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|Types of Political Jobs|
Politics is a HUGE field. There are tons of different areas in politics in which to work. The one thing you will learn if you start asking senior level political professionals about their career path is that more often than not individuals rarely stay within one bubble. Most tend to move around among them in order to stay employed, grow their skills and become more valuable and well-rounded professionals.
Here we outline various areas of political work:
Advocacy (Issue) Politics
Legislative (the Hill) Politics
Electoral (Campaign) Politics
Advocacy (Issue) Politics
There are many different kinds of advocacy organizations. Some groups advocate for broad causes like the Sierra Club does for the environment or NARAL/Pro-Choice America does for women’s health care. Some represent a specific group of individuals, like labor unions who represent their workers, or veterans’ groups who represent their members.
No matter what these groups do or represent, the usually have members. And they enlist these members in the advancement of their collective cause. They do this by pooling their financial resources and giving of their time and energy.
Some groups work only in electoral politics, while others work only in the public policy arena. Some lobby elected officials, some don’t. No matter what kind of agenda advocacy groups pursue, they are running a campaign (be it electoral, legislative, public relations, etc.)
Advocacy groups don’t get involved in politics because they like the politicians they endorse; they get involved as part of a broader strategy to advance a policy agenda. Thus it also helps for you to believe in the cause of any advocacy organization for whom you choose to work.
Getting started in advocacy is typically much easier after working on an electoral campaign or with legislative experience from the Hill. While some opportunities do exist for those right out of college or changing careers, many organizations and firms are looking for individuals who have developed specific skills that you can acquire on the Hill or or campaigns.
Working in advocacy is often a great opportunity to engage in a full range of campaign techniques and develop transferable skills that can be used anywhere in politics. Thus, it's a great way to broaden and deepen your resume when looking to advance your career in professional politics.
Legislative (the Hill) Politics
The Hill is populated with hard working staffers from everywhere in America. Most are in their 20s but you will find people of all ages and experiences in Congressional and Senate offices. While there are many ways to land a job on the Hill, most staffers got their start working for free--either as interns or campaign volunteers. It is public service after all.
Like any organization, the Hill has different departments. The staff in individual offices work directly for a Senator or Representative and focus on the priorities of their boss and their constituents. The staff on Committees focus on key legislative topics such as defense, energy or education. The staff in leadership offices help coordinate the strategy and actions of the party as a whole.
Within each office, staff work in four areas--administration (secretaries, schedulers, letter writers and receptionists), legislation (legislative assistants and legislative directors), constituent services (staff who help constituents with all manner of issues; in committee or leadership offices, the "constituents" are members of Congress), and communications (communications directors, press secretaries, new media coordinators). Staff report to a Chief of Staff (usually based in Washington). However, every office has its own way of organizing staff.
The best way to get a job on the hill is to be aware of job openings (click here for helpful job listservs), network with as many people you can who currently work on the hill by setting up informational interviews with them. Ask people if they'd be willing to talk to you for 10 minutes about what they do and get their advice about jobs on the Hill. Go prepared with questions and copies of your resume. You never know what job that person knows of that's just about to open up or isn't posted on one of the job lists - and could be perfect for you! Additionally, you can increase your chances of landing a full time position on the Hill if you're able to intern, even a few days a week, to get your foot in the door.
Electoral (Campaign) Politics
If you want to work in politics, then working on a campaign is probably the best place to start. It's hard to find someone who is advanced far in politics who has not worked on a campaign in some way. And best of all - getting an opportunity to help a campaign can be as simple as showing up. From there - hard work and results will bring more responsibilities and opportunities.
There are many roles in a campaign, and the larger the campaign the less roles one person will hold. The various roles mostly fit into one of the following areas:
Field - The simplest explanation: all things that deal with talking to voters. This includes volunteer recruitment, phones, doorknocking, events, rallies, attending important meetings and gatherings, etc. Entry level people are normally field organizers, then regional field organizers then field directors depending on the size of the campaign.
Finance - Someone has to raise the money to pay the bills. The finance team works directly with the candidate to do
call time, fundraising events, managing any finance committees, conduct donor research, track income, and more. Finance is usually the first hired and last fired on a campaign. Finance can also include compliance positions on larger races.
Communications - Communications professionals help develop and deliver the campaign's message. Professionals can work with press, online and new media, direct mail, television or radio, just to name a few. Some campaigns will have just one press person while some have a press assistant, a press secretary and a communications director.
Research - Research staffers are normally hired for larger campaigns. Research staff get to know everything about their candidate and their opposition candidate. They work with the communications staff to hit back on attacks and to craft the message based on the candidate and the opposition.
Scheduling/Advance - Larger campaigns tend to have individuals who are dedicated to these roles. Scheduling is about helping make all of the demands of the candidates time fit in with strategy for victory. Advance staff scout event sites and set up events to ensure the campaign gets the most out of them in the media and on the ground.
Management - On smaller campaigns, the manager may be performing one or more of the above roles themselves. Generally, the campaign manager is the one that creates the campaign plan and makes sure that each person on the team is meeting their goals and that the campaign is running smoothly. This seems easy, but there are lots of moving pieces, and becoming a talented and sought after campaign manager – especially at the highest level and largest campaigns – takes years of paying your dues and honing your skills.
These roles can get much more specialized very quickly in large campaigns. Finance and field often have entry level assistant and organizer positions where you can learn the ropes and prove yourself with little or no previous experience. Communications and scheduling have fewer opportunities for someone who has never worked on a campaign before, but with the right skills it is possible to find something in these fields. Managing a campaign is by definition not an entry level job for most campaigns with full time staffs. Although, more than one campaign staffer has gotten an opportunity early in their career managing very small local races where they did everything and then moved more quickly up the ranks to larger races.
Big Versus Small Campaigns
So you want to work on a campaign, but not sure which is the best one for you? Big campaigns have tons of energy, lots of opportunities to meet new people who are working in politics as well as the ability to take on one role and excel at it. Excelling can help you get noticed and move into more advanced roles quickly.
Small campaigns provide opportunities to see the bigger picture of the campaign as you're more often serving in multiple roles. Field and scheduling, scheduling and communications, managing and finance, etc. If you like being pulled in 100 directions instead of the normal campaign 10, then these are great places to get your trial by fire, and they are a fantastic way to get better at more skills, become a more well-rounded professional, and even help you decide which specialty you prefer.
Skills needed and how to find a campaign job
All campaign jobs require good people and communication skills. (Yes - All). Managing details, organizing events and motivating people are vital to every campaign role. Other skills can vary greatly by role (writing for communications professionals, public speaking for field and communications professionals, managerial and leadership skills for managers, etc.), but every specialty requires the aforementioned basic skills.
Many senior level professionals very intentionally took the opportunity when they were starting out to try a little bit of every specialty before deciding which one they wanted to move up in. And, because so many of the skills needed are translatable between the roles, there’s no "bad job” in a campaign. If you have your heart set on being a communications professional, but the only job available on your favorite campaign is field – take the field job, do really well, build your network and then let them know you want to do communications after election day.
You can find out about campaign jobs on job boards (Democratic GAIN among others), attending trainings or by connecting with your local or state party to find out who is running this year. In addition, more senior professionals than not got their start by just showing up and volunteering, making themselves invaluable, doing whatever was asked of them and more and then getting on payroll when the campaign could afford it. Seriously.