What Political Campaigns Are Really Like On The Inside, According To 5 Women Who Know
At this point in the midterm election cycle, we're all pretty familiar with the impressive statistics around women running for office recently. A record 590 women have run for governor, the U.S. Senate, or the U.S. House since 2016, according to Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics; 278 of them made it onto the ballot for Nov. 6. But how many women work on these campaigns and others — whether they're raising money, handling communications, wrangling volunteers, or directing strategy — is a much tougher number to nail down.
Take a spin on Google and you'll find statistics around women working on campaigns are much harder to come by. In the 2014 midterm elections, National Journal surveyed key Senate races and found that nearly 40 percent of Democratic campaigns were led by women, compared to just 6 percent of Republican campaigns. This year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says that 40 percent of the campaign managers for its candidates are women, according to The New York Times. And campaign managers are just one (obviously crucial) piece of a larger puzzle that's completed by strategists, field organizers, communications staff, and consultants, among others.
Bustle got five current and former campaign staffers on the phone with each other to share how they began their campaign work, why they love doing it, and their advice for other women who want to take the same plunge into politics. In the process, they discuss how political campaigns are environments that work against them — even in this second coming of the "Year of the Woman" — and how that's by design.
How They Caught The Politics Bug
MOLLIE BINOTTO, campaign manager for Democratic congressional candidate Mikie Sherill in New Jersey: I’ve been interested in politics from a pretty young age. I started volunteering for the Barack Obama campaign in 2008. At the time — being pretty young and being 22 — my parents, who are really supportive now, were like, “What do you mean, you’re going to leave a good-paying job that you just happened to find in D.C. to go do this thing?” I got on the airplane, went to Montana, and became a field organizer. I’ve sort of been doing this on and off ever since.
JAIME MINOR, former campaign manager for Democratic congressional candidate Mariah Phillips in Tennessee: I was not very politically active prior to the 2016 election, but was very enthralled with that campaign. When the election didn’t quite go [Hillary Clinton’s] way, I was really, really motivated to find a way to get involved. I’d just come to Tennessee in early 2017, so I started volunteering with Emerge Tennessee [a group that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office] and connected my master’s coursework with it. And I got hooked up with Mariah Phillips, who is one of our inaugural class members. That’s how I really got my start in campaigns.
The political world in particular was not built with women in mind. It was built by men for men.
CRYSTAL CARSON, former staffer for Hillary Clinton's rapid response team and currently working with the Obama Foundation: I grew up in Alaska, and politics and voting just wasn't something that was really in my orbit. Especially as someone with progressive values, I just didn't really feel like government was the way to create change. It wasn't until leaving Alaska that I realized, working in the [Obama] White House, how important government and politics is ... and the importance of electing leaders who share similar values to me and that look like me and think like me as an African-American young woman.
AMANDA LITMAN, former Clinton campaign staffer and co-founder of Run For Something, an organization that helps progressive millennials run for office: I’ve always loved politics. I grew up outside D.C. so it was part of the ecosystem there. I went to Northwestern specifically because I wanted to work for Barack Obama when I was a senior in college — which is not a great reason to pick a college, but not a bad [one] either. I always knew I wanted to elect the first woman president. Women running for office has always been an interest of mine. And when I had the chance to work for Secretary Clinton, I jumped at it.
How Women Are Challenging The Barriers To Representation On Campaigns
JENNIFER PALMIERI, former communications director for the Clinton campaign and the author of Dear Madam President: I know at the Clinton campaign, we had more women [than men] working. But still there's some jobs that women don't have. A lot of women are troubled by imposter syndrome, right? I've had to, in my own career, sort of battle that. But at some level, there's a little kernel of truth in it, which is the political world in particular was not built with women in mind. It was built by men for men, and to be suited to their skills. As a woman in politics, I feel that I've had to learn two ways to think. There's sort of what my gut tells me is the right thing to do, but then I've also had to look at politics through the prism that men have presented it and learn to think like them. And that is an extra step that makes it a little harder for women.
Now it feels like women, whether it's the campaign strategist or the campaign manager, we all know that [Clinton's] 2016 defeat sort of validated these doubts we had in our minds about how we were treated and viewed in campaigns and in the workplace. And we understood that people can doubt our skills, but we know we're meant for something better. That's what that outcome told us. That's one of the big things that I see changing in politics now. It's not just women being willing to run for office, it's women at the staff level wanting and demanding different roles.
BINOTTO: The women that I found [on Mikie Sherill’s team], a lot of them are young and new to campaigns. When they interviewed, they were just willing to do anything and everything, because we're a smaller campaign. The folks who ended up in a position were really the hungriest.
I think just on a generational level, I know the women who are working for me are not going to be satisfied to be at this level forever. They want to keep growing, they want to keep learning, and I do think that is something that is really important for the future of campaigns.
PALMIERI: That's what women do, right? Women just jump in and do what needs to be done. I sometimes felt in the past that could hold women back. A lot of my colleagues would say, “Why are you working so late? A man wouldn't do that.” I'm like, “I know that, you think I don't know that?” But I want to do a good job, and I want to get it done. Now I feel men are going to have to keep up. They're going to have to pick up the pace. If women are running campaigns and setting the example that you dive in and do whatever needs to be done, that's going to set a new ethic. They're going to have to keep up.
LITMAN: There are some things very specific to our industry that make it very hard for women to get hired or to last. One thing is that we hire up very quickly. We don't list jobs publicly. We don't list salary ranges. We don't always offer health insurance depending on what kind of job you're taking. They have deadlines, and you often have to move. Accordingly, people tend to hire who they know or who their immediate networks know. Social science research has shown this over and over again: Men hire people who look like them. Their immediate networks are often filled with more men. They sponsor people who have things in common with them. It makes it harder for women to get their foot in the door in the first place.
What People Get Wrong About Working On Campaigns
PALMIERI: That it’s exciting? Because it can be really boring. There’s nothing I love more, but it is a real slog. I think the people who succeed at it are the ones that are really willing to put that kind of time in and not get discouraged. It often will look impossible to win and there’s so many ups and downs. But most of it is not the exciting moments. ... Most of it is having to get through days where it just doesn’t seem like a win is possible. That requires a lot of fortitude. So I think people might have the sense that it’s day-to-day super exciting and fast-paced, and particularly at the beginning, it’s not that.
LITMAN: One, especially on the bigger campaigns, you don’t spend all your time on the plane with the candidate or backstage at big rallies. Most of what you do on most campaigns is either sitting behind a computer or at a field office talking to volunteers. It’s not that it’s not glamorous, too, it’s just a different kind of glamour.
The second thing that I often want to disabuse people of is that you have as much control over the process as it looks like from the outside. While there’s a lot of proactive planning and strategy and vision and policy, so much of what happens on a campaign or on Election Day is outside of the campaign’s control. And good campaigns sometimes lose, and bad campaigns sometimes win.
How Sexism Presents Itself Subtly (And Not So Subtly) On Campaigns
PALMIERI: How much time do we have? [Laughter.] I’m just not even sure where to start.
BINOTTO: I don’t know that I have this really glaring experience. But I do think that there’s small ways that these things come up, in the sense of who gets jobs, the way decisions get made. Because I’m on the younger side of this, I feel like it’s been more of a structural thing than an overt experience that I’ve seen from someone.
I’ve been in meetings where I say something because I’m really passionate or I really believe it and everyone just freezes, like, “She’s overreacting.”
LITMAN: OK, I’ll do one. In 2014, we somehow ended up with a donor-driven team field trip to a strip club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was not my favorite environment. It was sort of driven by the bro culture of the team and by the donor. I was like “Hmm, not only do I not belong here, but I don’t feel safe here.”
It wasn’t the kind of place where I felt like I could even express to my boss how uncomfortable I was. I was one of the few women on the senior staff and one of few women on the campaign writ large. This was a supporter who’d given the campaign a lot of money. He made a lot of other women on the campaign very uncomfortable, too. It made me resolve to, if I had my druthers, never work for a man again.
PALMIERI: One thing that would happen to us even on the Clinton campaign is just having women’s voices be heard. And I think this is true beyond politics. I would be in a meeting and I would say something. Two minutes later, our campaign manager, Robby Mook, who is a white man, would say the same thing. Everybody would say, ‘Oh wow! Such a great idea!” I’m like, “Hey, you guys! I said that two minutes ago!” To their credit, the men in the room would be like, “Oh my God, you’re right. You did!”
It would even happen to Hillary. It would be super awkward because the women in the room, we’d all look at each other like, “Uh, didn’t she just say that?”
CARSON: If [a woman] hits a certain level or hits a certain stride with what she’s trying to express, men are quick to say you’re being overly sensitive about something. Or people start to get awkward around you, as if you’re not hitting the same tone or the same level as your male colleagues. And for [men], when they get really passionate about something it’s like, “Oh wow, they really care about that,” and everybody’s listening. Whereas I’ve been in meetings where I say something because I’m really passionate or I really believe it and everyone just freezes, like, “She’s overreacting.”
MINOR: I didn’t see very much sexism toward me. I saw so much toward the candidate, especially being a mother of five. I think because of it being a smaller grassroots congressional campaign, and mainly women-driven, I didn’t see much of that. But I know that it’s out there.
How You Can Get More Involved
MINOR: I would find a candidate and reach out to them to volunteer on their campaign. Every campaign, especially the smaller campaigns at the state level, need volunteers. That’s really the best way.
You’re missing meals, or workouts, or family or friends, and important personal moments. You’re doing this for someone because you believe that they’re going to be able to create change.
BINOTTO: I would say get on the airplane, trust yourself, and take a risk. Had I not decided to just do it and forget that there could be consequences on the other side of it, I wouldn’t be here right now. Find a candidate you are passionate about and then just take the risk.
CARSON: I would double down on finding someone you’re passionate about. Because at the end of the day, when you go home for two hours, and you’re missing meals, or workouts, or family or friends, and important personal moments — you’re doing this for someone because you believe that they’re going to be able to create change.
LITMAN: Don’t wait for someone to invite you or ask you to do it. Just jump in. And don’t just jump in. Think about running yourself. If you do, we’ll help you.
PALMIERI: Yes, you can’t wait to be asked or wait for permission. I think that what we’ve learned, for better or worse, in the last two years is anything is possible. Just know that particularly if you’re a woman who wants to get into politics or a woman of color, your perspective matters a lot. You've got something different to offer. Trust that we need that.