No One Can Whistle a Symphony, Part V: Introduction

This is the fifth in a series of posts that include pieces of my dissertation, No One Can Whistle a Symphony: Essays on Congressional Campaign Teams and Talent. It’s a little out of order, sure, but not by accident!

“No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.” – Halford Luccock, date unknown

“There is something wrong with these people.” – A campaign staffer in 2020

Campaign teams are a critical component of the U.S. political system. They where political power is gathered, fashioned and tested. They are where future legislators learn the political ropes, where many Americans’ active participation in politics begins, and where political coalitions and agendas are shaped and reshaped. This project asks three sets of questions: (1) How do political campaign teams form? (2) Do the characteristics of those campaign personnel have an impact on campaigns’ ability to raise funds and win elections? and (3) When campaign staff are hired into legislative offices, what impact do they have on representatives’ legislative effectiveness and subsequent electoral success? In answering these questions, this project expands scholarly understanding of the role of staff and teams in the political process and provides policymakers with actionable, evidence-based guidance on hiring in political campaigns and legislative offices.

Despite their importance, campaign teams and personnel are a set of political actors that academic researchers, the general public, and even political operatives themselves know a puzzlingly small amount about. As one veteran political consultant told me:

You don’t really get a peek into this world unless you’re Karl Rove or David Axelrod…you typically don’t know who the hell these people are or what they do. I mean, my mom still doesn’t. To this day, she’ll ask questions like ‘Did you have something to do with that?’ ‘Yes, Mom.’[1]

In the 2020 election cycle, some $14 billion dollars flowed to and through this opaque network of full-time staff and consultants, an amount larger than the annual budgets twelve U.S. States , and a record likely to stand only until the next presidential election. In elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, the focus of this dissertation, serious candidates hire anywhere from 10-150 staff responsible for raising and spending an average of $1.6 million over the course of 12-15 months, an amount that climbs each cycle . Disbursement data from the Federal Election Commission suggests that in a typical House race, 20-30% of those dollars will be spent on staff or consultants. In the 2018 election cycle, for example, out of the $1.63 billion spent by House candidates, $414 million was spent on personnel.[2]

Still, understanding political campaign organizations is important not primarily because of the money they spend. Rather, campaign organizations merit study by virtue of the central role they play in the political process. First, these teams are at least partially responsible for getting elected officials elected. Their mistakes and successes help determine who represents Americans in Congress and who makes the laws that shape our lives. Second, candidates are humans, too, affected and influenced by the people around them. This means campaign personnel serve not just agents executing on campaign strategy; they are organizations that mediate the relationship between candidates and voters, shaping the beliefs, agendas and preferences of candidates that hope to become legislators. As James Q. Wilson put it, organizations “are not neutral devices…they are social systems that modify as well as express preferences” . Lastly, campaigns are a common entry point into professional politics, and it is worth considering who can, and who cannot, access this path and the influence that comes with it.

The chapters to follow include a review of relevant literature, three substantive chapters designed as standalone papers, and a conclusion. In Chapter 2, I describe the various strands of academic literature I draw from in order to understand campaign personnel and organizations. First, I discuss existing political science work on campaigns and elections, to which this dissertation contributes most explicitly. That includes work on legislative effectiveness, political parties and agenda-setting. I also lay out prior management literature on temporary organizations, organizational networks, human resource management, and entrepreneurial team formation. All of these carry insights that I introduce (and sometimes re-introduce) to political science and public policy literature.

Chapter 3, the first of the three paper-style chapters, is a qualitative comparative case study of eight congressional campaigns during the 2020 cycle. Drawing primarily from management literature on temporary organizations, I argue that political campaigns are best understood as project networks, one type of temporary organization. The paper describes and explains political campaign team formation: How and why campaigns hire the staff and consultants they do, how and why those individuals find and join particular campaigns. I find that while campaigns talk about political experience as a driver of hiring, personal networks dominate team formation processes. This network-driven hiring happens inside of two partisan networks that are distinct and shaped quite differently, based on the action of a few key actors in each party: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Emily’s List on one side, and large, private, for-profit consulting shops on the Republican side.

In Chapter 4 I examine whether campaign personnel have an impact on election outcomes. It begins with two characteristics of personnel that have proven determinative in other industries: (1) team experience and (2) team familiarity, or how much experience a team has working together in the past. I build measures of both from publicly available data on U.S. House elections from 2012-2016, then use multilinear regression to examine their associations with a candidate’s ability to raise campaign funds and earn vote share. Contrary to the expectations of management scholarship and to veteran political operatives, team experience is not associated with greater vote share or fundraising ability, except in one instance: Republican incumbents with more experienced teams of consultants earn more votes. Team familiarity, on the other hand, is associated with greater vote share for candidates from both parties, and with higher fundraising totals.

Chapter 5 tests the truism among political operatives that campaign staff (sometimes called political “hacks”) make for poor legislative staff (known as policy “wonks”). This lay theory lines up with management literature that would describe campaigns and legislatures as different task environments that should be costly to switch between. Unexpectedly, I find that from 2006-2016, legislators whose offices included higher percentages of campaign staff were no less effective at getting legislation passed, and did no better or worse at the ballot in subsequent elections.

[…] In Chapter 6, I conclude. I discuss what these results mean for scholarship on political campaigns and elections and describe future work on campaign organizations. I also discuss the implications of these results for candidates, staff and consultants.

A note on definitions

In interviews with campaign staff and consultants, it became clear that the word “consultant” had three distinct meanings:

  • A general consultant (sometimes just called “the consultant”) who oversees a campaign
  • A consultant dedicated to a specific task, e.g. print mailing or fundraising
  • Someone paid as a consultant, but working full-time for the candidate

In fact, in one exploratory interview a state-level candidate could not recall whether one member of their campaign team had been a consultant or a full-time staffer. To the candidate, the distinction didn’t matter. What mattered was that the staffer was working for that candidate and only that candidate. As a result, they remembered him as operating more like a full-time staffer than a general consultant or a task-specific consultant that might be working for multiple campaigns in one cycle.

In light of this and in hopes of preventing unnecessary confusion, I use the following definitions throughout the remainder of this dissertation:

  • Consultant refers to either a general consultant or task-specific consultant, which often work for multiple campaigns
  • Staff refers to full-time or part-time staff that are working for a single candidate as part of that candidate’s team
  • Personnel and Team include anyone paid to work for the campaign, whether as a consultant or staff, even where consultants are not always considered part of a candidate’s core team

Not discussed here—and also not raised by more than a small handful of people I interviewed—are volunteers. In public, political campaigns speak regularly about the importance of volunteers. They may be important, and are certainly worthy of future study. But their absence in these conversations points to a clear divide between volunteers and those personnel whom candidates consider part of the campaign organization.


[1] Rove and Axelrod managed campaigns for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively; together, they recorded a class on campaign strategy in 2018 for the online learning company Masterclass.

[2] In their 2005 book Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner claimed that Americans spent about as much on political campaigns as on bubble gum. Perhaps unintentionally, the authors repeated a factually incorrect talking point of Mitch McConnell’s: $2.2 billion was spent on the 2004 campaign, twice what the authors claimed. More appropriate to the business of politics, perhaps, is John Boehner’s (also incorrect) comparison of campaign spending to spending on antacids .

Part I: Executive Summary →

Part II: Acknowledgements →

Part III: Academic Conclusion →

Part IV: Policy Recommendations →

Part VI: The Rest →

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