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How the People Behind the Electoral Scenes Define and Shape American Democracy

Daniel Laurison on the Vital Yet Overlooked Role of Campaign Operatives

I got involved with Obama’s 2008 campaign primarily because I knew the outcome was so important, but I have come to believe that even beyond who gets elected, the activities, culture, and organization of campaigns are essential aspects of American democracy.

Campaigns should matter to all of us. The candidates who ultimately win elected offices wield enormous power, through the laws they pass and the executive orders they issue, the judges they appoint, and the norms they promote or discard. Political decisions touch every aspect of our lives, from the most personal outwards. I’m a transgender man, and my marriage to Hannah in 2006 would not have been recognized by the state if I hadn’t yet transitioned; now, two people of any gender can legally wed across the country.

My kids’ public school in Philadelphia is overcrowded and insufficiently air conditioned because the laws that govern school funding are relics of white people’s flight from cities and integration. Many of my neighbors in Philadelphia were able to stay in their homes despite losing jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic because of stimulus checks, expanded unemployment benefits, and an eviction moratorium; some will lose their homes as those resources dry up. The Biden administration’s dedication to promoting and distributing vaccines helped stem the pandemic; the politicization of masks, vaccination, and public health by Trump did the opposite. Every one of these outcomes is the result of an election.

No amount of technology can predict what potential voters will actually do, especially in the complicated tumult of an election.

But campaigns and the people who work in them are at least as important because of how their actions define our democracy. During federal election contests, it’s hard to miss hearing the campaigns’ attempts to win votes. By late summer 2016, nearly half of registered voters had been contacted directly by a campaign; in 2020, federal, state, and local campaigns combined bought 9.3 million television advertisements.

Campaign communications try to convince us that we should be hopeful or fearful, that government can help solve problems or that it creates them, that politicians are on our side or that they are out-of-touch elites. Political ads and speeches often play on racism, sexism, xenophobia, or homophobia, but they can challenge these as well.

The sociologist C. Wright Mills famously wrote, “It is the political task of the social scientist…continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals.” He called this the use of the “sociological imagination”; if done successfully, he thought, it could work to “secure reason and individuality, and to make these the predominant values of a democratic society.”

This is a role many social scientists aspire to play, but in reality most people don’t get their understanding of the relationship between their private experiences of hardship (let alone privilege) and broader social issues from scholars. Instead, when people learn how to connect their lives to larger trends outside their direct perception, they get those insights from their community, from media commentary, and to some substantial extent from campaign messages.

Political campaigns actively try in their communications to get people to link the struggles in their personal lives to larger issues. Can’t find a well-paying job? Republican campaigns and politicians will tell you it’s probably because of undocumented immigrants or Democrats’ “anti-business” policies, and promise to change those policies once they win. Democratic campaigns and politicians might instead promise infrastructure programs or an increase in the minimum wage. Campaigns rarely offer anything approaching Mills’s sociological imagination, genuinely helping people to understand their lives. Instead, they try to figure out the message that will most likely connect underlying concerns and a desire for change (or a desire to fend off threatening change) with a particular candidate’s election.

Campaigns and the people who work in them are at least as important because of how their actions define our democracy.

The professionals who run campaigns craft and target these communications. They decide which potential voters should be contacted and what messages we should receive and what candidates should emphasize as they seek office, and they even influence how candidates govern once they get into office.

To understand campaigns, then, we need to understand the people whose work builds them: the political consultants and political operatives who make their living working for parties, campaigns, and allied partisan organizations. Just as the decision-makers at Netflix, HBO, and ABC determine what kinds of entertainment to provide, these campaign professionals curate our political options.

The ways they shape the system and its offerings for voters come out of their perceptions of what is politically possible, which persuasion strategies are effective, how the electorate operates, and what will make sense to and be rewarded by the rest of the political world. Politicos’ beliefs about how politics ought to work and how regular people see politics shape the decisions, strategies, and public messaging of the party leaders, presidents, legislators, and governors they advise. To make sense of a political landscape that’s often baffling to outsiders, we need to know how and why campaign professionals do what they do.

Why should we care about the people who run campaigns or about the way they think and feel about their work? One of my mentors, a political scientist, asked me that at the outset of this project. No matter what, she argued, these professionals will of necessity do the same thing: whatever it takes to win. On the basis of what we know about election laws, voter behavior, and the factors that predict electoral success, she told me, we can also know why the people running campaigns do what they do—and it doesn’t matter who is making those decisions. My mentor is very smart, and a lot of other political scientists agree with her assessment. But it’s wrong.

Scholars and politicos do have access to a treasure trove of data and sophisticated statistical analyses of voters and their behavior. Contemporary polling, modeling, and targeting techniques can provide guidance about messaging, ad placement, and other aspects of campaign strategy. But no amount of technology can predict what potential voters will actually do, especially in the complicated tumult of an election, when competing campaigns are trying to leverage the same information to different ends.

Our country has a free press. About 160 million voters turned out for the 2020 presidential election. Even if the data available to campaigns were perfectly accurate (which voter databases and polls rarely are), algorithms alone could not decide the best ways to influence the requisite number of voters on Election Day.

In fact, if you assume that politicos are simply rational strategic actors trying to win elections, many campaign decisions don’t make much sense, as some political scientists have observed. Political professionals are undoubtedly experts in campaigning. But they are not, nor could they be, the rational-actor wonks some scholars imagine, making dispassionate, whatever-it-takes-to-win strategy decisions.

Even with the increasing power of data-driven politicking extolled in books like Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab, even when research is clear about more and less effective strategies, campaigns do not reliably do what scholarship says they should. Campaign professionals’ perspectives and priorities are therefore necessary to understanding the forces that construct politics in the United states.

Whether they serve as intermediaries or firewalls, political professionals stand between regular people and the politicians who make life-or-death, poverty-or-comfort decisions about our lives. In the hidden world of campaigns, the field director, the fundraiser, the communications consultant, and the pollster all have roles to play in producing political priorities and outcomes. Their decisions, their approaches to politics and to voters, affect not only the likelihood that people will vote for a particular candidate but our very understanding of what politics is about. Campaigns and the people who run them are some of the most important, yet poorly understood, parts of American politics.

The people in these positions are different from ordinary Americans in many ways, beyond the peculiarities of their daily work lives, even beyond their political passions and power over the country’s political discourse.

Campaigns and the people who run them are some of the most important, yet poorly understood, parts of American politics.

They are a relatively homogenous group: mostly white, mostly men, and mostly from middle-to-upper-middle-class backgrounds. They spend most of their time with other people who work in politics, in political hubs like Washington, Dc. Yet they create the political environment of our democracy.

I talked at length with seventy-two politicos for this book—thirty-one Republicans, forty Democrats, and one Independent. What they told me in anonymous interviews revealed much about US politics—the kind of information that doesn’t make it onto CNN. All had worked as either a campaign staffer or consultant on at least one presidential, Senate, or House race; many had played key roles in numerous national races.

I found people to talk with through personal connections I developed on the Obama campaign and in grad school, as well as my partner’s family. I also cold-emailed people who I knew had held important positions or recently been featured as rising stars of the campaign world by its magazine, Campaigns & Elections. I asked everyone I met with if they could connect me with others to talk with, and most did. I conducted most interviews in person, in 2009–10 and 2017, and talked to some people twice; I also did phone and Zoom interviews, including some in 2021.

In all, I did eighty-four interviews with people ranging in age from twenty-four to over seventy when I interviewed them. My interviewees, like politicos in general, were disproportionately white and men, but I made an effort to talk to as many women and people of color as I could, and to supplement and compare my interviews with published accounts and the patterns in my database.

I talked with campaign managers, political directors, polling consultants, spokespeople, state-level field directors, media producers, and so many more. I interviewed field staffers who had coordinated ground-game efforts like door-knocking and phone-banking on the first Obama campaign, as well as people who’d worked presidential campaigns as far back as George McGovern’s in 1972 and Ronald Reagan’s first run in 1976. Each has had an influence on the tone, content, and practice of American politics.

The politicos featured in this book developed campaign themes like the Hillary Clinton campaign’s “I’m With Her” and “stronger Together” taglines. They crafted attack ads against Barack Obama, like the one for John McCain casting Obama as a shallow celebrity, or the one for Hillary Clinton that said Obama was not quite ready to answer a 3 a.m. phone call at the White House. They wrote Mitt Romney’s speeches in the 2012 campaign, ran primary campaigns that failed to beat Trump in 2016, and organized voter contact for Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden in 2020. These are some of the politicos behind the scenes orchestrating nearly everything that happens in competitive, high-level US elections.

Although the two parties have very different policy goals and political ideologies, Democratic and Republican politicos’ views about how to run campaigns are remarkably similar.

Researching this book meant being invited into some of the fanciest, most expensive houses and offices I’ve ever seen, just as it brought me into fairly humble, jumbled working campaign offices. Most political professionals I met had extremely good social skills. I almost always had good conversations with people from both parties, despite personally being on the opposite side of nearly every political issue from the Republicans I interviewed, and to the left of most of the Democrats as well. Whatever I felt about the views of the people I interviewed, I focused on my research goal: understanding the campaign industry and how such professionals view their jobs, the candidates, and the electorate.

Maybe they assumed I shared their views, since I did request the interviews, and although I am trans, they probably just saw me as a fellow straight white guy. Or maybe they simply didn’t mind explaining their work to a geeky grad student (when I started this project) or assistant professor (when I finished). Either way, almost all of them agreed to have their interviews recorded so I could refer back to them when writing, and I promised not to reveal their names or identifying details. Many of them told me things they did not want publicly associated with them.

I met people like Roger a lobbyist, high-level Democratic fundraiser, and key player in Democratic presidential campaigns from Eugene McCarthy’s in 1968 onward. Other than in a museum, I’d never seen more paintings—or bigger ones—than those lining Roger’s walls. He let me interview him at his kitchen counter, barely granting me his attention as he juggled calls, managed renovation work, chatted with family members, and watched a football game.

Roger has been a prominent figure in Democratic Party politics for over forty years. He has raised money for every Democratic presidential nominee since before I was born. His ability to raise and direct money through his networks of wealthy friends and powerful Democratic leaders grants him the ability to insert his input into everything from the themes candidates put at the center of their campaigns to the laws they enact if they reach office. Except for an occasional mention on the sorts of deep-dive political news most of us ignore, Roger and his views are virtually invisible, yet they are immensely consequential for most American voters.

Many books on political campaigns focus on one party or the other, but this book is about both parties. The dynamics I describe are important for anyone who wants democracy to be more representative, in any party. A lot of people who share my political values only study Democrats. And although I have to confess that I want the Democrats to be more effective and the Republicans less, I think it is important to understand all campaigns.

What I found is that although the two parties have very different policy goals and political ideologies, Democratic and Republican politicos’ views about how to run campaigns are remarkably similar. I did not find many differences in what they told me about the technologies and techniques, or the norms and culture of campaigning. In fact, while regular Americans are becoming more polarized, less likely to know or talk regularly to people who don’t share their political beliefs, and more likely to see members of the opposing party as bad people, many campaign professionals told me they have good friends across the partisan aisle.

Famously, two politicos from different parties, Mary Matalin and James Carville, even went so far as to get married. Political professionals share experiences, a work environment, and a level of access to power that most of the rest of us cannot begin to wrap our heads around.

Campaigns ignore countless potential voters, even in competitive states, and may turn as many people away from politics as they mobilize.

That said, this book is not an indictment of campaign professionals. I met a lot of committed people in both parties whose work was anchored in sincere values and beliefs. They want to run good campaigns and elect people they believe will be good for the country and possibly beyond. But the expectations and norms set by their industry—the rules of the game, as it were—mean they can end up doing more harm than good. Those rules determine who can become a political professional in the first place, and then constrain how politicos think about and do the work of politics.

The approach to voters—to regular people—that politicos learn in campaigns permeates many other parts of the American power structure. Campaign professionals often move into other elite roles, dispersing outward as consultants for advocacy and lobbying groups, representatives of corporate interests, advisors and staffers for elected officials, and even into government office themselves.

Almost all potential voters, on the other hand, live lives far from all the work that leads up to an election or happens afterward. In hard-fought elections the cyclical tides of our system bring a deluge of campaign communications to voters’ doorknobs, phones, mailboxes, television and radio channels, and, these days, to their inboxes and social media feeds. These messages, often focused on fear-mongering and attacks on opposing candidates, can be off-putting to people who aren’t obsessively following the polls. For many Americans, these communications from campaigns are the only connection they have to candidates, electoral politics, and elected officials.

A substantial portion of Americans rarely or never vote, and an even bigger portion of adults usually vote but are otherwise not interested in electoral politics. Few seek out political news, follow politicians and pundits on social media, or even discuss politics with extended family. The 40 percent or more of eligible voters who rarely show up in voting booths are by and large ignored by campaigns. And when campaign materials that hold no meaning for them do show up on their doorsteps, they’re put out with the recycling.

A campaign could be a conversation between political elites and regular people. But only a very small portion of contemporary campaign budgets are dedicated to talking with potential voters. Instead, contemporary campaigns tend to be performances more than conversations: one-way communications in which consultants, staff, and candidates send the messages they think will be most effective to the people they believe are most likely to be determinative for election results.

Each campaign is conceived and executed as an isolated event rather than part of an ongoing party project. In the process, campaigns ignore countless potential voters, even in competitive states, and may turn as many people away from politics as they mobilize. Observers of US politics have long suspected that much of what campaigns do is bad for our democracy, but they’ve had fairly limited insight as to exactly what (or whom) to blame.

Campaign professionals mediate and manage the relationship between people and political power. Their work defines the practice of democratic politics in the United States. This is why we need to gain insight into their world: their beliefs about the effects of their work, the ways they get jobs, the organization of their work world, their goals and how they evaluate each other, their understanding of voters, and the power they wield beyond campaigns.

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Excerpted from Producing Politics: Inside the Exclusive Campaign World Where the Privileged Few Shape Politics for All of Us by Daniel Laurison. Copyright © 2022. Available from Beacon Press. 

Daniel Laurison
Daniel Laurison
Daniel Laurison is an associate professor of sociology at Swarthmore College, the associate editor of the British Journal of Sociology, and a Carnegie Fellow. He researches and writes on social class and political inequalities. His previous book was The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged (coauthored with Sam Friedman).





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