This Guide is designed to give you a brief overview of opportunities to work on political campaigns. It provides practical information regarding the types of employers and practice settings in which you can pursue a career; the personality traits that employers seek; the practical skills that you can gain; and resources to further research this rewarding field.
This content is courtesy of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising at Harvard Law School. It was written by Sharon Kelly, Class of 2004, Justin Levitt, Class of 2002, and Amanda Tammen Peterson, 1L Advising Initiative Coordinator. Special thanks to the following for their contribution and guidance:
- James Flug: Senior Heyman Fellow, Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising
- Virginia Greiman: Conservative and Libertarian Attorney Advisor, Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising
- Sarah Isgur: Class of ’08, Law Clerk, Mitt Romney for President
- Joan Ruttenberg: Director of the Heyman Fellowship Program, Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising
- Alexa Shabecoff: Assistant Dean for Public Service, Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising
- Missi Sousa: Intern Coordinator, John McCain for President
What is Campaign Work?
When you think of a campaign, you may first picture the presidential races made most accessible by the media. But there are thousands of campaign experiences that are a long way from Hollywood depictions – whether you are committed to a geographical region, a specific candidate, or a political party’s platform. 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 and the cares and concerns of elected officials, and can often lead directly or indirectly to government employment down the road.
There is plenty of work that will take advantage of your legal training on most campaigns as it will be assumed that you want to do legal or policy work. That said, most attorneys do not necessarily do legal or policy work on campaigns. They work in virtually every capacity available, including those that do not require legal skills. Many of the same skills that contribute to good lawyering are invaluable in other respects 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.
Remember 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. If you do not have any campaign experience, show up and be willing to work hard at whatever is required.
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. 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: Lawyers have to review to ensure that a candidate or ballot measure is able to get on the ballot.
- Communications compliance: Lawyers have to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements that place certain restrictions on communication.
- Election administration: Lawyers have to parse election laws and regulatory requirements to inform a campaign’s registration and/or get-out-the-vote (GOTV) resources and strategy.
- Fundraising compliance: Campaign finance laws restrict the sources of funds and require disclosure of some donations and expenses and lawyers ensure compliance.
- Transactional review: As in 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.
Work other than the practice of law
- Advance: Before a candidate appears in public, an advance team will scout the location, arrange logistics, and assist in drumming up an appropriate audience.
- Campaign management: Campaign management requires integration and oversight of all campaign functions to ensure that the entire campaign runs as smoothly as possible.
- Communications: Communications 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, create media events, and respond to press inquiries.
- Constituent liaison: Constituent liaisons conducts outreach to the local leadership of particular interest-group communities.
- Convention support: Political parties may celebrate the end of the primary process with a formal nominating convention and may have their own team hired specifically to plan and coordinate these conventions.
- Field: Field teams contact voters, assemble supporters, create events in particular geographic regions, register voters, deliver campaign literature and other information, call potential voters to inform or persuade, and above all, are responsible for getting supporters to the polls on election day.
- Fundraising: Fundraisers generate the cash that lets the candidate spread his or her message. Fundraising can involve big events, extended web campaigns, small house parties, group-based incentives or individual contributions.
- Information technology: An IT staff manages phone service, ensures the campaign’s computer network functions, and tends to the infrastructure for volunteer coordination programs or voter contact programs that run directly off of a campaign’s technology platform.
- Policy: The policy shop prepares policy and position statements, responds to issue-based questionnaires sponsored by interest groups, and helps prepare talking points and position papers for the candidate.
- Political: The political desks of a campaign usually have three primary functions: briefing the candidate on particular political terrain, securing the goodwill or endorsement of other political leaders, and maintaining a close liaison with the campaign’s field workers.
- Research: “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 the research staff also keeps the campaign informed and is a more sensitive area of a campaign.
- Scheduling: Scheduling staff is responsible for negotiating the competing priorities and setting the candidate’s schedule and need to be on call 24/7.
- Surrogate management: Surrogates are public or quasi-public figures enlisted to speak or appear on the candidate’s behalf. Staff may be specifically devoted to scheduling and managing surrogate appearances, including providing speech materials and talking points that are closely coordinated with the candidate’s.
- Targeting: Through data management and review, the targeting staff is tasked with determining which voters the campaign should contact– both in terms of general groups and specific individuals.
- Volunteers: Campaign staffers are appointed to specifically to find and manage volunteers and to deploy the talents of campaign supporters effectively.
- Web development: Many campaigns use the Web to allow supporters to interact with the campaign or with each other, to raise funds, and to generate publicity for particular events and for the campaign in general. Website design and maintenance is key for the campaign.
How do I become involved in Political Campaigns?
Networking is crucial in the political field. More so than most jobs, a spot on a campaign is rarely secured through the cover letter and interview process. Instead, someone you know will call someone they know, and an offer will be extended. If you do not know anyone currently working on a campaign, reach out to campaign alums: many campaign workers are repeat players, and if your 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. Also, student groups often have an inside track on the campaigns. Contact the presidents of the law school GOP or Dems; they should be able to help you or put you in touch with someone who can. If you do not have a particular connection, you might simply show up. If you can volunteer for a period of time, or are willing to travel, you may be put to work by visiting the campaign office with resume in hand. If you can volunteer, put in the hours that the campaign 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”.
The second-best solution requires a bit of moxie and a bit of homework: look at regulatory disclosure records (the FEC for federal races, and equivalent state bodies for state races) to find out if a partner at a law firm you are affiliated with 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.
On What Type of Political Campaign Could I Work?
There are 535 members of the U.S. Congress (not including delegates from DC or other territories), over 7,000 state legislators, over 7,000 elected state judges, hundreds of state governors and auditors and attorneys general and treasurers and secretaries of state, and thousands of mayors and city councilmembers. The vast majority of elections to fill these offices feature some form of campaign. Furthermore, that list does not include the wide array of issue-oriented ballot initiatives or referenda ranging from as mundane as local school bonds to hot button issues such as abortion, many of which generate campaigns of their own.
There are also campaign jobs that do not involve dedicating yourself to one and only one candidate. You could work for one of the umbrella party organizations, like the DNC or RNC, or one of the blanket campaign organizations, like the National Republican Congressional Committee or Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 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 political action committee or “527” organization. You could work for a campaign vendor that services multiple candidates, or for a law firm with an election law or campaign practice.
To aid you in determining how to decide which campaign is right for you, take into consideration the following:
- 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. Most 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.
- What is your ability to 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?
- How long 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.
- 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 depends less on the size of the campaign and more on the quirks of an individual campaign structure.
Which personality traits make you well-suited for this?
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. The traits that will make you well suited will largely depend on the function/position sought. Generally, those who exhibit independence, self-confidence, imagination, good judgment, and initiative will thrive in this environment. Additionally, in order to succeed in such a role, you must be good with self-managed work and able to manage competing priorities and timelines.
What can I be doing in law school to help my career in Political Campaigns?
The best way to further your career is to volunteer for a campaign. You may or may not be in a position to give that much of a time commitment but there are many ways to get involved with a campaign even if you are unable to commit full time. For example, you might help a campaign with fundraising, 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.
Additionally, consider 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 as a way to make networking connections and building your campaign experience.
I do not want to work in politics, but I feel strongly about this candidate. If I spend a summer working on his or her campaign, will I jeopardize my chances of finding postgrad employment by “wasting” a summer? This move can be a bit risky. 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.
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, to organize their school or local geographic community, to organize fundraisers in the area, to spread the word about local events, to write letters to the editors of local papers, to help produce drafts of policy papers, and to 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.
Should I ever take a leave of absence from law school to work on a campaign? Yes! 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. If it is something that you are really committed to, go for it!
What will taking a year to work on a campaign after law school do to/for a new graduate's ability to get a legal job down the road? Campaign work – even campaign work that does not involve the practice of law – helps not only to develop an individual attorney’s skills, but also to develop his or her 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 – but it can help to ensure that doors open quicker and wider.
If you have any inclination to be involved in a political campaign, do it! The pace can be grueling, 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 camaraderie with and relationships to 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.
Listed below are some of the organizations which focus on campaign work:
CAMPAIGN MANAGEMENT INSTITUTECenter for Congressional and Presidential StudiesWard 109, American University4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20016(202) 885-3491 Fax (202) 885-1038
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.
CAMPAIGNS & ELECTIONS1655 North Fort Myer Dr., Suite 825, Arlington, VA 22209(703) 778-4028 Fax (703) 778-4024
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 gossip.
WELLSTONE ACTION2446 University Ave W Suite 170, Saint Paul, MN 55114(651) 645-3939
This is a progressive organization dedicated to teaching the intricacies of grassroots organizing with a large focus on using technology to get out one’s message. They host an annual all-expenses-paid Summer Campaign Boot Camp
For more information on working on campaigns, the following books and publications provide both practical advice as well as personal perspectives and anecdotes. See also publications by the RNC, DNC, and local State Committees.
- Guide to Political Campaigns in America by Paul Herrnson Published by CQ Press, 2005
- Governors Guidebook Series: Keys to the Governor’s Office for Women Published by the Barbara Lee Foundation, 2004
Category: Explore Your Career Options