Both parties face hurdles in retaining young talent for campaigns

Associated Press/Keith Srakocic

Republicans and Democrats alike are facing hurdles in cultivating young talent to work on campaigns — a challenge that could pose consequences for their political operations down the road.

Members of both parties say it’s getting harder to either hire or keep young people on campaigns, with some pointing to a generational change in mindset over working a job that’s known for offering little stability or guarantee over job prospects once a race ends. Others point to the fact that the contours of the job inadvertently weed out qualified candidates because of the pay scale or instability.

Now campaign operatives are looking to right the ship, and some see the 2024 presidential election as the perfect opportunity to start addressing those issues.

“The days of paying your campaign staff with pizza and beer are over,” said Republican campaign consultant Nathan Calvert.

“If the outcomes of those races are as serious as we say they are, how we treat these people and how we hire them and how we retain them should be a no-brainer to be on the best ethical standards across the board,” Calvert, who runs a political staffing service firm called Revered Work, added. 

One reason why some Republican operatives believe they’re struggling to attract and keep young campaign talent is that the rising generation looking to get engaged politically may prefer a more stable lifestyle, better pay or benefits, or might be less risk averse. Others say that campaign work for prospective young hires has to feel more like a real job.

But some Republicans argue that the pay is much more competitive than before. One former Senate campaign manager who worked on a Republican race last cycle explained that in 2014 they were paid $6,000 a month to run a congressional campaign and argued that if it was a top-tier race, someone today could ask for double that amount. 

The former Senate campaign manager added that campaigns that once saw lots of applications for a job posting can find themselves competing amongst each other for new hires as the application pool shrinks.

“Everyone was able to find good people, but … you weren’t turning away good people. If you found someone that was remotely qualified, you were going to find a way to hire them,” the person said. 

“Historically, prior to that, it’d be like you would have five people going for the job … Now it’s like, ‘Oh, we found someone who meets these criteria … we have to offer them [the job] fast because we know they’re going to have other offers.’”

Democrats, too, have taken note of young people’s asks for a better work style and pay.

“The current generation of smart, energetic and idealistic young people — the kind of people drawn to work in politics — understandably want livable salaries, healthcare and some semblance of work-life balance,” Ronnie Cho, who served as former associate director of the Office of Public Engagement under the Obama administration, wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times right before the November midterm elections. 

“Modern campaigns could afford to provide all of that. There’s never been more money in politics. It’s just a question of priorities,” he added.

Republicans and Democrats suggest that issues around cultivating young talent are nuanced for each party and can differ depending on different factors, such as whether the campaign is for a state legislature, House, Senate or presidential race.

Some politicos suggest the issue sometimes has to do with things as simple as geography.

Michael Ceraso, who’s worked on presidential campaigns for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, said he sees it as an issue when it comes to elections in rural areas — areas that he says young people may be less inclined to stay in for months at a time.

Ceraso said he also sees a lack of candidates of color for potential campaign positions, something he attributes — when it comes to presidential campaigns, for example — to the fact that job openings can rely on internal networks. 

Douglas Wilson, a North Carolina-based Democratic strategist, explained candidates of color may start working on campaigns later than some of their peers in part because of the pay and instability associated with working on campaigns. 

“There isn’t a guarantee that you will get a job within that administration or within that congressional district office,”said Wilson, who noted he worked on his first campaign for former President Obama when he was 27 years old. 

“And if that candidate loses, then you have to figure out how are you going to find a job going forward.”

Politicos argue that not addressing the issue of cultivating young campaign talent could offer consequences for campaign staff quality down the road.

“I think the downstream effect is just going to be the mid-level staffers. They’re just going to be a smaller talent pool,” said one GOP strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the issue.

Some see prioritizing offering young staffers more money as one way to fix the problem, noting that massive amounts of money are being spent on ad campaigns and consultants. 

“There’s a number of us who have looked at this from various angles, who think it’s pretty clear that the amount of money going to ads is not effective, and it may actually be in some broader sense for democracy, counterproductive,” said Daniel Laurison, an associate professor of sociology at Swarthmore College and author of “Producing Politics: Inside the Exclusive Campaign World Where the Privileged Few Shape Politics for All of Us.”

National groups are also playing a role in tackling these issues. The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) noted, for example, that in the 2021 and 2022 gubernatorial races, they worked to help place 20 digital directors on campaigns for governor’s races.

Calvert, the GOP campaign consultant, believes that the sheer number of campaigns that will be launched in 2024 could offer some opportunities for some much-needed course correction but says the party needs to be intentional about how it tackles the issue.

“I think because of the number of potential presidential candidates, which are going to stand up a number of presidential super PACs, I think those types of entities are going to allow for a lot more job growth. And it’s almost a misconception when people think you can’t just start working on a presidential campaign. You absolutely can,” he said.

“I don’t feel optimistic about us doing it in a way that organizes and structures for us to do this moving forward. Because what happens in ‘25 and ‘26?” Calvert added. “We kind of look at this right now, and it’s not wrong, we just look at it cycle-to-cycle. You live and die by each cycle. But I’m in the camp of saying a lot of the same people are moving cycle-to-cycle, and we should be organizing them in a better way.”

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