Cennamology Chief Editor
Summer is here and it's an even-numbered year. So that means political campaigns all over the country are looking for as much free help as they can get and bored high school and college students out for summer break are looking for something to do.
For those interested in politics, a campaign internship is a necessary first step to get your feet wet in the political world. It gets you used to the operation and shows you what is necessary in order to be a good politician - having the ability to communicate with people. Also, since campaigns are always looking for free help, campaign internships are among the easiest to get. There's usually not an application process like there is for Capitol Hill internships - you just have to send your resume in and the campaign staff will usually get back to you immediately with something for you to do.
Currently, I am helping out with three campaigns, bringing my total number of campaigns worked on to nine. From those nine, I have learned a thing or two (or 10) about how to be a successful campaign intern and how to work your way up in the office. Here are 10 tips for those of you who plan to intern for one of the many political campaigns brewing this summer.
This may seem like an obvious one, but you would not believe how many times I have witnessed interns who are phone banking voters who proceed to stutter and stumble and frantically look for talking points papers when the person who they are calling asks them why they should support the candidate and what his or her stance on a particular issue is. Before you start a campaign internship, you should be able to at least write a detailed Wikipedia page about the candidate. When you are canvassing or phone banking, you are essentially acting as a salesman for your candidate. Imagine if Billy Mays didn't know anything about Oxi Clean - he would not have been the most famous infomercial personality of all time. You need to know everything policy-wise there is to know about your candidate, or your canvases and phone banks will not go very smoothly.
9. Don't be afraid to start small.
By now, while many may still be looking for more interns, statewide campaigns like those for governor or U.S. senator are probably pretty well staffed at this point, as many of their interns have been working on those campaigns for over a year by now. However, campaigns for county councils, city councils, or state legislatures may just be picking up steam (especially in states with late primaries - I'm looking at you Delaware). These campaigns have less interns and therefore it will be easier to work your way up the staff in a campaign for county council than it would be in a campaign for governor. Plus, just because a particular politician does not have the highest office in the world does not mean that he or she does not have an extensive contact book, rife with big names whom the candidate can recommend you for in the future. That being said, the only way they will recommend you is if you do a good job, so do not put less effort into a local campaign than you would on a statewide campaign.
8. No one likes a whiner.
One of my most annoying experiences working on a campaign was dealing with this one pain-in-the-ass high school intern last summer. He was in a group of canvassers I was leading and he constantly complained "Why do we have to do this when it's so hot out?", "Why do we have to do this all day when most of the people aren't even home?", "Why are we doing this when the election is over a year away?" and other bratty questions that really got under my skin. I told the campaign manager (not to be a rat, but because I could not picture myself containing my patience if I had to work with that kid every day), and the whiner was never seen in the office (at least by me) ever again. Campaigns don't usually give their interns jobs with no purpose. Yes, on many days a majority of the doors you knock and phones you call will be of people who are not home, but guaranteed there will be some who do open the door and answer the phone. Those are the people the campaign is trying to reach, and if you can convince even one person to vote for your candidate, then it is a job well done.
7. When canvassing and phone banking, act like you are the one who's running.
By this, I simply mean be very respectful to the people who have chosen to take time out of their day to answer the door for you and pick up the phone when you called. If you have a poor attitude, act like you are bored, or talk so fast just to try and get the day over with, the voters will see that as a reflection upon your candidate. You should try to sell yourself as well as your candidate. Prove to those who listen that you are enthusiastic about the election and be kind to show that your candidate's staff has good judgement on who they select to represent them. Also, listen to what the voters have to say as well - and write it down too, especially when door knocking. Because when those who you talk to face-to-face see that you are writing down what issues are most important to them, they know that they are important to you and your candidate.
6. Be prepared for a lot of dull data work.
Especially in the early stages of campaigns, when the campaign is trying to identify which voters care most about which issue, and how to modify the message to different groups of people - you and all the other interns are going to spend hours putting many, many names into an Excel spreadsheet. For example, early in the governor's campaign last summer, I entered in the names, addresses, zip codes, and workplaces of every lawyer in Baltimore City. The band of interns did the same for every public school employee in the state. This is very tedious work, and it gets so repetitive so fast, and staring at the computer screen while you are doing this may start to hurt your eyes. Pain is temporary, but if your candidate wins your job prospects will broaden. Despite its monotony, this type of data work is necessary because candidates are successful when they know what message will sell the best to different kinds of people. It is a very effective strategy that would not be possible without interns like you putting in hours of summer mornings and afternoons putting those names and addresses into Excel.
5. Campaign internships are outreach-centered, not policy-centered.
You are an intern, which is very admirable, but you are still at the bottom of the political food chain. Do not go to the campaign manager or political director and spout off about how you have these great ideas that the candidate should adopt in his or her platform. If you do this, you will be given a cell phone, a call list, and an order to sit down and shut up. You have your whole life ahead of you, and plenty of time to move up the political ladder to the point where those who have influence will listen to your suggestions on policy. But now is the time to work your way up. Unless your last name is Kennedy or Bush, politics is all about starting from the bottom. Don't get too ahead of yourself.
4. Your superiors know best.
As I said earlier, none of the tasks that the campaign staff will assign you are pointless. Don't question the purpose or effectiveness of the jobs you are doing. If you do what they say, they will be more likely to recommend you for a paid job in the future, or even promote you on the current campaign. Remember, the campaign manager, the political director, the communications director, the field director, etc. were all campaign interns once too. They've been in your position before, so they understand that you will get frustrated on some days feeling like you're not making much of a difference. Even though you may feel like you are not making much of a difference making lists, entering data, or calling voters who are in their 90s, keep in mind that your superiors would not have brought you aboard or assigned you these tasks in the first place if they were just going to be busy work. If they have nothing useful for you to do, then they'll send you home early for the day.
3. Don't be afraid of hostility from those who you call and canvas.
Politicians are oftentimes not the most popular people, and politics is not the subject that tends to invoke the most civil discussions, so you are bound to call or knock on the door of someone that will give you a piece of their mind about how politicians are ruining America. I have noticed that many interns are a bit scared the first time they go canvasing because they are worried about potential physical altercations of anyone who dislikes their candidate or disagrees with their beliefs. Don't worry about that. The worst that happens is that they'll say "no thank you" quickly and then slam the door in your face, and you will just move on to the next door as if nothing happened. For the most part, the people who you call and canvas, even the ones who disagree with you, are nothing but friendly. If a person you are calling tries to pick an argument with you, just keep your calm and tell them to have a nice day.
2. When calling, emphasize the fact that you are a student.
Earlier this year, as I was overseeing one group of interns, I noticed that they were getting quite a bit of refusals (those voters who hang up the phone or say they are not interested after hearing why you are calling them). I then got the idea to have them say explicitly in their introduction that they are a high school intern or college intern. When they did this, refusals dropped significantly. On the phone, people tend to be easier on students because they know that they are most likely unpaid, doing this for some sort of school credit, and are less likely to be asking for money. The point is that folks tend to show more respect for college students than they do to telemarketers. Also, if they figure you are doing this unpaid, they will be more likely to listen to you because if you are willing to work for free then they know that you must really think highly of your candidate.
1. Have fun and make the most of it.
Okay, okay, this is a sort of cliche cop-out for the number one spot, but it's still important nonetheless. Make friends with your fellow interns, who may likely be important political contacts for you one day (you never know!). Establish good relationships with your superiors and, when you can, take a selfie with your candidate and put it as your profile picture. If your superiors and fellow interns know that you are enjoying yourself and you love what you are doing, they will have more respect for you, write more positive recommendations for you, and be more likely to bring you back in a future campaign or another position that is more centered on policy. Being an intern is the first step in the door of a career in politics, and if you do not make the most of it, then you probably will not be enthralled with the higher steps of the ladder either. If you do love it, then you have tons of potential and hopefully I will be able to work with you one day!