The Bureaucracy of Campaigns

Hollywood media like “House of Cards” and “Veep” make campaign work seem like the stuff left to pros. You’ve likely been exposed to the trope of campaign staffers being cutthroat and viciously ambitious; that they are masters of opportunity. This is how I thought, until I started working campaigns.

In truth, I’ve known most campaign staffers to be nothing but laggards; individuals that exceed in very little. Many come off as unintelligent, socially awkward, unable to write a sentence, and confused by professionalism. I say this not to be rude, but because I think there is a deeper economic insight to be gained from realistically looking at campaigns.

At the heart of campaign work is the lack of profit and loss. Campaigns are like bureaucracies in that no individuals truly bear the consequences of poor productivity; even the candidates hardly bear the loss, because truthfully, losing in higher levels of office is still a victory in building politicians’ cults of personality. A failed senate candidate has still plastered their face across the state and connected with every influential person of relevance. A losing candidate is often guaranteed a lesser position (which is only marginally lesser), and their name recognition lets them appear on television regularly and speak at events for years. On top of these post-loss “gains”, a candidate has no way of knowing whether their staff could’ve performed better because nobody knows what influences voters. Nobody really knows why a candidate loses.

So, there are no real ways of externally assessing a campaign’s strength. Additionally, there are few ways of internally assessing campaigns’ productivity. One of the first things I learned doing grassroots (door-to-door campaigning) is that assessing the productivity of any employee in grassroots is impossible. Shirking was unfathomably easy to get away with, as you could simulate a day’s work from sitting on your phone for ten minutes. This (humorously) goes without saying, but I know this not from personal experience in shirking. I remember an example of a regional field director being accused of faking 20,000 doors, because his snapchat map indicated an Australian getaway. Whether he was guilty I don’t remember, but had he fudged the numbers, we’d only know because of snapchat. Grassroots is widely considered the most effective form of campaigning; it is astounding that shirking is possible in such high numbers. Twenty-thousand doors could be an entire congressional race!

Because there are really no metrics to determine productivity in campaigns, we’d expect positions to be filled not by the most qualified candidates, but by those that appear as such. My own experiences have matched this expectation. I don’t want to get into many personal experiences because I won’t publicly bad-mouth friends; but, suffice to say that campaigns are staffed by people that merely look like they’re being productive. I’d also guess that most candidates know how useless their spending is. I remember working Rick Saccone’s failed congressional race; he was disgraced not because he lost, but because he lost with a million bucks in the (campaign) bank. Would a million dollars do anything, given that he already spent millions before just to lose? From that and other gigs, I’ve realized that raising money is, in of itself, the goal; a candidate that raises no money is considered a likely loser, so money must be raised. Is that money productive? I honestly don’t think so. But it must be raised, and it must be spent.

In conclusion, campaigns might be the worst kind of bureaucracy. There is absolutely no metric for success, and even if there were, candidates have to spend money regardless. Once I worked a campaign very early in the race, where millions were being raked in 10 months before the primaries. Yet, the staff was a skeleton crew. They didn’t hire people because optically, they would seem irresponsible for spending a lot of money so far in advance. With the same logic, they’d be hiring people later just because it seemed responsible to. Campaigns, in practice, remind me of the classic film “Brewster’s Millions”, wherein Brewster is excited to gain $30,000,000 but is soon tired by the catch: he must spend it in two weeks (I think that was the time period?). Campaigns are essentially a race to raise money, and a race to spend it. No, it is not a race to spend it well. Hence the easy shirking of employees, hence the employees that are often of low quality.