For party leaders. There are way party leaders might address some of these issues. The first is to build up more human capital resources for campaigns. Democratic organizations already offer resume banks and reviewing to campaigns they support. This could be expanded to include training on hiring processes. Those resume banks can also be expanded into databases searchable by both candidates and personnel, so candidates could better understand the work histories of the people they are hiring. Staffers could use it to conduct background research on their potential employers, and avoid toxic work environments. Such a database, perhaps alongside human capital consulting services, could be operated by a party, a candidate support organization, or a consulting firm operating either as a for-profit, a non-profit, or a worker-owned cooperative.
As the Democratic support organization Arena has discovered, both parties have underinvested in training campaign staff. This is beginning to change. Still most of the training provided to campaign staff is technical training focused on fundraising or communications or field operations. Precious little training exists on building or managing teams, or how campaign staff might build a career or a consulting firm out of their experience.
For Democratic leaders. Part of the reason Democratic candidates struggle to find competent staff, while being inundated with offers from consultants as soon as they file is that the on-again, off-again lifestyle of political campaigns leaves staffers with no professional development path and no stable employment. Democrats can learn something from Republicans here, where campaign staff are often absorbed in the off season into consulting firms that also serve other clients, giving them some stability between campaigns. One path forward for Democratic leaders might be to build more organizing roles for experienced staffers between campaign cycles.
For Republican policymakers and political operatives. What little history exists on the National Republican Campaign Committee suggests that its influence began to wane in the 1990s, around the same time Newt Gingrich moved to reform the Republican Party. In the gap (or rather, the market) left by the decay of those institutions, for-profit Republican consulting firms have become the repositories of knowledge and practices and de facto gatekeepers of Republican primaries. One result of this privatization of Republican campaigns was the absence of an institutional party structure that anti-Trump Republicans could use to stop the rise of Donald Trump in 2015 and 2016. Today, Republicans are defined primarily as being either pro- or anti-Trump. I argue the only way out of this situation is to renew some of the party institutions that decayed after the 1980s, so as to become independent pillars of power within the Republican Party. I believe these institutions can be reconstructed so as to re-factionalize and channel popular voices within the Republican Party, rather than to shut them out.
For policymakers and activists focused on government transparency. Some good news: the Federal Election Commission has a tremendous amount of publicly available information on political campaign staff and consultants in expenditure reports campaigns are required to submit. But like federal data on lobbyists, it is not always easy to work with. And there is, to my knowledge, no data on legislative staff available to the public online. I had to pay a private, for-profit company for this data about our public institutions.
There are other some quick transparency wins to be had here. Legislative staff data should be available to citizens, for example, not just to paying lobbyists. Data on campaign staff, consultants, lobbyists, and legislative staff should be connected, searchable and downloadable in multiple common data formats. Campaign personnel, including individuals working at campaign consulting firms, should have unique identifiers, as do lobbyists, so that we have a more perfect idea of who is shaping our government. If this were the case, we could more easily track a legislative staffer moving to managed an allegedly unaffiliated Super PAC or taking time off from working in a legislative office to “volunteer” on a a boss’s campaign.
For citizens and students of democracy, I offer a small note of hope. Political campaigning, the path by which policymakers rise to power, is a network without clear, fixed boundaries. Incumbents can be challenged, unknown candidates can raise money and elections can be run by smart people without a tremendous amount of political experience. The uncertainty and porous borders of political campaigning offer multiple entry points for citizens to shape government. The public square may be full of problems, as American philosopher John Dewey wrote, but it is full of possibility, too.