HLS Democrats Host Campaign Training Series


Think you might want to run for office or run a campaign? Over the past few weeks, the HLS Democrats have hosted a series of campaign trainings designed to put into context all types of campaign work and roles. The last of the series is scheduled for Monday, April 23. Providing the candidate’s perspective, Rhode Island State Representative David Segal will relate his own experiences of being a young candidate and the process of running for office.

Before spring break, Dan Geldon, President of the Dems, led the first training session. Titled “Putting a Campaign Together,” the training sparked a good deal of interest, attracting over thirty students. Geldon presented a structural overview of typical campaign jobs by running though a roadmap of how a candidate may approach setting up her campaign. Focusing on the roadmap, Geldon outlined four keys steps to starting a campaign. First, and arguably the most important for launching a successful career, the candidate must begin reaching out to friends, potential donors, influential community leaders, and influential activities even before she announces her campaign. As Geldon explained, this outreach identifies loyal supporters willing to serve in the candidate’s kitchen, and provides some financial support to fund the next steps. At the same time, candidates should brush up on the federal and state election law.

Having built a base of support and some financing, candidates should begin hiring consultants and building a staff. Unsurprisingly, Geldon described consultants as essential, but potentially troublesome. Consultants generally are selected earlier than other staff, partly because their experienced advice is invaluable, and partly because picking a few helps to stop the slew of calls from the universe of consultants. As the universe of consultants is expansive, providing advice on topics from media, to voter targeting, to research, to general counsel, consultants tend to have an extraordinary amount of power on campaigns. Accordingly, as Geldon noted, it is important that candidates keep tabs on their consultants to ensure fights between them and the rest of their key staff do not slow down their efforts.

In terms of staff, arguably the most important position to fill correctly is campaign manager. A candidate’s manager serves as CEO of her campaign. Returning to the problem of potentially troublesome consultants, Geldon explained that while a good manager has clout and positioning to oversee staff, a great manager has clout and positioning to oversee staff and all the consultants. In addition to a campaign manager, candidates need to create and staff a fundraising department, a communications department, and a field department and field offices. Candidates also need staff to coordinate internet and email and their schedules. Overall, there are many opportunities for recent Harvard grads to get involved, even on smaller state campaigns. Just imagine the staff contact list for Presidential campaigns.

Geldon concluded by outlining four common campaign structure pitfalls: fast growth, decision breakdown, management burnout, and wandering consultants. As campaigns essentially are companies built from the ground up and then dismantled in the course of a year or so, these pitfalls are logical. While Geldon offered these pitfalls more as food for thought, his analogy to rapidly growing businesses provided a useful mindset for combating these inevitable issues.

Following up Geldon’s successful talk, last Wednesday, Tyler Rosen, the Dem’s 1L representative, led the second training session, titled “Lightning Tour of Message, Field, Press, and Money.” Having worked as a field director, press secretary and deputy manager on four campaigns, Rosen was the perfect speaker to discuss these four areas that are essential to a successful campaign.

What is a message? Former President Clinton’s “bridge to the 21st century” was a message. Message is not name identification, yard signs, or a laundry list of policy positions. It is a clear, concise, relevant, memorable, unified, and repeated reason why a candidate should garner your vote. Obama’s is “new leader to restore hope and change.” Hillary Clinton’s is “I’m competent.” McCain seems to be re-working his old 2004 message of “I shoot from the hip,” to a simple “I’m not that old.” Overall, messages break down into two types: change and don’t change. Based on the state of the current administration, it is unlikely that any 2008 Presidential candidates will brand themselves a “continue the tradition” candidate.

According to Rosen, the best messages highlight what is different about the candidate from her opponents; they are positive messages that inoculate what a candidate’s opponents are saying about her. Regardless, even a mediocre message is infinitely better than not having a message at all.

Once a candidate has a message, that message needs to be conveyed to the voting public, over and over and over. This is accomplished through field and earned media (formerly known as free media). Field is specifically targeted voter contact. Field includes voter identification and get out the vote by means of phone banking in addition to the walking or driving from door-to-door that most people associate with field. As one audience member asked, what techniques persuade voters? Rosen emphasized the importance of conversations as opposed to script-reading. He mentioned that one study found that engaging in a conversation, giving a person a reason to connect with you and your candidate, increased voter turnout seven to twelve percent. Otherwise, studies of other persuasion techniques have not shown any statistically significant increases in turnout. Finally, Rosen stressed the necessity of a hard ask at the end of the conversation. Persuading a person to say yes to the “can I count on your vote” question leaves the voter feeling as though he just committed himself to voting for that candidate, which decreases the likelihood that he will renege on his promise at the polls.

Just as essential as field, earned media–anything dealing with the press–traditionally included press releases, press events, television and talk radio interviews, letters to the editor, and talking with newspaper editorial staffs. In the age of the Internet, candidates also must consider blogs and other websites. In fact, as Rosen explained, when a candidate is outside the privacy of her home, there is no longer such a thing as “off the record.” While the potential returns on earned media have increased with such constant exposure, so has the potential for candidates to make mistakes. Perhaps that is why candidates seem so dry and boring.

To conclude, Rosen addressed the least favorite part of a candidate’s job, but what candidates spend most of their time tackling: fundraising. Indeed, Rosen estimated that candidates spend sixty percent or more of their time fundraising. As with earned media, websites and blog advertisements have been added to the traditional ways to fundraise: calling individuals (friends, family, and political and ideological givers), soliciting PACs and other organizations that donate, sending out mailings, hosting events, and establishing a finance committee. Similarly, mirroring the necessity of a hard ask in field, it is essential that candidates make a hard ask at the end of their fundraising conversations. Otherwise, how will their hard-working fundraiser be able to hound the donor effectively?

Based on audience interest and involvement, the Democrats’ campaign training series has been quite a success. As mentioned, the last installment in the three part series is scheduled for April 23 and features Rhode Island State Representative David Segal.

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