Shopping for candidates

A number of political insiders eyeing a presidential campaign have already been to Iowa, Ohio and New Hampshire for the usual rallies, diner fare and living-room meet-and-greets.

But their last names aren’t Obama, Edwards or Clinton. In fact, most would rather not even give their names. If you’re a campaign staffer who hasn’t officially joined a campaign, there are certain people who might not appreciate your indecision, and their last names likely are Obama, Edwards and Clinton.

As White House hopefuls begin their preseason scouting, polling and exploring, legions of veteran Democratic campaigners are doing some scouting, polling and exploring of their own, some freelancing for more than one presidential campaign as they test the political waters of primary season.

“A lot of people know already, but others take test drives, flirt around and feel it out before officially saying, ‘I want to be with this campaign,’” said one Democratic campaign freelancer, who declined to be named because he’s still feeling it out.
That self-proclaimed campaign “lifer” has already test-driven two campaigns so far this season — working the announcement tour for former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and doing advance logistics for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama — and he has been approached to work in New Hampshire for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Obama. 

After all, photo opportunities with Habitat for Humanity and Web-streamed living room chats don’t happen by themselves. When candidates officially toss their hats in the ring, they need communications officers to tell the media they’re tossing them; event coordinators to make sure the ring has adequate lighting and sound; community liaisons to ensure local citizens attend said tossing; and, of course, techies to make sure the whole production is streamed live to the candidate’s Web page.

And that’s just to announce their campaign.

“Campaigns across the board are just looking for help,” says another advance lifer, Dan Gross, who most recently worked the Ned Lamont Senate race in Connecticut and plans to join the staff of a 2008 Democratic candidate (he’s not saying whom). “People are affording themselves the opportunity to see who’s out there and do whatever they can to help the candidates.”

Gross added that at such an early stage in the process, a staffer’s decision boils down to personal preference. “Who excites you?  Who inspires you?”

“A few things go into thinking about it,” said a former Democratic presidential campaign staffer, now at the Department of Defense (DoD). “Number one, your heart; number two, for an experienced campaigner, they do a little more calculations on the numbers — how much people are raising and how many polls are going their way; and then three, there’s also loyalty — especially in this race, for anyone who used to work for [former President Bill] Clinton or anyone who used to work for Edwards in ’04.” 

Arianna Tunsky-Brashich served as an advance press lead for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in ’04 and is now in her first year of law school. She’s watching the primary candidates closely in these early days, as she weighs her decision of whether to take a leave of absence from school and join a campaign. And while loyalty is one consideration, it won’t be the determining factor this time around.

“I would definitely have to reassess him against all the other candidates,” Tunsky-Brashich said of her old boss, Edwards. “I haven’t really chosen who I’d want to work for yet. Once I get to see them more in action I might feel a lot more strongly. Right now the candidate who is most exciting is Barack Obama,” she said, though she’s quick to note that doesn’t mean she’d definitely work for him.

But wait. Given that, for the first time in 80 years, there is no incumbent president or vice president assuming the nomination, shouldn’t Republican staffers be enjoying a similar exploratory frenzy?

“There isn’t that conservative that has really galvanized people this time around,” said Aaron Tourk, a GOP strategist. Things are taking place more quickly for the Democrats than the Republicans, he says, in part because of two very high-profile Democratic candidates. “Hillary has been running since she was elected to the Senate, and Obama, he’s kind of the un-cola right now.” 

Tourk said that doesn’t mean the Republican momentum won’t build eventually: “A lot of people are kind of waiting to see who the true frontrunner is before they jump on the bandwagon.”

This presents another crucial consideration for the deliberating staffer: timing. Political soldiers may be in hot demand to staff announcement tours and fundraisers at this stage, but it’s still a very long slog to the general election, which makes many veteran campaigners wary of picking their horse too early or putting much stock in national polls, no matter how refreshing that “un-cola” may seem a year ahead of the primaries.

So why gamble early at all? Because when a campaigner chooses early and chooses correctly, that bet often pays off.
“It’s common knowledge that the earlier you go, if your horse wins, the better the chances of getting a good spot on the general [election] and an administration job, if and when you win the White House,” noted one Democratic Capitol Hill staffer. “But it’s a tricky balance staffers do between getting there early enough to secure a spot in the general, but not too early where everything is still developing.” 

Betting too early, if that bet is wrong, can leave a staffer scrambling to retool her résumé faster than you can say “Iowa.” Just ask any member of the Howard Dean presidential campaign.

“Anyone that lived through ’04 would be a dummy to say a day short of the Iowa [caucus] who [the nominee] is going to be,” the DoD civilian said. 

Potential staffers are doing unofficial planning with a particular camp, even as they keep options open for other offers.  
The advance-campaign world handles the front end of a politician’s campaign stops — everything from press conferences to porta-potties — and it is a very, very small world, according to several lifers. With friends and former colleagues already heading up different campaigns’ advance logistics, it’s only natural to want to get the band back together, pulling out BlackBerrys to call old teammates.

For potential staffers like Tunsky-Brashich, the staff behind the candidate is as important as the name on the bumper sticker. “What made advance so great for me was the people that were on the team, so my ears perk up when a campaign calls me and I hear these are the people doing the announcement tour,” she said. “It’s a lot about the candidate, but it’s also about the people you’re going to work with.”

As any dutiful Democratic staffer is quick to note: No matter what campaign anyone picks at this stage in the game, they’ll all likely be working on the same team eventually.

“Which is why you have no problem jumping to the next campaign,” noted the DoD civilian, who worked on two presidential campaigns in 2004 primaries before joining Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s campaign staff.  
“You do pick your first candidate because you love that person,” she said. “And then when you get to candidate two or three, you like that person sincerely, but you also believe in the cause — and the cause is bigger than the person at that point.”

Ultimately, it is that motive that prompts so many people to adopt what she calls the  “hippie, roadie lifestyle” of a campaign worker. Many staffers give up job security, take pay cuts, live out of suitcases, and ultimately put “personal preferences” aside for the greater party mission, slapping on a new bumper sticker for the next campaign even as they finish up a farewell tour for the last.

“In the beginning it sort of comes to where your heart lies,” Gross said. “But the important thing to remember is when it’s all said and done and the nominee is chosen, we all fold in and work together and work to get a Democrat in the White House.”
In a primary race this unpredictable, that may be the only sure bet.