What goes into a political campaign?

On the trail: key aspects of the election process


PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: Johanna Pierach (posters from campaign websites)

CAMPAIGN CALAMITY. During election season, political campaigning runs rampant as candidates work to garner interest for their causes. Lawn signs with colorful logos are not an uncommon sighting.

November: falling leaves, pumpkin pie, apple crisp… and political campaigning. At this time of year, electoral messaging can be found everywhere. Though the countless text messages, calls, and lawn signs may appear the same every election, there’s a lot of work that goes into each campaign.

The word “campaign” wasn’t recorded in a political sense until the mid-18th century; according to Merriam-Webster, the term’s first citation appeared in The Daily Gazetteer on Feb. 2, 1739. Originating from the Latin word for “level country,” “campaign” was a military term long before it became a political one. “Campaign trail” didn’t even enter vocabulary until the late 19th century.

Candidates attempting to appeal to voters has been an essential aspect of political society since the first recorded elections. Though campaigns today vary widely in size, strategy, and objective, many of the key elements of self-advertisement have remained constant across history. For example, candidates must distinguish their platforms and figure out the differences between them and their opponents. Identifying and consolidating a voter base is another aspect of strategic commonality.

Parent Robert Richman has been working in electoral politics since 1988. Richman helped found Grassroots Solutions, a political campaign consultancy.

“Imagine you’re creating a multi-million-dollar small business. You’re conceiving it, you’re building it, and then you’re tearing it down, all within about 18 months. That’s ultimately what a campaign ends up being,” Richman said. “It starts from this sort of tiny group of people sitting around a table saying ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ By election day, depending on the race, there are tens to hundreds to thousands of people who are out there trying to get you elected.”

Though campaigns are run on a multitude of scales, Richman identified some key components of the process, the first of which was fundraising.

“If you can’t raise the money, you can’t do anything. You can’t send mailings. You can’t run television ads, you can’t hire people, and you can’t pay for literature, lawn signs,” he said. “Money is unfortunately a necessary evil of politics.”

The second element Richman mentioned was organizing, also known as fieldwork. Organizing refers to direct voter contact such as door knocking, phone calls, and text messages, which often involve recruiting volunteers.

Research and communications were other aspects he noted as essential.

“Research is a big component of campaigns, researching policy positions and issues but also doing opposition research so you understand what your opponent is for and against and what they’ve done in their past,” Richman said. “Communications and media work is another, talking to the press and doing social media and running advertising.”

Senior Maya Sachs spent about two months over the summer working for VoteRunLead, an organization that trains women to run for office. Sachs worked one-on-one with candidates running for state legislative positions, advising them on how to run their campaigns and answering questions. “It was slightly intimidating because I am a high school student and I have not run a political campaign. And I didn’t necessarily have all the answers because I didn’t have that previous experience,” Sachs said.

Despite these anxieties, Sachs really enjoyed her work. “It was extremely empowering because I was able to help a lot of women,” she said. “I learned a ton and I was able to help because I gained a lot of knowledge about running a campaign.”

I was able to help because I gained a lot of knowledge about running a campaign.

— Maya Sachs

Like Sachs, senior Hannah Brass is also involved in Minnesota politics. Brass works as a director of the DFL’s Senate District 33, which assists with campaigning and outreach within the community. “Basically that means that I’m a member of the Democratic Party, and that I help organize events,” they said.

Brass feels that this experience has given them a better appreciation for the mechanics of political campaigns. She also values the expression her work for the DFL allows her. “Even though I can’t vote because I’m only 17, I can still help out with politics. Because I’ve joined the DFL, I’ve been able to have a voice,” they said.

As far as what makes a campaign successful, Richman suggested that identity and cohesion can play a significant role. “I have worked on campaigns that were really well-run and lost and I’ve worked on campaigns that were really poorly run and won […]. I think the best campaigns have a candidate who knows who they are and what they’re trying to say and has a sort of center, so that the campaign is grounded in who they are and why they’re running,” he said. “The campaign should be a reflection of that candidate and there should be a consistency in how that’s done.”

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