Why Political Campaigns Are Self-Licking Ice Cream Cones
A new book, Producing Politics, exposes the hollow and self-serving logic of campaign insiders from across the spectrum.
Almost 20 years ago, Daniel Laurison, then a young graduate student in sociology at the University of Berkeley, decided he wanted to take his experience working in the nonprofit world and volunteer on the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign. Even though he knew how to raise money, manage volunteers, and organize and publicize events, he was relegated to an out-of-the-way office park to do phone-banking. Then he spent Election Day in Reno, Nevada with the Democratic group Americans Coming Together, where “there were so many out-of-state volunteers that I found myself stationed outside a polling place with three other volunteers with nothing to do other than double-check and report voter tallies every few hours.”
Undeterred, he tried again in 2006, spotting a newly competitive House race near where he lived and offering to volunteer one full day a week to the campaign. After a single afternoon blowing up balloons to decorate an event, no one called him for help again until it was time for phone-banking. Two years later, he tried again, offering the same House candidate, now running for re-election, four half-days a week for free after his grad school job ended each day. He was told that if he was willing to work 60 to 70 hours a week, there might be a staff position available. He declined.
Only after an acquaintance was hired by the 2008 Obama presidential campaign to be its Bay Area field director was Laurison able to find his way in as an unpaid “regional field organizer.” And then, as he recounts in the introduction to his delightfully damning new book Producing Politics: Inside the Exclusive Campaign World Where the Privileged Few Shape Politics for All of Us, as soon as he had a job title, he “joined in the campaign staff tradition of complaining about volunteers who unreasonably believed they could walk in, announce competencies and capabilities developed in other fields, and be given responsibility within our campaign’s world. We scoffed at their sense of entitlement and assigned the eager walk-ins to data entry and phone-banking, treating them just the way earlier campaign staffers had treated me.”
Why do political campaigns work the way they do? Why is it so hard for volunteers with skills to penetrate them? And even more importantly, why do the professionals who run and manage campaigns work so hard on them? Why do they willingly put in ridiculously long hours? And why do they put their greatest emphasis on polling, message testing, and paid advertising, when all the research on campaigning shows that the best way to win over voters is direct contact with them (i.e. field)?
Laurison’s book offers a revealing and, to my mind, convincing set of answers, based on a database he and his research assistants built comprising more than 4,400 people who held posts on presidential or Senate campaigns between 2004 and 2020, along with in-depth one-on-one interviews with 72 campaign professionals, 40 Democrats, 31 Republicans and one independent. He found that Democrats and Republicans have “remarkably similar” views about how to run campaigns. Even more important, he found that they agree that it’s hard to know for sure how campaigns even affect electoral outcomes but held firm to their belief that good campaigns need lots of money, strong messages and lots of political advertising. Many also argued that a great slogan or a bad media moment could explain why someone won or lost. But confronted with the evidence showing that voters themselves do not make their choices based on their recollection of ads, slogans or gaffes, but are moved more by their own sense of identity, rooted in their communities and networks’ partisan leanings, nearly all the pols Laurison spoke to admitted that they didn’t have hard science behind their decisions, just their gut intuition.
And yet, nearly all campaigns and the professionals who run them behave the same way and prioritize the same things: polling, message testing and paid media. Instead of being conversations with voters, campaigns are performances, “one-way communications in which consultants, staff, and candidates send the messages they think will be most effective to the people they believe are most likely to be determinative for election results,” Laurison writes. As a result, “each campaign is conceived and executed as an isolated event rather than part of a party project. In the process campaigns ignore countless potential voters…and may turn as many people away from politics as they mobilize.” Why?
Contrary to what you might think, few political professionals do what they do primarily for financial gain. As Laurison notes, many of the people he spoke to said they could make much more money if they left campaign work. Across the board, they said they gravitated to the arena because they believe the people they elect will make a difference for the country. One senior Republican pollster told him, “I do not give a damn whether the toothpaste box is green or red. But I care a whole lot about who gets on the Supreme Court. I think it makes a whale of a difference for the country who gets to be president.” Laurison did find some consultants who agreed to spending decisions they didn’t like because they wanted to keep getting future work. For example, one told him, “I really want to say this isn’t right what you’re doing, but I want to be hired by the Bloomberg people again.” He added, “if you tell the Bloomberg people they’re wrong, they won’t hire you again. Even if they are wrong.” (Nice!) But being able to keep getting hired is a different motivation than trying to maximize one’s earnings, and one that tracks with what Laurison ultimately concludes are the main reasons campaigns behave the way they do.
In a word, the answer is to gain and keep status. While campaign professionals want to win, “most of them are even more concerned with becoming one of the people ‘in the room where it happens.’” That is, contributing to campaign decisions at the highest level possible, being as close as possible to the candidate, and gaining as much credit as they can for a win (or loss). Reaching this level, Laurison argues, “is the clearest sign they have ‘made it’ in the political world.”
But there’s a problem. Since it is so hard to really know which campaign decisions, if any, produce a win or a loss, “campaign professionals must evaluate each other based on criteria other than the actual effectiveness of their tactics.” Laurison writes, “Data alone cannot tell them how they are doing, but their colleagues and opponents (along with the media) do provide immediate feedback about campaign strategies. It is largely the judgments of other people in politics that matter for politicos’ careers.”
As a result, campaign pros tend to use the amount of time their colleagues are willing to work and how much they adhere to conventional campaign wisdom as proxies for good campaigning. “Projecting an air of authority by making decisions quickly and sticking with them is an important part of looking the part,” Laurison notes. If this reminds you of other traditionally male-dominated professions like the law, finance and medicine, well, it’s not surprising. The lack of clear measures of effectiveness also helps make campaigns intensely insular. Since being “good” at campaigning is so subjective, it’s not what you know but who you know that matters. And the world of high-level political campaigns is quite literally an old-boys network. According to Laurison’s research, it’s overwhelmingly male (65%), upper middle class (80% are college educated), and disproportionately white (83%). Democratic campaign pros are more racially diverse than Republicans, but still less likely to be Black, Latino, Asian America, Pacific Islander or Native American than Democratic voters are.
This is bad for all kinds of reasons, including the little-mentioned fact that presidential administrations are stocked heavily from the staffs of presidential campaigns—merely volunteering as a fulltime regional field organizer for Obama led to job offers, Laurison shares. But he zeroes in especially on how far this closed world is from the actual voters these professionals are trying to influence. Unlike low-level (and low-status) field workers and event managers who do meet real voters every day, the professionals build their understanding of the electorate from polls and models built with voter data, combined with their prior assumptions about the right way to campaign. Laurison shares that one key player from the 2016 Clinton campaign told him they’d made all the right decisions but based them on the wrong data. He adds, “I heard from a number of people that the campaign headquarters ignored reports from local campaign staffs whose interactions with voters indicated that the reality on the ground was different from what the models predicted.”
Indeed, I’ve heard those stories too, of field staff in states like Pennsylvania trying to tell Clinton HQ in Brooklyn that as many as a quarter of the people they were contacting to remind them to vote were thanking them and saying they were voting for Trump, only for Brooklyn to ask those field staffers if they were getting their “1s” and “5s” confused. For the record, and as I’ve mentioned in The Connector before, there has never been an official post-mortem from the Clinton campaign about this. Its chief analytics officer, Elan Kriegel, the campaign’s vaunted “invisible guiding hand” in the words of campaign manager Robby Mook, has never explained how they blew things so badly. Kriegel oversaw a staff of more than 60 mathematicians and data analysts. “I’ve never seen a campaign that’s more driven by the analytics,” one Obama veteran told Politico at the time. I used to keep a Google news alert on Kriegel’s name in the hopes that someday he’d casually make mention of the campaign at a hometown visit or an obscure college talk, but he never has. He’s still gainfully employed as the co-founder of BlueLabs, a Democratic analytics firm used by the DNC, the DCCC, Biden for President, and the Latino Victory Fund. That’s what you get for being the in the room where it happened.
It’s not just an insider problem
Having the wrong mental model isn’t a problem solely for establishment campaigns. Laurison writes about how the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign also refused to listen to what their ground staff was discovering as they ploughed through the primaries. One of his interviewees told him, “Bernie’s narrative was, like, we’re going to turn out so many new people in the primary—that’s how we’re going to win this. [But] all people wanted to talk about on the doors was like, which of these nominees is going to beat Donald Trump, and Bernie didn’t make that story compelling enough.” While persuading these voters was vital, Sanders’ inner circle rebuffed efforts to shift their vision of who they should target and how. “Although the Sanders campaigns were unconventional in many ways,” Laurison writes, “in this instance the national campaign was as closed to bottom-up information as any other major campaign.” Sanders’ inner circle was just as allergic to outsiders as any other, because its members thought they had earned their status and authority, had shown themselves to be valuable and had close relationships to the candidate.
What’s really crazy about the battle for status inside campaigns is that the people with the lowest status, the field teams with their canvass operations, have the greatest ability to affect turnout, as political scientists Donald Green and Alan Gerber have shown in many studies and their book Get Out the Vote. None of the campaign professionals Laurison interviewed thought that field was their path to a future in politics; several talked about how glad they were to be able to hand it to lower-level staffers. David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign before selling his soul to places like Uber, recalls being called field scum on his first political campaign, Laurison notes. And so campaigns have even more reasons to think of field as a purely utilitarian, short-term tactic and make no effort to save data from cycle to cycle or, god forbid, invest in building infrastructure that could insure that the same two people talk to each other more than once, building a relationship. (Every now and then an articulate field staffer or volunteer makes a cogent case for doing things differently, like this excellent post-2020 memo from Lauren Melodia in Georgia, but low-status people don’t get listened to.)
Why does field have such low status value for ambitious politicos trying to make their way to the room where it happens? Because it isn’t flashy. While field may matter most, it gains the least status for its practitioners except in the rare cases, like the 2008 Obama campaign, where an exceptional ground game made news. “Unless a campaign decides to publicize its ground strategy,” Laurison writes, “or things go wrong and problems are leaked to the press, that work is also largely unnoticed by those outside the campaign….in most races, whether field staff knock on ten doors or a hundred, whether their volunteers stay on script or go rogue, and whether they actually increase the chance that some number of people will vote for the candidate—none of this is visible except to those doing the work and tracking the results.”
So if you want to get ahead in political campaigns, what did the pros tell Laurison? Avoid field and instead seek out positions in “more theatrical” roles like scheduling and advance. And if you want to understand why campaigns obsess about how the news covers them, it’s not because that news changes voters’ minds, it’s because the “hits” that make the news—tough new ads or a zinger in a speech--make status for their makers. Ads are visible to everyone, so they generate more feedback.
Could any of this be different? Of course. “Campaigns are potential sites for political figures to connect with regular people,” Laurison writes. Every now and then, a campaign breaks with conventional wisdom and succeeds. I’ve seen this happen a few times, as when Jesse Ventura beat two mainstream pols to become Minnesota’s only independent governor in 1998, when Dave Brat beat Eric Cantor in 2014, when Trump beat Clinton in 2016, or when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat Joe Crowley in 2018. But as long as the world of professional campaigning remains so insular, it will be slow to change. It doesn’t help that we live in a duopoly, where both parties know their voters and often pick them in advance via gerrymandering, few need to try different strategies to get elected, and third-party efforts are mostly doomed from the start. It all tends to create a self-licking ice-cream cone, one that seems improbably invulnerable to change, until a candidate or campaign comes along and demonstrates that the wisdom guiding campaigns was nothing more than a shaky bet, a story everyone told each other to justify their jobs.
Odds and Ends
—For some reason, online political fundraising from small donors to Republicans dropped 12 percent between the first and second quarters of this year, while money to Democrats surged 21 percent on ActBlue, Shane Goldmacher reports for The New York Times. There are lots of explanations, but my favorite is that the Trump operation is “overfishing” and exhausting the donor pool. The bad news is this will increase the relative influence of far-right mega-donors like Peter Thiel.
—From my Medium column, here’s a friend link to why “paid relational organizing” is not the silver bullet some Democrats are touting, but rather just another way of squeezing the base for votes rather than building the base. (If you enjoy my Medium posts, please sign up as a member to access all my content and all the other great premium content over there through this link.)
—Run for Something is looking to hire nearly a dozen new staffers. The group has experienced a big surge in candidate sign-ups in the days after the Dobbs decision.
—Consumer Reports Digital Lab is also looking to hire for several new positions, including a head of experimental engineering.
I’m still marveling at Joni Mitchell’s unexpected gift to all of us this past Sunday.
I am so very glad that I have found my way to your newsletter today. Will check out a few more articles and likely subscribe soon; you are articulating (and citing evidence for!) everything that has been intuitively clear to me for a long time — including throughout my own campaign for state representative, in which much that was heralded as "campaign wisdom and expertise" felt short-sighted at best and often wrong/counterproductive. I am so grateful for the deep dive and re-examination of the practices that truly lead to a strengthened democracy and engaged, informed electorate.