“Better to be the architect of something you can endorse than the placard-waving protagonist standing in the rain.”
TIM WOODS, Communications Consultant
Political campaigns offer the opportunity to develop and refine a wide assortment of skills in an extremely fast-paced and flexible environment. Moreover, they give a unique perspective into the electoral process, as well as the cares and concerns of elected officials and the American public. Campaign work can often lead directly or indirectly to government employment down the road.
Campaign work is certainly not for everyone. There is usually little formal mentoring, little structured feedback, little administrative support, and little free time – and given the finite nature of the campaign cycle, often little long-term stability. But for those with a passion for political campaigns or for getting a unique perspective on our democratic process, getting involved in one can be an incredibly rewarding and fruitful experience. And as in other career arenas, getting involved in one campaign is usually the best way to get involved in others down the road.
On What Type of Campaign Could I Work?
When you think of a campaign, you may first picture the presidential races most highlighted by the media. But there are thousands of campaign experiences and opportunities that are a long way from The West Wing, whether you are committed to a geographical region, a specific candidate, or a certain political party’s platform.
There are 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives (not including non-voting delegates from Washington, D.C. or the U.S. territories); 100 U.S. Senators; tens of thousands of state legislators, elected state judges, mayors, and city councilmembers; and hundreds of state governors, auditors, attorneys general, treasurers, and secretaries of state. The vast majority of elections to fill these offices feature some form of campaign.
Beyond elected officials, there is also a wide array of issue-oriented ballot initiatives or referenda which generate campaigns of their own, ranging from local school bonds to national hot-button issues such as abortion.
HOW DO I DECIDE WHICH CAMPAIGN IS RIGHT FOR ME?
Deciding on a campaign means evaluating your own constraints and identifying exactly what you want to get out of a political campaign experience, as well as thinking about how such an experience would fit into plans for your future. You should ask yourself questions along these lines:
What level of responsibility are you seeking?
With little experience but a high level of motivation and competency, you may find yourself in a relatively senior post on a small campaign – perhaps even running it. Good campaigns are meritocracies, and you can rise quickly if you earn it. However, it can be more challenging to secure a position with a lot of responsibility for one of the major parties’ presidential campaigns.
Can you get by with limited funding?
Larger campaigns will be more likely to support paid campaign positions, though even they may ask or expect you to work as a volunteer for a while. On the flip side, the biggest campaigns can also rely on a steady flow of volunteers and have less need to bring on non-essential paid staff.
How geographically flexible are you?
Do you want to stay close to home or are you willing to relocate?
Are you willing to travel, and if so, how frequently?
Do you prefer to work at campaign headquarters or in the field?
How much time do you want to devote to the campaign enterprise?
Any campaign will want to know that you are in it for the long haul before giving you a position of responsibility, but the “long haul” on a local campaign may be just a month or two, while the presidential “long haul” can be as many as two years. And there are ways to assist campaigns without working on them full-time; part time options amount to a distinct and valuable set of roles.
How sharp are your elbows?
There may be more competition and jostling for choice spots on a larger campaign, whereas a smaller campaign may experience less turmoil. Unfortunately, though, the degree of competition sometimes depends less on the size of the campaign and more on the quirks of an individual campaign structure.
HOW DO I CHOOSE A CANDIDATE?
Tip O’Neill is credited with explaining that “all politics is local,” and many individuals find it easier to land a position with a hometown or home-state candidate. Hometown status is no guarantee of a position, however, and many campaign staff work for public officials from thousands of miles away. If geography is a concern for you, you may want to consider where a candidate is based and whether you want to work at their campaign headquarters or occupy a more mobile role, like field organizing or advance work, in a particular campaign state.
The candidate’s popularity may also be a consideration, as the most popular candidates are also likely to foster the most competitive environments for job seeking. For example, it may be easier to secure a more prominent position with a candidate other than the frontrunner.
Don’t spend too much of your energy trying to guess who will win a campaign. Go where there is a candidate for whom you are passionate, and where there are opportunities that interest you. It’s also common for party nominees to hire staff from their former competitors’ campaigns after the losing candidates drop out of the primary process, so as you build skills, experience, relationships and reputation, you may be rolled up into a winning campaign. In some cases, it could be more advantageous over the long-term to have a more senior position with a losing candidate and be hired over to the eventual nominee’s senior team, than to have a very junior position with the winner. An exception to this rule is that some campaigns can turn incredibly nasty, and the winning campaign might not consider hiring anyone from a campaign that cast aspersions on their candidate.
WILL WORKING FOR A LOSING CANDIDATE IMPAIR MY CHANCES FOR PROFESSIONAL OPPORTUNITIES DOWN THE ROAD?
There are usually too many moving parts for success or failure to be attributed to one particular individual. As long as you have acquitted yourself well and commanded the respect of your supervisors and colleagues, there is little to no stigma attached to working for a losing candidate. In terms of your future job search, the experience is much more important than the result. In fact, many prominent lawyers have made valuable connections working on “failed” campaigns.
What Is Campaign Work?
CAN SOMEONE WITH A LEGAL BACKGROUND DO LEGAL WORK, OR CAN THEY BE USED EFFECTIVELY IN OTHER WAYS ON A CAMPAIGN?
If you mention that you are an attorney when you first present yourself to a campaign, it might be assumed that you want to do legal or policy work. There is certainly some legal work that will take advantage of your training on most campaigns. This could include: ensuring ballot access; evaluating election laws to help design absentee and get-out-the-vote strategies; surveying communications for compliance with various legal requirements; processing contributions and structuring fundraising events; reviewing contracts for personnel, field offices, equipment, and data; and helping to prepare reporting documents for submission to federal and/or state regulatory bodies. However, keep in mind that most campaigns, especially during primary elections, do have attorneys on staff who take on the various legal issues that might arise.
Policy jobs are often among the most sought after in a campaign. That being said, you don’t have to limit yourself to jobs with “policy” in the title to do policy-related work. Keep in mind that many forms of campaign work—including field organizing work such as canvassing, where you engage with the public to explain your candidate’s goals and ideas—include policy work and training as a part of messaging and voter engagement.
It is important to note that most attorneys do not necessarily do legal or policy work on campaigns. They work in virtually every capacity, including those that do not require legal skills. Lawyers have been fundraisers, political desk representatives, speechwriters, constituent liaisons, schedulers, advance team leaders, field organizers or field managers, volunteer coordinators, technology managers, spokespersons, communications consultants, media buyers, convention organizers, event planners, and even campaign managers. Detailed descriptions of various campaign functions are available at the end of this guide.
Many of the same skills that contribute to good lawyering—like the ability to work under pressure, synthesize information, and give attention to detail, to name just a few—are invaluable on the campaign trail, and many lawyers are sufficiently versatile that they are able to pick up wholly unfamiliar skills in the fast-paced campaign environment. Keep in mind that there are also frequent opportunities to try out different kinds of jobs across campaigns—you are by no means locked into whichever role you may start with.
Remember also that having a law degree or being a law student does not make you more qualified to work on a campaign than someone who has no legal experience. Employers value campaign experience. Even when the work involved is quintessentially lawyering, lawyering in the campaign context is more prized than fancy lawyering in another arena. That’s not meant to be discouragement: you can provide substantial value even without deep campaign background. If you do not have any campaign experience, show up and be willing to work hard at whatever is required.
The Hiring Process
HOW DO I GET INVOLVED, OR HOW DO I MAKE CONNECTIONS IF I DO NOT ALREADY HAVE THEM?
Although some campaign jobs are posted on online job boards, networking will always be a crucial way to obtain a job in the political field. Even if you don’t have inside connections, these can be surprisingly simple to cultivate. More so than most jobs, a spot on a campaign is rarely secured through the cover letter and interview process alone. Instead, someone you know will get in touch with someone they know to get the ball rolling. If you do not know anyone currently working on a particular campaign, reach out to campaign alums; many campaign workers are repeat players, and if a friend has worked on a campaign before, chances are good that he or she may know someone now working on the campaign that has caught your interest.
Use your college or law school alumni connections. Identify alumni working on campaigns or otherwise affiliated with partisan work (i.e., groups such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee or Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee). Also, student groups often have an inside track on the campaigns. Contact the presidents of the law school GOP or Dems, or the American Constitution Society or Federalist Society; they should be able to help you or put you in touch with someone who can. If they do not have any contacts, they could refer you to undergraduate partisan groups.
If you do not have a particular connection, you might simply show up at a campaign office or event, introduce yourself, and ask how you can help. If you can volunteer for a period of time, or are willing to travel, you may be put to work after just one visit to the campaign office with resume in hand. Watch social media, read the newspaper, and be on the lookout for ways to get involved with a campaign of interest to you.
Few high-profile jobs are parceled out to sudden volunteers, but you might be able to parlay a volunteer spot secured early in a campaign’s life cycle into something with more stability as the campaign gathers steam and takes on more people. Senior campaign staff will look to the people who are already involved with the campaign to take on positions of greater responsibility. If you can volunteer, put in the hours that the staff are putting in; they will respect your commitment and be more likely to consider you as one of their own. (More time = more connections.) But be careful not to act as though you are there just to “make connections”. Keep your head down and get your work done. Being good at what you do is one of the best ways to get noticed.
The second-best solution requires a bit of moxie and a bit of homework: look at regulatory disclosure records (the Federal Election Commission [FEC] for federal races, and equivalent state bodies for state races) to find out if a partner at a law firm with which you are affiliated was a major donor to a past campaign in the same party. Occasionally, major donors may know of available routes to campaign work even if they have not themselves worked full-time on a campaign. Also, research the campaign’s consultant disbursements to identify the outside people and firms involved in the campaign; these consultants can be another avenue to making connections on a campaign.
DO I HAVE A REALISTIC SHOT AT HIGH-PROFILE CAMPAIGNS IF I DO NOT HAVE AN INSIDE CONNECTION?
That depends on what you want to do. If you do not have an inside connection, you are not going to be the campaign manager of a presidential campaign, or even a highly-placed deputy. But if you do not mind a position that is considered less glamorous in the campaign world, a high-profile campaign is not out of reach, especially if you start early. Communications and policy work tend to be the most highly sought after, and therefore the first to go to people with inside connections. Other functions—especially field positions such as organizers, which are often more commonly available—may be more open to those without such a connection. Even in presidential campaigns, many people start as volunteers in the primary season.
TO WHOM WOULD I DIRECT MY APPLICATION?
It is not always easy to figure out where to send a campaign application. First, of course, check the campaign website for job postings, and follow application instructions for any that interest you. If there are no such postings, then on a smaller campaign, you might send your application directly to the candidate, or to the campaign manager. On a larger campaign, you may be able to determine the functional or geographic head of the department you want to work for from press reports or from the campaign website. There may be a central volunteer coordinator tasked with placing campaign volunteers. If you cannot determine the appropriate addresses from public sources, simply send your materials to someone whom you know to be affiliated with the campaign, and ask that they forward your materials to the appropriate individual.
WHAT MATERIALS SHOULD BE IN A CAMPAIGN APPLICATION PACKET?
If you are submitting your application cold, you should prepare a resume, emphasizing any political or campaign experience, and a succinct cover letter. This may be a different resume than you would have for other legal jobs; if you’ve had two or three campaign- or policy-related experiences, consider highlighting them in a separate section near the top. In your cover letter, you should state as clearly as possible what you would like to do on the campaign and how flexible you are willing to be. Keep in mind, as mentioned above, that there are not many policy or communications jobs on a campaign, especially for someone with no close connections. The most numerous and available jobs are often in the field—field organizers or field managers—so including a willingness to do this could help.
Often, campaign personnel are too overburdened to give much thought to placing new hires or volunteers, and may sit on an application simply because they do not have time to think of an appropriate placement. To the extent that your cover letter can save them the mental effort, it will be processed more quickly. Do not get so busy boasting about experience and qualifications in your cover letter that you fail to explicitly mention the candidate and your support of them.
Along the same lines, demonstrating your own competence will often speak louder than a resume. If you want to do a particular type of work that requires written output (briefing papers, policy papers, talking points, speechwriting), include an example of what you would produce for the campaign: not a generic writing sample, but something tailored for your position in your chosen campaign. The bigger the campaign, the more useful this approach will be. If you are living in Minneapolis and want to work on the gubernatorial race (or any other state or local race), writing out a stump speech is not going to be as effective as going down to a campaign office and introducing yourself. However, if you are from Cedar Rapids and write up a precinct-by-precinct field plan backed with data for a presidential front-runner, they just may get back to you.
AM I GOING TO BE PAID?
Maybe. Especially if you have had similar campaign experience before, you may be hired for a particular spot at a particular salary. If not, you may be expected to work as a volunteer first, especially if the campaign is just getting its fundraising operation started.
Most paid positions are paid weekly, and except for experienced and high-profile senior operatives, the compensation will be fairly meager. Depending on the structure of the campaign and your particular role, you may also be hired as an independent consultant, without medical insurance or other benefits. Few people take entry-level campaign positions for the immediate monetary rewards. Most realize that working for free will provide them with connections that will pay off later in their career, especially if they have political aspirations or aspirations in political law.
Some campaigns provide different forms of support for their volunteers, which can cut down your living costs. You may not have to pay rent if you can arrange campaign housing with supporters. Additionally, depending on your role, you might have access to a campaign vehicle. And certain jobs, such as advance work, will cover traveling expenses.
Getting Involved as a Student
IS FULL-TIME WORK FOR A CANDIDATE THE ONLY WAY TO GET INVOLVED?
There are many ways to get involved with a campaign without giving up your day job or taking a leave from school. (Important note: some government or nonprofit “day jobs” may limit the extent to which employees can be involved with campaigns. Make sure you check on your legal limitations or ethical obligations before signing up for a campaign). For example, you might help a campaign with fundraising, after-work voter outreach through phone banking, weekend canvassing, or get-out-the-vote operations closer to Election Day. You could also take on election protection work part-time, or for a limited pre-election period (election protection ensures that eligible voters are readily able to cast ballots that count).
Since every day on a campaign can feel like a fire drill, staffs often appreciate someone outside the office who can do long-term research (often opposition or legal research). “Long-term” in this context can mean days or (sometimes) weeks, not months. In order to succeed in such a role, you must be good with self-managed work and timelines.
There are also campaign jobs that do not involve dedicating yourself to only one candidate. You could work for one of the umbrella party organizations, like the Democratic National Committee or Republican National Committee, or for one of the blanket campaign organizations, like the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) or Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC, often referred to as the “D-triple-C” or “D-trip”). You could work for an independent political entity, like the political fund of a union or trade organization or issue-oriented nonprofit, or for a PAC or SuperPAC or other “527” organization (like Progress for America or The Club for Growth). You could work for a campaign vendor that services multiple candidates, or for a law firm with an election law or campaign practice, or a nonprofit that works on electoral issues from a nonpartisan perspective. Working with such organizations can help enrich your understanding of party structures and the issues at the center of a given campaign.
I DO NOT WANT TO WORK IN POLITICS, BUT I FEEL STRONGLY ABOUT THIS CANDIDATE. IF I SPEND A SUMMER WORKING ON THEIR CAMPAIGN, WILL I JEOPARDIZE MY CHANCES OF FINDING POST-GRAD EMPLOYMENT BY “WASTING” A SUMMER?
This move can be a bit risky (though see the note about leaves of absence below: the calculations are different for a “gap semester” than for a summer on the normal track). The wisdom of such a choice will depend on many factors, including what you would be doing for the campaign, with whom you would be working, what other job experience you have, and what your post-graduate goals are. HLS students should talk to a career counselor in the OPIA office before committing to this route. Another important note is that campaign work may not qualify for HLS’ Summer Public Interest Funding (SPIF); see discussion below.
IF I CAN ONLY WORK IN THE SUMMER, HOW CAN I MAINTAIN MY CONTACTS SO THAT IF THE CANDIDATE IS ELECTED, I COULD HAVE THE CHANCE TO WORK FOR THEM POST-GRAD?
The best way to maintain your contacts is to continue working for the candidate in a limited capacity up through the election. Students have volunteered their time to canvass, make persuasion calls to voters, organize their school or local geographic community, organize fundraisers in the area, spread the word about local events, write letters to the editors of local papers, help produce drafts of policy papers, and dedicate election day to getting-out-the-vote. Especially if you have become a valued employee or volunteer over the summer, the campaign will be eager to have the (likely unpaid) extra help through the remainder of the year.
Even if you are not able to continue working with the candidate, however, do not assume that you will be shut out of a job further down the road. If your goal is to work for a candidate post-election, let the campaign manager know when you head back to school. It is true that non-civil service government positions are often filled on a first-come, first-serve basis from the ranks of the campaign staff, but trusted summer employees may also be in the mix. If you are in the position to later apply for a position on an elected official’s staff, simply note your campaign experience – along with the specific role that you played on the campaign – in the cover letter.
WOULD A CAMPAIGN ACCEPT MY HELP EXCLUSIVELY DURING THE WINTER TERM?
Yes, but do not expect the work to be either glamorous or paid. Short-term volunteers generally spend their time in jobs such as: administrative processing; responding to campaign mail and email; and, especially in January, contacting constituents in early primary states, either in person or by phone. During January of a presidential election year, presidential campaigns need volunteers to travel to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, or South Carolina to knock on doors or do advance work. Unless you happen to be a credentialed and established expert in a particular subject area, it will ordinarily not be worth a campaign’s energy to develop the trust needed for in-depth policy work if you are only going to be around for a month. That said, particularly if you have little other campaign experience, these sorts of short-term volunteer stints are excellent first steps for positions with more responsibility later in your career.
HOW COULD I WORK FOR A CANDIDATE DURING THE ACADEMIC YEAR?
See the answer on summer work above: many tasks performed during the academic year are similar to summer tasks, but happen on a smaller scale. Examples include doing voter outreach through phone calls or canvassing, organizing house parties, reaching out to political organizations across campus, and researching narrow issues. You can also join local City, Town, or Ward Party Committees for the various political parties.
You can also help to maintain a candidate’s web presence, either by blogging officially or unofficially for the candidate, or by maintaining or bolstering supporter websites. Or you could start or run a local political organization. For example, one of our HLS advisors started Republicans International with a few partners abroad to help overseas U.S. citizens with voter registration and absentee ballots.
And again, in presidential campaign years, Cambridge-based supporters are always needed to head up to New Hampshire during the academic fall to make contact with potential voters.
DOES SUMMER CAMPAIGN WORK QUALIFY FOR HLS SUMMER PUBLIC INTEREST FUNDING (SPIF)?
Campaign work is typically not eligible for HLS Summer Public Interest Funding (SPIF), as SPIF is a legal training program, for which campaign work does not qualify. Positions which are law related will be considered on a case by case basis by the SPIF Committee. If a student would like their position reviewed they should email a job description to firstname.lastname@example.org.
DOES SUMMER OR TERM-TIME CAMPAIGN WORK QUALIFY FOR CLINICAL CREDIT?
Campaign work cannot be done for clinical credit. Further questions on clinical credit can be directed to the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono programs at HLS.
SHOULD I EVER TAKE A LEAVE OF ABSENCE FROM LAW SCHOOL TO WORK ON A CAMPAIGN?
One of the greatest luxuries of being a student is the ability to press “pause” in your education and take advantage of some experiences that you can only afford to do at this stage of your life. This is the kind of opportunity that may rarely come around when you are already working full-time and settled into a rhythm with family and friends.
If campaign work is something you are truly interested in and passionate about, taking a gap semester could be a great way to get involved at a level that otherwise might not be possible during the academic year. Before taking a gap semester, take some time to consider your personal, professional, and financial situation, as well as the possibilities that are available to you. As always, OPIA advisors are here to help you.
ARE THERE OTHER WAYS TO DO CAMPAIGN-RELATED WORK AS A STUDENT?
Working on a campaign, or with political organizations, is a unique experience. But as mentioned above, there may also be ways to engage in political law or election law as a student, beyond a campaign. In each state, there are a few law firms (or political law groups at firms) that will serve officeholders, candidates, and partisan organizations with ballot access and campaign finance compliance; there are also a few firms that do the same nationally. And there are some nonpartisan nonprofits that work on voters’ access to the electoral process. These entities may offer internships or externships; competition for such positions is substantial, particularly during a presidential election year.
DOES CAMPAIGN WORK QUALIFY FOR THE LOW INCOME PROTECTION PLAN (LIIP)?
Campaign work is considered eligible employment for LIPP as long as it is at least part-time (17.5 hours/week minimum) and compensated at a rate of at least minimum wage. However, LIPP does not cover people who are running for office because candidates are not compensated for their time.
WHAT KIND OF POSITION COULD A NEW LAW SCHOOL GRADUATE EXPECT TO HAVE ON A CAMPAIGN?
The answer will depend greatly on the size of the campaign and on your previous experience. A law degree on its own does not make anyone qualified to work as a senior strategist or policy advisor. On a national campaign, the bad news is that you can expect to start at the bottom. The good news is that talent is often rewarded quickly and there is room for advancement. New law school graduates have filled many campaign positions not associated with the practice of law.
If you want to work for a campaign in a legal capacity, of course, you will have to ensure that you are appropriately licensed to do so. Although a recent law graduate will not usually be the final arbiter of legal issues on a campaign, it is not at all unusual for recent graduates to do the preliminary legal work, submitting more difficult questions to senior lawyers either employed directly by the campaign or serving the campaign as outside counsel.
WHAT WILL TAKING A YEAR TO WORK ON A CAMPAIGN AFTER LAW SCHOOL DO TO/FOR A NEW GRADUATE’S ABILITY TO GET A JOB DOWN THE ROAD?
Campaign work – even campaign work that does not involve the practice of law – helps to develop not only an individual attorney’s skills, but also their contacts in government service. Many campaign staffers go on to work in government after the campaign season, some in high-profile political appointments. A year of campaign work will thus put you in touch with many individuals who could further a job search related to the public sphere, whether on Capitol Hill or in the State House, or in private sector positions that focus on government-related work. Campaign work is certainly no guarantee that you will be swept into the corridors of power if your candidate is successful, and you shouldn’t stake your involvement in a political campaign on the likelihood of securing a job afterwards, but it can help to ensure that doors open quicker and wider, in a variety of settings:
- On Capitol Hill or in the Administration:If you work for a winning Congressional or Senate campaign, you could secure a job with the newly elected Representative or Senator for whom you worked, particularly if your candidate is new to Congress. However, a re-elected incumbent will have both a campaign staff and a preexisting Washington staff; the entire campaign staff will not go to Washington. Also, if you worked on a presidential or other federal race, other elected representatives on Capitol Hill likely backed your candidate, and this may be a boost to a job application in their offices — or in a political role in a federal agency in an Administration of the same party. Even if your candidate loses, you may still have success applying to officials who backed your former employer’s candidacy. Finally, if your end goal is to work on the Hill, you might consider interning on the Hill in lieu of working for a campaign, since Capitol Hill values prior Hill experience, even if unpaid.
- In the private sector: Most firms (especially in D.C.) are filled with Republicans and Democrats alike. Firms are going to care most about the narrative for “why private practice” and your overall credentials rather than the fact that you worked for a particular candidate, though firms with political law or government relations practices may well welcome campaign experience (for any candidate) as an added bonus. Importantly, campaign work also develops a set of skills that are highly valued in the private sector in many different practice areas. Your resume and cover letter should speak to your ability to manage projects, work under pressure, get results, be a team player, and interact with a diverse group of people.
- For Nonprofits: Nonprofits will value many of the same skills as the private sector. Nonprofits also appreciate a specialized skill set. If you worked in the policy shop of a campaign, you will have impressive work product to refer to in interviews with an issue-oriented nonprofit.
IF I’M ALREADY EMPLOYED, HOW DO I TALK TO MY FIRM ABOUT A LEAVE?
There are no set rules for asking leave from a firm to work on a campaign. Whether or not to grant such a leave, and under what conditions to do so, is within the firm’s discretion and its decision will depend on a number of factors, which may include how long the associate has been with the firm, whether the firm would be unhappy to lose that person, and how big an impact the associate’s leave would have on their practice group.
Common Functions on Political Campaigns
Before you approach a campaign to ask about a position, you should give serious thought both to the type of position you would optimally prefer, and to the types of positions you would be willing to take. Campaign workers usually begin with field, advance, or fundraising work, and later “graduate” to doing policy or political work–but the hierarchy is not rigid, and depending on your particular connections, it may be possible to enter the campaign process at a different point.
The lists below are arranged alphabetically, rather than in hierarchical order, as the relative hierarchy may depend entirely on the nature of a particular campaign. Finally, depending on the size of the campaign, several of these functions may be unnecessary, or handled by a single person.
Work Involving the Practice of Law
Ballot access laws are often cumbersome and esoteric, with fees and/or signature requirements from certain populations, all with their own deadlines. Lawyers have to review these requirements to ensure that a candidate or ballot measure is able to get on the ballot.
Campaign finance law places certain restrictions on campaign communications. Lawyers have to ensure that the communications comply with the statutory and regulatory requirements.
Each jurisdiction will have its own idiosyncrasies in terms of voter registration, absentee ballot, early vote, vote by mail and poll site regulations. Parsing these requirements is necessary to inform a campaign’s registration and/or get-out-the-vote (GOTV) strategy and resource allocation. These same laws can also form the basis of an election protection effort, to ensure that eligible voters are able to cast an effective vote.
Campaign finance laws also restrict the sources of funds and require disclosure of some donations and expenses. Lawyers ensure compliance by reviewing checks coming in the door and reports going out.
Campaigns are essentially mini-nonprofit businesses, ramping up and shutting down with extraordinary speed. As in the case of any business, a campaign organization must be formed and organized in compliance with legal requirements. Campaigns will very quickly generate many contracts – including contracts for personnel, field offices, equipment, and data – that should be reviewed by an attorney. And campaigns produce legal disputes around employment and torts claims just like any other nonprofit.
Work Other Than the Practice of Law
Before a candidate appears in public, an advance team will scout the location, arrange logistics, and assist in drumming up an appropriate audience. Many advance teams have at least one staff member present during an event to oversee logistics. Advance work involves lots of travel; you could be on the road twenty days out of the month on a national or statewide campaign. This work is less sensitive and is more likely to go to campaign novices who exhibit independence, self-confidence, imagination, and good judgment.
Campaign managers and their deputies integrate all campaign functions, sometimes doing, and sometimes directing traffic. It is ultimately their job to make sure that the entire campaign runs as smoothly as possible.
The communications staff is responsible for public manifestations of the campaign’s message and is a very politically sensitive area. Staff members write speeches, prepare and place ads (“paid media”), create media events (“free media”), and respond to press inquiries. The official campaign spokesperson or spokespeople will be members of the communications staff. As Election Day nears, communications generally takes on a lot of low-level hires to staff war rooms (which consists of watching a lot of television screens in shifts 24 hours a day).
Social media and digital communications management also play an increasingly important role in political campaigns, and campaigns recruit heavily for social media directors, digital strategists and digital organizers. Roles in this area may include monitoring candidates’ presence on social media, creating digital content (which can range from graphic design to writing for social media platforms), overseeing digital strategy and messaging across different platforms, coordinating with team members out in the field and at Headquarters, and tracking performance data and analytics. The presence of social media has turned a 24-hour news cycle into a half-hourly or hourly news cycle, and has accelerated the pace of all communications work, online and not.
Constituent liaison work involves conducting outreach to the local leadership of particular interest-group communities, which are sometimes organized along racial or ethnic lines and sometimes along professional or issue lines (e.g., “lawyers for XX”, “environmentalists for XX”). The political sensitivity of constituent liaison work can vary from campaign to campaign, and even within a campaign’s lifespan, but at times it can be quite high.
For major statewide or national campaigns, political parties may celebrate the end of the primary process with a formal nominating convention. Often, parties or campaigns will have their own team hired specifically to plan and coordinate these conventions. Important functions leading up to the convention may include addressing rules and platform issues and organizing delegate selection and support, as well as assisting with the substantial logistics of an especially visible gathering quite important to crucial party supporters.
Data and Analysis
Political campaigns increasingly rely on fast and rigorous iterative data analysis to guide a vast array of campaign activities, including voter targeting, fundraising, and research, to name just a few. Roles in this capacity can include gathering, analyzing and/or modeling data, or preparing it for visualization and presentation to a candidate or the public. Campaigns will value previous experience with digital marketing, online campaigns and/or coding. Work in this high-demand area can be a creative way to merge interests in technology and politics.
Field teams contact voters, assemble supporters, and create events in particular geographic regions. They help register voters, deliver campaign literature and other information, call potential voters to inform or persuade, track information from potential voters on prevailing issues or levels of support, and above all, are responsible for getting supporters to the polls on election day. In some campaigns, as election day approaches, many workers in other areas will get pulled into an “all hands on deck” field effort.
Fundraisers generate the cash that lets the candidate spread their message, which often serves independently as a test of the candidate’s credibility. Fundraising can involve big events, extended web campaigns, small house parties, group-based incentives or individual contributions. In any guise, it is welcome. Staff tends to consist of very young people, especially at the lower rungs.
A designated IT staff is critical, especially on a larger campaign. They keep the back office running, manage phone service, and ensure that the campaign’s computer network functions. More advanced campaigns need staff to tend the infrastructure for volunteer coordination programs or voter contact programs.
Campaign IT staff also perform other crucial tasks, like managing data security and ensuring that field offices and other more mobile teams are securely and properly equipped to perform their tasks. IT supports and works closely with many teams on a campaign, especially operations and data, and interacts with campaign staff to manage help desks and ensure smooth onboarding of new hires. Other specialized tech skills that can be of great use to a campaign include software engineering and web development.
The policy shop prepares policy and position statements, responds to issue-based questionnaires sponsored by interest groups (usually in the context of a group’s pending endorsement), and helps prepare talking points and position papers for the candidate on particular issues, ranging from education, health care, economic development and crime to international relations.
In a large campaign, these jobs are likely to go only to those with substantial experience in a substantive policy area. You can develop this experience through work either by developing deep expertise in a practice area, or more broadly at think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institution, and the Center for American Progress. Policy experience can also be developed on a smaller scale while at law school through intensive classroom or clinical experience, or through participation in groups such as the Federalist Society or the American Constitutional Society.
The political desks of a campaign usually have three primary functions: briefing the candidate on particular political terrain, securing the goodwill or endorsement (or tacit non-interference) of other political leaders, and maintaining a close liaison with the campaign’s field workers. Political desks are usually arranged by geographic territories. This is very sensitive work, but campaigns occasionally hire newcomers, particularly those who are familiar with the local coverage area, if they are politically savvy.
“Opposition research” (the art and science of finding out as much as possible about the opponent) is extremely important and the most notorious research function, but by no means the only role of research staff. Staff also researches their own candidate. This rapid response can be exciting for someone who loves the political game, but the hours can be grueling and boring. Expect twelve to sixteen hour days of Googling and Nexis research.
Research staff keep the campaign informed: they may vet would-be staff or volunteers, dig up details on particular policy proposals, or track media appearances by their own candidate, surrogates, and opponents. Research is one of the most sensitive areas of a campaign, but if the staff trusts you, it does not require a lot of experience. Research is a great introductory job in a campaign if you are willing to put in the hours.
The competing demands on the candidate’s time can be tremendous, and someone on the campaign has to be responsible for negotiating the competing priorities and setting the candidate’s schedule. In the complicated internal dynamic of a campaign, the schedulers are among those with the most internal clout because they guard the campaign’s scarcest resource. Scheduling is very sensitive work with the need for staff to be on call 24/7.
The candidate can only be in one place at a time; for everything else, there are surrogates. Surrogates are public or quasi-public figures enlisted to speak or appear on the candidate’s behalf – they may be members of the candidate’s family, prominent public figures, or other elected officials. Larger campaigns will have staff specifically devoted to scheduling and managing surrogate appearances, including providing speech materials and talking points that are closely coordinated with what the candidate is saying. Surrogate management is politically sensitive work and is quite interesting because you will get to meet some of the heaviest hitters in the business.
Campaigns must figure out how best to deploy their resources; though it may feel like the country is saturated toward the end of a campaign cycle, campaigns cannot possibly hope to reach everyone all the time. The targeting staff is tasked with determining which voters the campaign should prioritize contacting through different means – both in terms of general groups and specific individuals. In many campaigns, this responsibility falls under the political shop and requires people who love campaigns and data management. If you want to groom yourself for this position, put Excel, statistical modeling, data analysis, and digital outreach skills on your resume.
Many campaigns are so awash in volunteers that they must find a way to productively harness this energy. Some will employ campaign staff specifically to find and manage volunteers and to deploy the talents of campaign supporters where they can do the most good. This is generally less sensitive work, but requires a lot of patience.
Presidential Transition and New Administration Resources
We have aggregated a sampling of frequently asked questions and resources to help you understand hiring processes for Presidential transitions and new administrations, and perhaps participate in them.
If you have any inclination to be involved in a political campaign, do it! The pace can be challenging, but the work is rarely boring, and individual effort makes a difference every day. In addition to the satisfaction that comes from working for someone you respect and whose positions you support, there is a sense of gratification that comes from working on a project where there will be demonstrable winners, losers, and an end date. You will also build cameraderie and relationships with individuals that can be beneficial far into the future. Campaigns can provide a host of experiences and levels of excitement that are difficult to match in any other environment.
Hannah Fried ’08
Hannah Fried ’08
I graduated from law school in 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama was running for President. There was an incredible wave of excitement and energy about his candidacy, which ultimately had a lot to do with the direction my career has…
Blake Roberts ’06
Blake Roberts ’06
I graduated HLS in 2006, during President Bush’s second term, and began a clerkship the following fall. While clerking, my then-fiancé, Jen Cannistra (HLS ’05) and I decided to join a Democratic presidential campaign when we finished because working to
Jennifer Cannistra ’05
Jennifer Cannistra ’05
During 2006-2007, my fiancé (Blake Roberts HLS ’06) and I were clerking for federal judges and hoping to join a presidential campaign after we finished. Without a doubt, we knew we wanted to support then-Senator Obama. We believed in his…
List of the campaign staff for the 2020 Presidential candidates.
ORGANIZATIONS THAT FOCUS ON CAMPAIGN WORK
Arena aims to convene, train, and support the next generation of candidates and campaign staff. It hosts the Arena Summit, which brings together candidates, staff, and activists; offers training through the Arena Academy, and helps recruit and match talent to progressive campaigns.
CAMPAIGNS & ELECTIONS
Non-partisan website that tracks all things political. You can subscribe to their print magazine that is published ten times a year. They also sponsor several conferences a year on specific election issues. Contact them for upcoming training events or see their website. On their site, you can subscribe to Campaign Insider, which will email political job opportunities as well as the latest inside scoop on campaigns around the country.
Here you can find a job board focused exclusively on campaign-related work.
CAMPAIGN MANAGEMENT INSTITUTE
American University sponsors an intensive two-week semiannual training session in January and May on all aspects of political campaigning, taught by experts from both political parties. Non-degree-seeking students can apply to attend.
CONGRESSIONAL PROGRESSIVE CAUCUS CENTER LEGISLATIVE FELLOWSHIP
The Congressional Progressive Caucus Center Legislative Fellowship is designed for emerging leaders who want to develop their own professional skills in policymaking and social change through learning from and working within a strong legislative operation on Capitol Hill. Fellows are placed in the offices of active members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Fellows work closely with CPC member offices to gain substantive legislative and federal policy experience in their issue focus.
CENTER FOR DIGITAL STRATEGY
The Digital Plan offers online and in-person trainings on digital strategy for nonprofits and political campaigns. Topics range from media engagement and digital planning to data management and adapting email use to a particular campaign. There are also templates, blueprints, and worksheets on many of these topics.
FAIR ELECTIONS CENTER
Fair Elections Center is a national, nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization that works to improve election administration, protect access to the ballot through litigation, and provide expertise and advice to voter mobilization organizations.
GOP TRAINING RESOURCES
This GOP page highlights political education programs including the RNC Campaign Management College, Campaign Finance College and Campaign Data College. The programs are open to individuals with a wide range of experience.
HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL INSTITUTE OF POLITICS
The Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics has many programs and centers that can help you develop your skills and knowledge about a variety of topics related to campaigns, advocacy and voting rights. See for example the Campaign & Advocacy Program, Community Action Committee, the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement conference, the Campaign Managers Conference and the Harvard Votes Challenge.
Inclusv works to ensure that staff, consultants, and vendors of color are found at every professional level within advocacy, policy, and campaigns and elections. It helps to amplify available job opportunities from employer partners, elevate relevant training opportunities, and provide culturally competent career development trainings for staffs or conference attendees of partners.
THE LEADERSHIP INSTITUTE
The Leadership Institutes provides training on campaigns, fundraising, grassroots organizing, and general politics to conservatives of all ages. It is also present on many college campuses and collects relevant job opportunities on its website.
THE MOBILISATION LAB
The Mobilisation Lab offers training and coaching on advocacy campaigns, including an accelerator, workshops, and online courses. You can also find toolkits and frameworks on pressing campaign-related issues like digital voter engagement, security and storytelling strategy.
THE NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC TRAINING COMMITTEE
The National Democratic Training Committee offers a free interactive, online campaign school with trainings on communications, digital campaign skills, field work, and fundraising.
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF REPUBLICAN WOMEN
The National Federation of Republican Women runs a Campaign Management School covering topics from budgeting to media strategy, with events held across the United States.
THE NEW POLITICS LEADERSHIP ACADEMY
New Politics Leadership Academy is a nonpartisan non-profit organization dedicated to recruiting and supporting servant leaders (veterans and Americorps and Peace Corps alumni) to serve through politics. It offers leadership development experiences, educational programming, and networking events focused on political campaigning.
POLITICAL & LEADERSHIP RESOURCE MAP
This website from Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics compiles resources and organizations, categorized by state, for women who are interested in running for office or in working on campaigns more broadly.
Through a framework of inclusive politics, re:power holds multiple trainings for individuals interested in campaign work, including a Data and Analytics Camp, a Digital Organizer School, and an Advanced Campaign Management School.
Focused on helping women run for and win political office, VoteRunLead also has trainings for communications and fundraising and hosts a network of women involved in politics and campaigns.
ORGANIZATIONS THAT FOCUS ON VOTING RIGHTS ISSUES
This list is not exhaustive; many other civil rights organizations engage, to a greater or lesser degree, in voting rights work.
ALL VOTING IS LOCAL
Washington, D.C. and Nationwide
All Voting is Local fights to eliminate needless and discriminatory barriers to voting before they happen, to build a democracy that works for us all. It is a collaborative campaign housed at The Leadership Conference Education Fund, in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation; the American Constitution Society; the Campaign Legal Center; and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
ACLU VOTING RIGHTS PROJECT
New York, NY
Established in 1965, the ACLU Voting Rights Project has worked to protect the gains in political participation won by racial and language minorities since passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The ACLU is currently litigating voter suppression and minority vote dilution cases in over a dozen states, from coast to coast, in every region of the country.
The Advancement Project is a next-generation, multi-racial civil rights organization that uses innovative tools and strategies to strengthen social movements and achieve high-impact policy change. It focuses on issues including voting rights, the school-to-prison pipeline, education justice and immigrant justice.
BRENNAN CENTER FOR JUSTICE
Washington, D.C. and New York, NY
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan law and policy institute dedicated to protecting the rule of law and the values of Constitutional democracy. It focuses on voting rights, campaign finance reform, ending mass incarceration, and preserving our liberties while also maintaining our national security.
CAMPAIGN LEGAL CENTER
Campaign Legal Center (CLC) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. CLC watchdogs government officials, provides expert analysis and helps journalists uncover violations. CLC also participates in legal proceedings across the country to defend the right to vote and ensure fair redistricting.
DECLARATION FOR AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
The Declaration for American Democracy is a coalition of over 240 member organizations committed to the protection of voting rights through national legislative initiatives to combat gerrymandering and government corruption.
DNC CIVIC ENGAGEMENT AND VOTER PROTECTION
The Civic Engagement and Voter Protection department is concerned with safeguarding the right to vote by ensuring fair, accessible elections.
Washington, D.C. and New York, NY
Demos is a dynamic “think-and-do” tank that powers the movement for a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy. Through cutting-edge policy research, inspiring litigation and deep relationships with grassroots organizations, Demos champions solutions that will create a democracy and economy rooted in racial equity.
LET AMERICA VOTE
Let America Vote is an organization that fights back against proposals across the country that make it harder for eligible voters to exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot.
BOOKS AND PUBLICATIONS PROVIDING BOTH PRACTICAL ADVICE AS WELL AS PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES AND ANECDOTES; SEE ALSO PUBLICATIONS BY THE RNC, DNC, AND LOCAL STATE COMMITTEES.
Campaign for President: The Managers Look at 2016
by The Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School
Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017
The Campaign Manager: Running and Winning Local Elections 5th Edition
by Catherine Shaw
Published by Routledge, 2014
The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns
by Sasha Issenberg
Published by Broadway Books, 2013
Sharon Kelly McBride ’04 is Senior Vice President of Advocacy at Human Rights First. Before joining Human Rights First, she was Research Director and Policy Advisor for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Senate Democratic Communications Center.
Justin Levitt ’02 is Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. Before joining the faculty of Loyola Law School, he was Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law; he has also worked with multiple candidates, including serving as the National Voter Protection Counsel for a major presidential campaign. While at HLS, he received a Masters of Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government.
Amanda Tammen Peterson (former 1L Advising Initiative Coordinator) is a transplanted Westerner with extensive experience in local and state political campaigns. Amanda, a registered Democrat, brokered her first bipartisan deal when she married her husband, a registered Republican.
MANY THANKS TO THE FOLLOWING FOR THEIR GUIDANCE
James Flug ‘63: Former Senior Heyman Fellow, Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising
Virginia Greiman: Attorney Advisor, Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising
Sarah Isgur ‘08: Political Analyst, CNN
Rachel Pemstein: Assistant Director for Alumni Advising, Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising
Joan Ruttenberg ‘82: Director of the Heyman Fellowship Program and Assistant Director for Government Advising, Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising
Alexa Shabecoff: Former Assistant Dean for Public Service, Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising
Missi Sousa: Former Intern Coordinator, John McCain for President
Gabriella Elanbeck: Summer Public Interest Fellow 2019