To start off the summer, I was able to represent the LEAP Center at the New Politics Forum’s Campaign Boot Camp, an event hosted by the Annette Straus Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas. Usually hosted in Austin, this event was entirely virtual as a result of COVID-19.
The purpose of this event is to allow students who are interested in pursuing a career in political campaigns to connect with each other, explore internships and job opportunities, and hear from experts about the best practices of running a campaign.
Kickoff with Cole Wilson and Rep. Talarico
To kick off the weekend, we were greeted by the emcee of the event, Cole Wilson, who gave us an overview of what Campaign Boot Camp was all about. We learned that the objective of the project was to engage young political minds, promote bipartisanship, and create opportunities for professional development. Some of the extra opportunities provided this weekend included a place for us to share our resumes, an online chat with access to communicate with our fellow attendees and our guest speakers, and a weekend-long competitive project to develop our skills and utilize the information we learned throughout the event.
After being welcomed by Cole, we heard from Rep. James Talarico of Texas’ House District 52, who gave us an inspiring call to action and a message of hope. First, he reminded us that “it’s not the size of your ego or the size of your brain that sets you apart from others, it’s the size of your heart.” He used his time to talk to us about compassion and being kind. He then shared with us some advice from the incumbent of his seat and former opponent, Larry Gonzales. Talarico said that, although they were opponents and members of opposing parties, he considers Gonzales a mentor. Upon leaving office, Gonzales reminded him of three things: to always listen, ask questions, and be kind. As we move forward in this time of divisiveness and uncertainty, I feel it is vital to share this message of compassion. Rep. Talarico’s introduction was a great start to the weekend.
Campaign Management with Matt Glazer
Our first lesson of the weekend was campaign management with Matt Glazer. Glazer introduced himself by sharing that, when he was younger, he was trying to decide whether to go into medicine or politics, but upon finding out the sight of blood made him sick, chose to stick with politics.
Glazer then launched into his presentation, the foundation of which involved asking key questions about your campaign. Questions such as “What do you prioritize?” and “How do you define victory?” are essential to leading a successful campaign. By defining your success early on in the campaign, you are setting yourself up for an efficient and well-run campaign. One of the repeated themes of the weekend was that preparation is the key to success on a campaign. Glazer discussed the importance of creating a campaign timeline, complete with a plan to prepare and develop a message and a plan to execute and share your message with voters. When it comes to sharing that message, he reminded us also that although we are seeking the support of the voters, it is not our job to chase them, but to lead them.
He then briefly discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the future of campaigning. He said that, although the methods and platforms may change, the tactics will not. We must continue to engage voters, get our message to them, and get them out to vote.
The lesson wrapped up with a few reminders about what working on a campaign truly entails. Glazer shared that, although campaign work is temporary, there will always be another campaign to work on. For a long time, he told us, we’ll have to own that the pay isn’t always great and there usually aren’t benefits, but that should not stop us from always doing good work, and being excited about what we do.
Nancy Bocskor and the Fundamentals of Fundraising
After a brief lunch break, we watched a recording of Nancy Bocskor, a leader in promoting engagement and leadership in public service. Deemed by a newspaper in Germany as a “Democracy Coach,” Bocskor gave us an in-depth look at the world of fundraising.
Essentially, fundraising revolves around being able to sell your candidate or cause to potential donors. To do this, it is key to remember that information is power; the more you know about a donor, the better chance you have to raise money. “Persistence,” she says, “is a necessity, but a sense of humor helps.”
Furthermore, Bocskor discussed the importance of putting together an effective finance team. She explained to us that the best occupation for a finance chair is not always an accountant or a banker, but rather someone in sales. Fundraising, she reminded us, is not solely about saving money or keeping track of it; it is about convincing people that your campaign is worth giving money to.
After this, we discussed strategy for outreach. One of the biggest takeaways from this event was that, as useful of a resource as social media is, it cannot replace the fundamental methods of voter/donor contact and outreach.
Bocskor told us that we should utilize social media to supplement and follow up on our fundraising efforts, but it should never be our primary tactic to raise money. Digital fundraising, she explained, only accounts for 8% of donations.
Finally, we learned that, as with anything, fundraising is about building and keeping relationships. It is crucial to devote time to maintaining a solid relationship with donors and potential donors because friendship often trumps party or issues. The chances of receiving a donation from someone who knows and trusts you are significantly higher than the odds of receiving a donation from someone who may agree with you but does not know you very well.
The lesson ended with a few more pieces of advice: listen twice as much as you speak, and always say thank you (in written notes, if possible)! If someone who attended this weekend read this blog, they would point out that I left out an integral story told by Ms. Bocskor about the purchase of a rug, and how it shaped her perspective of selling and persuasion.
I do not believe I can do her story justice here, but if you ever have the chance to hear it from her, by all means, listen!
A Message from Jen Sarver
We began the day two with a message from speechwriter, communications expert and former candidate for Congress, Jen Sarver. First of all, I cannot count how many times we, as an audience, were reminded that we were not “normal people,” since we were spending a weekend during a pandemic tuning in to learn about running political campaigns instead of doing literally anything else…but this was one of those times.
Sarver took this opportunity to remind all of the students listening that the way we lead our lives right now is what will eventually lead into our legacy. She reminded us that the small, individual actions we take all help to make a difference. Her main point in saying all of this was that, if we want to make an impact in the world, no matter how we do it, we must remain active and engaged. After this, we proceeded on with our lessons for the day.
Tyler Norris and Voter Contact
Tyler Norris, a well-known name in Texas politics, has worked for a number of candidates and legislators over the years, including coordinating grassroots efforts for Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential bid. From his years of experience, Norris had much to share about the world of voter contact.
First, he defined for us what the objectives of voter contact really are. As he explains it, the hope is to maximize the number of interactions a campaign has with potential voters. Within these interactions, the intention of the campaign is to educate voters about specific issues, demonstrate why a candidate is a strong fit to deal with such issues, and convince them to vote for that candidate, thereby converting them.
After this, we went over who voters are and who actually votes. Although a voter is anyone over the age of eighteen who can and has registered to vote before the registration deadline, only a fraction of these people will actually vote. Through some Q&A, we determined that age plays a significant factor in understanding voting habits. Fewer young people turn out to vote than any other age, and the number of people who do turn out tend to increase as age does. The same goes for education: the higher degree an individual has, the more likely and often they turn out to vote.
Norris then spoke about why voters turn out. Citing President Obama’s administration as an example, he told us that the President had to deal with a majority Republican Congress because so many Republicans came out to vote two years after Obama was elected. One of the universal rules of politics, we learned, is that “moral outrage is the most powerful driving force in politics.” I believe this is an apt statement, considering the state of our nation today, and explains why most people decide to come out and vote, regardless of which party they vote for.
We then reviewed the methods of voter contact, including block walking, phone calls and texting, campaign events, social media, radio and television ads, and direct mail. While each of these has their place in campaigns, and although I will not go in depth on each aspect, I will discuss the critical importance of direct mail shortly. Perhaps the most unanimous, bipartisan takeaway from this weekend was that, whatever else you do, do not waste your money on yard signs! They take up too much of your campaign’s time and budget, and do little but boost your candidate’s ego.
To wrap things up, Norris gave us some advice on voter outreach, including how to “cheat to win.” First, he told us that most of the money spent in a campaign – at least 70% – should be invested into voter contact. Second, he told us that to win, we must make our campaigns as volunteer centric as possible. We need to find people who are committed to growing the campaign, give them a “buy in,” or a job and a title, and get them involved and excited to help move the campaign forward.
Comms 101 with Liz Chadderdon
Our final event was with the long-awaited Liz Chadderdon. A Texas native who began her political career as a volunteer coordinator for Governor Ann Richards, Chadderdon was spoken of fondly by each of her prior speakers. We were told many times that if there was any lesson we made sure to tune in to, it should be hers. And truthfully, they were right. Throughout the weekend I took about 30 pages of notes, and her lesson accounted for 10 of them.
That being said, I cannot get into every detail she discussed today, but I will start by saying that my understanding and opinion of direct mail has shifted greatly. Until now, it was always my belief that direct mail was just an added expense to the already expensive campaign trail and would detract from paying for advertisements on social media. I understand now that direct mail is perhaps the most crucial aspect of campaigning. Although ads on the internet may reach a large number of people, they do not result in the same precision and results that physical mail does.
Specifically, while emails may be considered spam, ads can be blocked, you need permission to text, and geo-fencing and IP addresses can be inaccurate, the best way to spend your money to ensure that your message is reaching your voters is to invest in direct mail campaigns. This ensures that your intended audience will see your candidate and their message, have to engage with it – whether by reading it, saving it, or throwing it away – and may not feel overwhelmed by seeing it online all of the time. Chadderdon shared with us the accuracy of various methods of voter communication in descending order, and mail was at the top, with 90-95% accuracy.
She then discussed the need to develop a mail plan early on in the campaign. This is best accomplished by looking at the last Thursday before election day and working backwards to decide which days of the week you will send mail out. Another big takeaway from this weekend was planning. If you plan ahead in your campaign, and take into account the cost of sending direct mail and developing content, as well as the time it will take to shape your message and fundraise, you can have a clear understanding of all the work you need to do in your campaign without struggling to stay on top of things each day.
That being said, Chadderdon explained to us that a good mail plan takes repetition; you should plan on sending mail to voters at least twice a week. This prompted me to ask my first question of the weekend, which was: Is there a concern about oversaturation when sending direct mail? Ms. Chadderdon answered that there is not. “There is no such thing as too much communication,” she said. Going back to the concept of our not being normal, she reminded us that “voters don’t think about politics the same way that we do.” She then stated that we should “annoy everyone until they hate you, but be on the right message.”
The last part of her lesson covered what mail should look like. As I said earlier, planning ahead and investing are crucial aspects of a successful campaign. Direct mail should have good photos, including both posed and candid shots. Candidates should look honest and like themselves, generally in clothing that they are comfortable in. It is also essential to try and shoot to message, or get pictures that correlate with the plan you have established in your outreach calendar.
Finally, mail must make a connection with the voter in order to work. Campaigns, she explained, are not about the candidate or their ideas; they are about the voters. The message should connect with the person reading it, and the material should be easily understood in about 5 seconds. Most importantly, they should demonstrate that the candidate cares about the issues discussed, and is not simply motivated by political ambition.
I cannot fit into this blog just how helpful, intriguing, and eye-opening this event was. In just two days, I learned so much about running a campaign that my prior notion of how to do so has completely changed. As I mentioned earlier, we also got the chance to complete worksheets running a fictional campaign using the information we had learned from our lessons. From this experience, we were able to get a hands-on experience to developing a plan, creating a message, putting together a team, and determine how to reach out to voters. I thoroughly enjoyed this challenge, and – having turned all of the worksheets in – am excited to continue my learning about running successful campaigns at the Texas Tribune Festival this fall.
I appreciate each of our guest speakers for taking the time to speak to us over the weekend, and I want to give special thanks to Cole Wilson, Bianca Solis, and the rest of the Annette Straus Institute for Civic Life for hosting this event and ensuring a seamless, informative and engaging weekend.
Editor’s Note: Quinn Kobrin ended up winning the competition component of the Campaign Bootcamp. Congratulations, Quinn!