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Learn the essentials of campaign management

In virtually all instances, the quality and success of political campaigns in the U.S. is inextricably tied to the intelligence and efficacy of its management. From the individual who bears the formal title of “campaign manager” to the various deputies, poll analysts, communications directors, phone-bank managers, aides, and other personnel who come together to implement the strategy that will engender their candidate’s election, all are essential cogs in the political machine. However, nearly everything – every decision made, every direction taken, every population demographic or talking point focused upon (or eschewed) – flows from the vision and direction of that leading managerial figure.

Some of the most effective campaign managers in American politics (or political operatives who carried out their duties so well that their actual titles were irrelevant) are so well-known that their names can sometimes function as shorthand abbreviations for the kinds of approaches they took to campaigning: James Carville, Karl Rove, Kellyanne Conway, Patrick Caddell, John Mitchell, David Plouffe, and so on. Many remain in the public eye as media commentators on the political arena long after the candidates they helped succeed have held and left office, like Carville has, while some have gone on to be political candidates themselves, such as the former Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan. All of them made – and make – a considerable mark one way or another.

What techniques did these operatives know that have made them legendary figures on the American political stage? All are undoubtedly somewhat unique to the figures who made them famous, but a great deal of them have been absorbed into collective knowledge and now exist as curriculum standards within many graduate-level political science, public administration, and public policy degree programs. As such, students pursuing a Master of Public Administration can parley their education into jobs in politics and work their way up to campaign management. The path won’t be simple, however, so it behooves these individuals to learn certain core tenets of political campaigns in advance of their graduate studies.

Comfort with high stakes

Those with management experience or a natural knack for leadership and broad vision are, of course, in possession of skills that are essential for the arena of a political campaign. However, issues can arise among some bids for office not due to any lack of managerial acumen, but rather stemming from an inadequate understanding of what is at stake.

As explained by political analyst Kellen Guida in a piece for Forbes, a U.S. presidential campaign is “a 24/7 national-scale dogfight to lead the greatest, richest, most influential country in the world.” Even though not all campaigns take place on as broad and as visible a scale as that, the key takeaway from Guida’s choice of phrase should be the gravity of the situation. This holds true whether it’s the 2016 election or a mayoral election in a major city.

Anything the size of a mayoral campaign for a medium-sized American metropolis or larger can essentially be compared to managing a company – but one for which almost every decision can be a saving grace or a death knell. While that atmosphere is accurate for some businesses, the stakes simply aren’t on the same level – because public servants affect so many aspects of people’s lives in a given nation, state, county or municipality.

Even taking the power of major modern corporations into account, almost none of them has the same widespread effect as those who create or carry out laws and policy are capable of having. Thus, Forbes noted that those who are serious about managing political operations must have the psychological fortitude to always keep those high stakes in mind when making all decisions. This means taking the time to arrive at the right choice, receiving feedback from the candidate and his or her closest advisers, and committing fully to the course decided upon.

Navigating legal requirements

Even after the infamous Citizens United ruling, in which the Supreme Court declared that political spending constitutes protected speech – allowing corporations unlimited spending as long as they didn’t focus on single candidates – the campaign process remains bound by many laws and regulations. These are essential to remaining ethical in what can be a cutthroat field, but also labyrinthine in their complexity. Campaign managers should know them inside and out, and if not, at least hire legal and clerical staff to handle such responsibilities. These include everything from meeting statewide requirements for candidates to make ballots to the timing standards applied to TV ads.

Balancing idealism and pragmatism

According to The Campaign Workshop, an American political consulting firm, candidates entering the fray of an election should do so based on their belief in themselves and their communities, not out of vanity or selfishness. While not mandatory for campaign managers or those aiming to fill that role eventually, it’s wise to maintain the same standards. Managers must be able to ask themselves why they believe in a particular candidate and provide a meaningful, heartened answer. Doing so will also be beneficial for media relations, as political operatives frequently receive queries regarding their specific dedication to a candidate or issue.

This capacity for honesty also requires pragmatism. Not only must effective managers be proactive and realistic about what will and won’t work in campaign strategy, but they also need to identify the point at which they’ve lost. The Campaign Workshop noted that running without a chance to win is foolhardy, and so is lacking the awareness of impending defeat.

Reaching, affecting and turning out voters

Shannon Garrett, president and co-founder of VoteRunLead, states that voter contact and outreach “is the backbone of every campaign.” This involves countless supplementary processes – knowing the turnout of past elections, understanding prominent demographics, reaching the most likely voters and persuading them to vote – and multiple channels. The middle-aged and elderly still respond with reasonable alacrity to get-out-the-vote phone calls and direct mailings, but young professionals and college students will in most cases be considerable more receptive to social media and email communications.

Managers must determine the best qualities and messages of the candidate to emphasize for each demographic and in each medium, without ever appearing to flip-flop between positions. There should be an overarching consistency based on the candidate’s central character. All but the most guileless voters understand that politics involves compromise, but blatantly reminding them of shrewdness is unwise. Finally, when election day rolls around, the staff will see the true measure of their get-out-the-vote strategy, and wait on pins and needles to see the results.

The above principles make up a mere portion of the skills that politically inclined MPA students and graduates will need in the political world if they want to manage campaigns. But their necessity can’t be denied, and they’ll serve as reasonable starting points for those who are just starting their journey in this field.

Learn More

The School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark, provider of the online Master of Public Administration, is accredited by the NASPAA. Before a program becomes eligible for accreditation by the NASPAA, its parent school must be recognized by a regional, national or international agency. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education and is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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