Crash Course in Campaigning


John Thorlin ’12 campaigns for his run at the Massachusetts State House of Representatives

While most of his peers were learning about politics in the classroom, one Harvard Law student was experiencing the ups and downs of a real political campaign—including defeat.

John Thorlin ’12 lost the Massachusetts primary election to James J. Lyons, Jr., on Sept. 14, ending his bid to be the Republican nominee in the race to fill the an Essex County seat in the state House of Representatives.

The district encompasses Andover, Thorlin’s hometown.

While Thorlin attended Georgetown University before transferring to Harvard University, he and his friends started a conservative and libertarian newspaper. Thorlin graduated from Harvard in 2009 and started at the law school that fall.

“I’ve always kind of been into politics,” he said. “That’s kind of what motivated the run.”

After hearing about the race in his home district last spring, he decided to take advantage of the fact that his hometown is only a short distance from the law school.

“At that time, there was one other person who was considering getting into the race, but he didn’t end up getting into it for a variety of reasons,” Thorlin said. “So I thought, ‘eh, it shouldn’t be too bad.'”

In fact, Thorlin would end up facing a particularly well organized opponent who spent more than three dollars for every one of Thorlin’s. Thorlin spent $3,594.93. His opponent, spent $13,401.99, according to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance website.

To get on the ballot, Thorlin went home for three weekends to knock on doors and gather the 150 signatures required. It took time, he said, but Thorlin had help with the campaign from his parents, two high school interns, and about ten members of his 1L section.

“I had really great support from people I knew from section,” he said. “It was actually kind of shocking—really kind of transcended political lines. I would say over half the people who volunteered from HLS were Democrats.”

Regardless of help, Thorlin still had to think on his feet. During a sign-waving gathering on a street corner, a man asked Thorlin about his position on “aliens.”

“I was like ‘Are you asking me about immigration?'” Thorlin said. “He was like ‘No. I want to know what you are going to do about the federal government hiding aliens.’ I was tempted to give like an Erie doctrine kind of answer: ‘that is not really a state law issue.'”

However, instead, Thorlin told the concerned citizen, “I’m pro E.T., but against the aliens in ‘Independence Day.'”

Thorlin spent the summer after his first year of law school commuting between Washington D.C., where he worked for Gray & Schmitz LLP, and Andover to campaign. He was able to conduct some of his campaign from D.C. via phone interviews with newspapers and letters to the editor in local newspapers.

“From a retrospective point of view, not having as much time to knock on doors and do the kind of nitty gritty campaign [because of being in D.C. for the summer] is probably why I lost,” said Thorlin.

Early Interview Program (EIP) and the first two weeks of this school year presented an extra challenge. During EIP week, Thorlin also had two debates and a speech to make for the campaign.

“So every day I had to prepare for the interviews in the morning and [in] afternoons speed back to my home district just in time to get there,” he said.

During EIP interviews, Thorlin was also careful to emphasize that the State House was a “citizen’s legislature” where representatives are expected to have regular full-time jobs. Thorlin was never sure if a law student running for public office raised interviewers’ eyebrows.

“A lot of people would say ‘good for you,’ but you don’t really know what they are thinking,” he said.

Thorlin’s campaign strategy was to target youth voters, Republicans, and independents who did not identify themselves as social conservatives. Thorlin took more libertarian stances on many issues compared with his Republican opponent.

To gain name recognition, Thorlin organized mass mailings and “standouts,” where supporters stood in high-traffic areas at rush hour holding signs advertising the campaign.

“That is kind of a bread-and-butter local campaign thing because a lot of it is just name recognition and visibility,” he said. “Getting your signs on the right locations on frequently traveled roads ends up being important.”

On the day of the primary, Thorlin stood outside voting centers for thirteen hours, shaking hands and waving signs. Without the budget to conduct polls, he really wasn’t sure what sort of result to expect.

“The most heartwarming experience of the campaign was just constantly throughout it was either people I didn’t know at all or people I wouldn’t have thought would have supported me [who] came up and [said] ‘I think its great what you are doing. You got my vote,'” Thorlin said. “I guess that is the essence of politics. It is nice to have people buy into your message and support your ideas.”

About 45 minutes after the polls closed, Thorlin learned that he had lost. Thorlin took 27 percent of the vote compared to Lyons’ 73 percent.

Thorlin said that while he enjoyed the experience, he probably wouldn’t run for local election again because the campaign became more about organizational logistics than substantive policy issues.

“Some parts are more fun than others,” he said. “I loved the speeches, loved doing interviews, loved having debates. Things like knocking on doors and doing telephone calls are kind of annoying grunt work, but at the same time some of the really nice people you meet are on the 60th door you have knocked on that day.”

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