What is the volunteer-to-job path in politics?
October 19, 2011 4:49 PM   Subscribe

Is volunteering for a political campaign a good way to get a political job?

There's a candidate I really like in a nearby state (in the U.S.) I am unemployed and looking for work. I've volunteered for campaigns before. I have wanted to get into politics professionally for a long time but have never known how.

I don't have any connections in politics, and my alma mater and law school are known to be hotbeds of political thought well on the other side from the candidate in question. I have enjoyed the "grunt work" that I have done -- knocking on doors, hanging signs, phone banking, and stuffing envelopes -- and I think I would enjoy some of the higher-up work as well.

How do you get a job with the campaign? Is volunteering a good way to start? If I do volunteer, how can I best impress whoever it is who hires people?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I can attest from experience that volunteering on a political campaign is not a good way to get a political job. You should volunteer on a political campaign if you believe in the candidate. And that's it. Campaigns for each candidate require hundreds of volunteers. Not all of these people can be promised a job.

I'm not sure what it's like where you are, but in Canadian provincial and federal politics the bureaucracy is non-political, although the top executives are politically friendly to the regime.

People like Ministerial Assistants are generally young and up-and-coming party members who are also highly educated, and usually (but not always) highly skilled at their jobs. They often bring with them a web of personal, professional and political contacts.

Government workers, from middle mangers (Assistant Deputy Ministers and Directors) down are not political at all.

Another class of quasi-government workers are caucus workers. They are employed by the political party, and are paid for by party donations. They get the partisan message out.

But politicians are not in the habit of handing out favours, such as providing jobs for volunteers.

While politicians generally greatly appreciate all the help they can get, they also are very quick to realize when someone is looking for a quid pro quo arrangement. It's why they are politicians, after all.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:01 PM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can't speak too much to the US way of things, but in Australia, the answer is... sort of. I imagine it'll be similar to the US.

Yes, volunteering will put you on the radar, but politics being the game it is, you'll need to schmooze. And I'm not neccessarily saying "schmooze the pollie" because most of the time the politician you're working for will be too focused on being a politician, trying to get re-elected and so on to notice you. Instead, you'll want to schmooze those closest to him or her. They're the ones who, most of the time, will be asking you and other campaign workers to do things, they're the ones most likely to notice how good or bad a job you're doing and so they're the ones who are most likely to put in a good word for you to the person you're all working for.

You'll also want to not just go to work for them, but you'll want to go to the social functions as well. This means going along to campaign fund raisers, factional parties and even parties at other people's homes, if you get invited.

And you'll want to be vibrant. The quiet guy who keeps to themselves rather than getting in there and sharing a laugh may be just as qualified as one another, but the latter is more likely to be noticed. Politics is a popularity contest, and being liked and being noticed is, sadly, somewhat more important than almost anything else you can offer, with the possible exception of doing good work and getting results.

The thing is, don't expect to get a job straight away. Don't even expect one after the first campaign. It's a long game you're looking at. It took me about five years of being involved and volunteering at a grass roots level and getting to know the people I needed to know before I got my first paying job. It probably could have gone a little quicker if I had gotten the advice I'm giving you now, but probably not a whole lot quicker. Trust is important in politics, and an unknown entity, even one who is liked and does a great job, needs to earn trust and show loyalty.

There are probably some important differences in US politics... from what I've seen on The West Wing I imagine there'll be a lot of unpaid work masquerading as an "internship", but politics is politics is politics.

Good luck!
posted by Effigy2000 at 5:03 PM on October 19, 2011

My impression is that if you get in very early (as in, you were one of the first people to sign up), then it can end up with you getting a job, because you get integrated into the organization. If you just jump in to answer phones or knock on doors, not really.
posted by empath at 5:07 PM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'd draw a distinction between getting government jobs and jobs in politics. When I think of jobs in politics, I think more about those who are a part of the campaign machinery, and yes volunteering is a critical foot in the door for that line of work.

Now isn't the best time to break into this. As the machinery kicks into full swing, it's pulling in countless volunteers for big campaigns and you'll be one of many. Early in the process, it's a little easier to get on board and do many of the tasks no one wants to do. It's those early thankless jobs that get people noticed.

If you are in a caucus state, you'll also want to get involved in the party. You want to know how the endorsement process works and how to best position your candidate to pick up a few more delegates here and there. You might also consider taking volunteer roles in the party, weather that's at a precinct level or higher, it's a good way to get yourself out there as an engaged activist.
posted by advicepig at 5:09 PM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

In my experience, it will make a significant difference if this is a presidential/gubernatorial/congressional/other campaign. Can you contact a mod to clarify? Since you're anonymous, if you could even tell us who the actual candidate is (or at least the party, or the state, or the type of race), that will probably help us provide even more specific answers. It'd help even to know if the candidate is the incumbent, or an underdog, or even roughly his/her current level of funding relative to his/her opponents. All these factors can be huge in the foothold that being a volunteer may or may not have on the chances of getting a related paid gig in the next 12+ months.
posted by argonauta at 5:24 PM on October 19, 2011

When I worked in politics in Texas, practically everyone I met got their first political jobs after volunteering for a campaign -- but they didn't get jobs on the same campaign they volunteered for. I volunteered for a campaign, then was hired by the politician when he got elected. Others volunteer on campaigns, do a good job and integrate into the political community locally, and then got hired at campaigns or at the politician's office. If a campaign is at the point where they're taking volunteers, the paid spots are usually all settled. There are also probably fewer paid spots than you think. So you work on campaigns to get jobs after, usually not during.

This is possible with lower level campaigns; I got my job after a campaign for state house. Anything national level is going to have so many volunteers you won't have much opportunity to distinguish yourself to higher ups, and they won't want to hire people with no paid experience. If you want to work in politics, start local with state house and state senate.
posted by Nattie at 5:42 PM on October 19, 2011

Worked for me. My work experience in the 4 years between college and grad school was as follows: U.S. Senate campaign volunteer --> U.S. Senate campaign "intern" (exact same thing I was doing as a volunteer, but with regular hours and a title) --> entry-level U.S. Senate staffer (same guy that I had campaigned for) --> state party coordinated campaign field organizer (same state as the senator was from) --> mid-level U.S. House staffer (also same state). I had coworkers during that second campaign who had started out as high-time-commitment volunteers and over the course of the campaign were hired (and even promoted ahead of me). Since you're unemployed, presumably you could commit a lot of time to this? That will be pretty crucial. Impress the staff with the level of your commitment. You may also want to attend local party committee meetings and get to know the people there (either in the party hierarchy or local electeds).

To be clear though: I'm not sure if by "higher-up" you mean just any old paid position or if you've got your heart set on something in particular. Everyone thinks they deserve to get some fancy policy advisor position, but (except for young people whose parents are big donors, in which case they might get to be assistant scheduler or finance assistant or something), young and inexperienced people in their first political job mostly don't get to do anything more glamorous than field, which means you have to do a lot of the same crappy grunt work that vols do (phones, doors, etc.), except you will be paid to do it (albeit very poorly). However, once you've done that first painful field organizer stint, you can work your way up the chain from there a lot more easily.
posted by naoko at 5:43 PM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a Google group called jobsthatareLEFT. Perhaps this campaign is actually hiring for lower-level positions through them. Worth a shot!
posted by droplet at 5:50 PM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do campaign management. I got my first job answering a Craigslist ad. I have since hired over a hundred staff members throughout the many campaigns I worked.

Yes, volunteering is a great way to get a campaign job. One function the campaign team has to do is managing volunteers and staff like canvassers. This is very time consuming as most of these people are next to useless and seldom shower. If you are eager, competent, and volunteer yourself before anyone asks the campaign could find a position for you if one opens up.

I will note that many positions in a campaign are volunteers or government staff (more on that below). They are not getting paid. It might be different in a high profile race for Congress or a mayor's race. But most of the time the people you see working weekends, not sleeping, and eating far too much pizza are unpaid.

Now, if you want a job in government. That is a trickier subject. I will hire someone off the street because they can hold a conversation. Hiring someone to staff an office we just won? That is a different story all together. Members of office staff have a 9-5 job doing government. But most know that their job doesn't end there and they will have to help with fundraisers, petitioning, and other drudgery when reelection time comes. It is important to subtly communicate that you get that. But if you can't demonstrate that you have the skills needed to be a good government staff I wont find you a job.

Those are my experiences at least. Take it for what you will.
posted by munchingzombie at 5:51 PM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Depends. It might. You need to get in early and be somewhat indispensable and the campaign needs to have the money to hire you.

Seen it happen. Also seen it not happen. In the US for what it's worth.

The two most important factors are probably your personality (you need to be someone they actively want to be with for many stressful hours) and their budget. (Connections are also important but you already said you have none, so.)
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:09 PM on October 19, 2011

Thinking more about it, it's not necessarily about getting in early as getting in when the budget leaves room for hiring people, which can depend on the fundraising going on in that particular campaign.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:18 PM on October 19, 2011

Volunteering is a mostly necessary but probably insufficient condition for getting a job in politics. I would also recommend volunteering at your local party headquarters (for the contacts) and getting involved at the state level as well (perhaps working a statewide race or working at the state party headquarters).

Give money also. If you can get a couple hundred dollars together, attend a fundraising dinner or reception to expand your network. The goal is to make yourself recognizable, and to build up a network to give yourself that edge over the other eager beaver phone banker or lit dropper.

You want to be taken seriously; you're not just an ideologue or a "useful idiot," you're an operative who knows how the game is played. Show that side of yourself, but also show that you're not above the drudgery that is necessary in order to climb that greasy pole to the top.
posted by BobbyVan at 6:24 PM on October 19, 2011

I asked a similar question almost a year ago.
short answer: no so far
Longer answer: I now help the candidate out for events, he invites me to football games, Obama rallies, and I have access to him personally. I believe in him as a candidate, and he knows I would love to work for him. I believe he will be seeking another office, and I know I'm at least on his radar. Other perks are I've met other candidates, and while they may not remember me, I can bring up other events and speak with them, perhaps aid a campaign in the future. Additionally, I have been able to get to know his staff, and been invited to the state capitol, which certainly is cool.

If you are interested in politics, believe in the candidate, it is worth volunteering. I had a ton of fun calling voters, updating databases, walking and knocking on doors. I looked forward to getting off of work to spend time on something I believed in, and meeting new like minded people. Do it, there are never any guarantees, but you never know what may come from it.
posted by handbanana at 6:49 PM on October 19, 2011

Yes it is a path, and it has been for me. Try to get something in this cycle, but better yet, plan for the long term.

Here's some advice I gave previously.
You are already a step ahead in that you already accept that these things will be necessary.

I will add the following to my linked previous post: Know the location of every copy shop in your CD; know how to hook up the multimedia equipment, do very basic household-type plumbing for your stripmall office (trust me, I know), and how to drive stick; be the first to say hello; and yourself to everyone.

Also get a map of the jurisdiction and study it. Hang it over your desk (if you have one - lucky you!) or at your digs. Really. I found it very helpful. "Oh, LittleTown? That's up near NiceLake.
posted by jgirl at 6:53 PM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

*introduce* yourself to everyone.

Oh, and if you go to dinners or events with a question-and-answer session, always ask a well-framed and thoughtful question.
posted by jgirl at 6:56 PM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jgirl answer was helpful in the link in my previous question. Doing stuff in the office (I did some computer trouble shooting and some networking) makes people happy and a go to guy or gal for getting things done.
posted by handbanana at 6:56 PM on October 19, 2011

Not in my (personal, more-than-one time) experience it isn't - and it doesn't matter what the politician tells you. They're not any more honest in person than they are on TV. YMMV.
posted by brownrd at 7:09 PM on October 19, 2011

You've gotten a lot of really good advice here. As a former campaign staffer, I've seen volunteers get paid jobs. Not just on local races, either. It's usually people who get in early, make themselves indispensable and let people know they're interested. If you actually enjoy stuff like phonebanking and doorknocking, then that will help a lot, because that's what campaigns will want you to do.

I will also say that, unless you know someone who really trusts you, you're unlikely to ever get a campaign job without some sort of regular volunteer experience.

Once you're volunteering, you want to show that you're bright, reliable and easy to work with. The last part is key. No one on a campaign has time for bullshit, and nothing is more annoying to a staffer than the volunteer who thinks they know better than anyone else how things should be run. So don't be that guy. If people are looking for a solution to a problem and you think you have one, then definitely offer it. Otherwise, keep your head down and do good work.

FWIW, this is good advice when you have a paid entry-level job, too. People hire people they know on campaigns. It's just how it works. If you get known as someone who does good work and is easy to deal with, people will want to hire you. Be nice to everyone, because that field organizer who just graduated from college could be a campaign manager next cycle.
posted by lunasol at 7:50 PM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Know the location of every copy shop in your CD; know how to hook up the multimedia equipment, do very basic household-type plumbing for your stripmall office (trust me, I know)

Yes. Yes, jgirl knows. Those bathrooms always break and it's always awful.
posted by lunasol at 7:53 PM on October 19, 2011

One thing I forgot to mention. It may sound natural to schmooze the candidate. After all, there name is on the lawn signs taped in the window. But finding the campaign manager and impressing them will get you much further.

Most candidates think they know about running a campaign. But they know shit. The campaign manager will hire staff and has power of the purse.
posted by munchingzombie at 8:40 PM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Volunteering is how many people get jobs with politicians, but it's far from guaranteed. Networking is the other big one, and while some people manage to land jobs this way before they volunteer, for many people volunteering is really just a cover for networking.
posted by valkyryn at 3:07 AM on October 20, 2011

Schmooze everyone. You never know whose mom works for a senator or who has breakfast with the governor's husband on a weekly basis. Making these kinds of connections is a common reason for hiring lower-level staff.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:12 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm in Texas. I have worked on local, state and Congressional races both here and in other states. I have volunteered, and also been paid.

To me, politics is an industry much like criminal investigation: everyone really thinks they know what it is all about, from the outside—thanks to movies, television and media. But once inside, they kind of scratch their heads and say, "Huh. This isn't like being Josh Lyman at all."

I believe politics is a business and discipline worth truly learning, if one hopes to enter it. You can study it academically, or you can spend 10 years on the ground, but either way, to be valuable you must understand why canvassing matters... what are the peaks and valleys of the cycle you are hoping to enter... the vast differences in structure between partisan and non-partisan races... how to read voter records... why precinct analysis and neighborhood profiles matter... the basic legal and ethics rules around campaigning... learning how to profile a base and how to message to them... candidate management and coaching... crisis PR... volunteer coordination... these are all critical aspects of campaign management.

A great and desirable senior staffer can do all these things, even if he is better at some than others. You don't have to be proficient to be familiar or fluent. AskMe is a good start but there are also plenty of websites out there, and great non-fiction books about campaign management which you might seek at the library.

Lots of good advice here already. I heartily second the notions that getting to know the candidate him/herself rarely amounts to jack... it's the campaign manager who is actually in the business of politics, and will keep you in mind and call you ahead of the next cycle... and that being bright, reliable and willing to work hard will take you far.

I suggest identifying the strong professional aptitudes you already possess, and then finding the campaign role that fits it. Examples:

- The personable, gregarious talker that is also very clever: can staff the candidate at events and proxy with voters. Or fundraise.

- The personable, gregarious talker that is not very clever: Doorknocker. Volunteer recruiter. Poll staffer.

- Strong writing skills: can craft interviews, speeches, talking points, daily message memos, letters to the media, etc.

- Responsible, organized numbers person: campaign finance.

- Responsible, organized big-picture person: event manager.

- Not great with people or computers but reliable and competent: signs; driver/bodyman.

- Someone who loves sitting on internet all day: webmaster; monitoring press; opposition research; social media.

These are just some off-the-cuff examples, but I believe there is a place in a political campaign for every type of person. You just have to identify the value that you specifically bring, and then always be the very best one in the room at that core ability. A campaign team that is nothing but Josh Lymans won't ever get anything accomplished. Find that thing at which you are amazing, and then plug it in to campaign work.
posted by pineapple at 7:06 PM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

I want to offer a counterpoint on a couple of things, strictly from my own experiences:

"And you'll want to be vibrant. The quiet guy who keeps to themselves rather than getting in there and sharing a laugh may be just as qualified as one another, but the latter is more likely to be noticed. Politics is a popularity contest, and being liked and being noticed is, sadly, somewhat more important than almost anything else you can offer, with the possible exception of doing good work and getting results."

-- I feel that personality matters, but not as much as the ability to be useful. The quiet guy who can sit in the corner on a laptop and crunch voter data like a machine is far more valuable to the campaign than the popular chatty good-time guy. As a campaign manager, the very first person I want to staff is my voter database person, and those are rarely the extremely social types.

"Give money also. If you can get a couple hundred dollars together, attend a fundraising dinner or reception to expand your network. The goal is to make yourself recognizable, and to build up a network to give yourself that edge over the other eager beaver phone banker or lit dropper."

-- I personally would look askance at an aspiring campaign staffer who wanted to attend a fundraising dinner as a guest, for several reasons, but the primary one is that staffers should be running the game, not sitting in it. The glad-handing candidate, his hangers-on, the power-seeking donors who hope to get face time... those are all part of the ecosystem, sure, but staffers want to use those people, not be them. You can be cast or crew in this performance... but not both. I would worry that a staffer who hoped to schmooze at the black-tie events was hoping to be in the spotlight herself, rather than learn how best to shine it on her winning candidate.

Plus, if you cobble together $150 for cheap table wine, rubber chicken and two hours of small talk seated next to the wife of the county commissioner, the candidate nets only a percentage of that.... and you've just bought yourself a spot on the campaign finance report, to boot, since donors often have to be publicly reported by name/home address. (I would never, ever be caught with my name on a campaign donor list because those never go away and it can come back to bite you down the road.)

And the county commissioner's wife isn't ever going to hire you, anyway. See above re the people to schmooze are high-profile staffers, not electeds and their entourage. So I don't feel that the network one could meet while sitting at a fundraising dinner is actually productive toward the goal of landing campaign jobs.

(Besides, stick around long enough and you'll get gratis tickets to those events anyway. When the hotel ballroom is completely paid for and 300 dinners were guaranteed but only 250 people RSVP'ed, it's better to find friendly supporters to sit in those seats for free, than have them sit empty and have it appear that your guy can't fill a room. Just be sure to have a clean suit ready to go for when the campaign event coordinator calls you at 4 pm to "request" your presence at a 7 pm function.)
posted by pineapple at 7:15 PM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Besides, stick around long enough and you'll get gratis tickets to those events anyway.

Alternatively, these sorts of events often need a few presentable-looking people to sit at the entrance and greet people, hand out name tags, collect last-minute checks, etc. This is a lot of fun - you won't actually have to work the whole night, giving you lots of free time for schmoozing. If you're a volunteer who a) is friendly and b) cleans up ok (seconding having that suit handy), you may get asked to do this sort of thing. Cocktail party-type fundraisers are much better than seated dinners for schmoozing, though - I am so over those dinners and agree that they are rather less worth your time.
posted by naoko at 9:38 PM on October 20, 2011

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