Movies make political campaigns look dramatic. There’s always some veteran campaigner with rolled up shirtsleeves and a loose necktie running a “war room,” yelling at junior staffers, throwing papers around and smoking cigarettes. There’s always a huge scandal, and the chief strategist has a brilliant idea that turns the whole election around.
I’ve been on lots of political campaigns in the last 20 years. They’re nothing like that.
In this election season, there are two kinds of campaign happening across Canada – there are weight-loss and weight-gain campaigns.
When you’re working on a local campaign – like campaigning for a city councilor or a candidate for MPP or MP – you’re going to lose a lot of weight. That’s because those are active, “ground game” campaigns.
In a local campaign, you arrive at the campaign office at about noon. The campaign director usually chairs a meeting with volunteers over lunch where she or he shares any recent polling data or news stories. Then campaign leaders give a short report on their team’s activities. Most local campaigns have someone who runs social media, a communications director (usually my job), a volunteer coordinator, a financial coordinator, a scheduler and the assistant to the candidate. Sometimes the candidate joins those meetings, but usually they’re out doing events. The most important part of that meeting is the review of canvassing – or door-knocking as it’s usually called.
Despite all the advances in digital technology, the heart of any campaign in still door-knocking. Meeting voters gives teams a sense of the issues, who their supporters are and how things are going. Identifying and recording likely voters let teams reach out on election day – by email, phone, text and visits to the door – to Get Out the Vote (GOTV). And since a lot of elections are decided by GOTV, it’s the most critical part of a local campaign and can affect how a provincial or national campaign pans out, too. You usually knock on doors from 2 – 8 p.m. and then come back to the office for a short meeting.
In big ridings, anyone who volunteers to knock on doors is going to do a lot of walking. Tens of thousands of steps a day. That’s what makes it a weight-loss campaign.
The other kind of campaign is what movies are made about: the central campaign. That’s when you’re working on a big national or provincial campaign for a major party, which is responsible for everything: the party leader’s tour and speaking opportunities, ad buys, social media, debate preparation, research, policy development, opposition response (the “war room”) – in other words all the components of a large-scale political campaign. Central campaigns have anywhere from 60-100 people working in teams of 5-10 people per team. I have typically led the speechwriting and writing teams in those sorts of campaigns.
You arrive at the office – usually a short-term rental in an office tower somewhere – at 5 or 6 a.m. You take an hour to review all the breaking stories and get up to speed on the leader’s itinerary for the day. There’s a whole-team meeting at 7 a.m., where the campaign director goes over a lot of the same information as you would in a local campaign, but on the provincial or national level. The leader is almost always on a bus or a plane somewhere and would only show up at the central office once or twice during a campaign.
After the morning meeting, you’d have smaller team meetings to organize the day’s work, followed by lunch, more work, a full-team meeting over dinner, and leaving the office around 11 p.m. or later. Food on a campaign is usually starchy and filling (pizza, pasta and endless chicken, for some reason) and you sit in a desk most of the day. In other words, you gain weight. Lots of it.
Gauging the mood
On a national or provincial campaign, the leader also has a large team around them – tour people, the lead policy person, one of the campaign directors, a writer or two, an assistant and other staffers who would ride on a media bus or plane to support the leader. Days are long on the road, and it is grueling work.
If you’re on a winning campaign, everybody can feel it, and the mood is a little lighter and teams have a bit more fun. If you’re losing, everyone can feel that, too, and the mood is a little more somber and you tend to stay in the office a little longer.
But I can honestly say that in 20 years of doing the work, I’ve never seen anyone throw a phone – or even a fit – even when you’re way behind. And almost no one smokes.
The movies make it seem like political campaigns are filled with drama. They’re not.
They’re actually filled with pasta and chicken.