Last night Peter Sterne learned pretty much anything you would want to know and probably a lot of stuff you wouldn’t about how to have a career in politics.
Last night, Matt McMillan, CC ’03 and internet consultant for Democratic political campaigns, showed a group of about 40 undergraduates in Hamilton 602 what it really takes to break into politics. Although good-humored, he did not mince words. McMillan freely admitted he had an overly idealistic view of political campaigns as an undergraduate and believed politics to be “more of a meritocracy than it actually is.” Now, he sought to show students of his alma mater exactly what they had to do to actually succeed in becoming political consultants.
McMillan’s own experience is telling. After graduating from Columbia, he quickly discovered that an Ivy League education didn’t help as much as he thought, since political campaigns valued experience over education. Fortunately, he happened to have the right skills at the right time. “In ’04,” he explained, “when internet consultants were still being laughed out of the room,” he was able to create a website for a dark-horse candidate that was much more successful than anyone anticipated. Soon, he received calls from more important political campaigns in the United States, and was even given the opportunity to work for some international campaigns. Unfortunately for those who aren’t already successful internet political consultants, his meteoric rise to prominence would be difficult to repeat these days. Since campaigns now realize the importance of web presence, they hire internet consultants the same way they hire political consultants: a combination of friendly referrals and relationships that McMillan derisively terms “political nepotism.”
This sobering fact did not seem to faze most of the students in the room, some of whom had already worked for political campaigns as canvassers and low-level assistants, and many of whom were members of the College Dems. It was not an entirely Democratic audience, though. McMillan predicted there was at least one right-winger in the audience, and he was proved correct after the lecture: when the Dems encouraged all present to come to their general meeting “where we’ll be discussing gun control,” a lone student instead suggested to “come see the College Republicans, where we’ll be discussing the Second Amendment.” Regardless of their political affiliation, though, the audience wanted to know how political campaigns were structured and how to get involved. McMillan did not disappoint them. He drew an organization chart on the board and explained the different responsibilities of various campaign consultants, starting with the “inner circle” that participated in the candidate’s consultant conference calls. **Warning – lots of detailed bureaucracy comprises the remainder of this post**
- Media consultant: They mostly handle TV spots, which are still a campaign’s largest expense, commanding over 60% of the campaign’s budget. Although the Internet is growing importance, “TV is still king” among older voters, who have the highest turnout in most (non-presidential) elections. If you want to work as a campaign media consultant, you should have a passion for both politics and 30-second commercials.
- Internet consultant: This is the newest and least-respected consultant position, but it’s also the one poised to see the most growth as time goes on. Their primary responsibility is to build the candidate’s website, but they also handle email campaigns, online advertising, and social-networking. If you ‘re a hardcore coder and you have a knack for politics, McMillan could get you a job working on a campaign website tomorrow.
- Phone consultant: They organize phone banks and robocalls, which can target voters very effectively but is often seen as unimportant and “unsexy.” On the plus side, it’s easier to get a job as a phone consultant because there are fewer applicants.
- Direct Mail Consultant: Much like the phone consultant, they can effectively target voters but aren’t always accorded as much respect as the media consultant. It may be more fun, though, since you can get away with more outrageous ads than on TV or even the internet. McMillan told the students how he once judged a mail ad for the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) that featured a baby carriage on train tracks with the message: “If you vote for this candidate, the baby dies!”
- “Oppo” Researcher: They play an important role early on in the campaign by compiling a “book” of information about the opponent that can later be used in attack ads. Oppo researchers also create a “self-research book” about the candidate to anticipate any of the opponent’s attacks. Responding to a question from an audience member on how compromising blogs and Facebook pages will affect this research, McMillan theorized, “society will eventually become more accepting, but in the meantime, it’s going to be very interesting!”
- Pollster: They handle all the polling duties, which includes a lot more than just seeing if they’re candidate is currently in the lead. For instance, all statements and political ads put out by the candidate have already been poll-tested and found to be “most persuasive” by a significant segment of the target audience. If you’re into both politics and statistics, you could easily get a job assisting a campaign pollster.
- Campaign staff: Under the campaign manager, these consist of the fundraising manager who handles all the fundraising duties of the campaign, the field manager who manages all the volunteers who canvass from door-to-door and work in campaign offices, and the communications director who organizes all of the candidate’s press and media.
- Candidate: They call everyone they know and beg for money for eight hours a day, every day. When they become more successful, they call “bundlers” who organize fundraising drives for them and other rich donors for eight hours a day, every day. The fundraising manager chooses who they should call, but the candidate is the one who has to do the actual calling. In McMillan’s view, this is why “being a candidate sucks.”