Behind the scenes, Democrats’ campaigns don’t look like their voters
President Joe Biden won the 2020 Democratic nomination through the Black primary voters in South Carolina and carried the general election in November because of the strength of Black women voters. Yet, his top campaign staff was almost entirely white.
In fact, most political operatives are whiter, richer and more insulated from the struggles of everyday life than average people. This isn’t a guess, it’s what I was able to prove after I conducted original research on over 2,000 national-level political professionals. This is true for both parties, I learned, but it presents a fundamental problem for the Democrats that could impact their electoral prospects for years to come — the people who run the party’s campaigns have little in common with the vast majority of people whose votes they must win.
My research shows that political work in America across both parties is deeply undemocratic: It’s exclusive, insular and unrepresentative. Campaign professionals too often see themselves as pro athletes or star coaches engaged in a high-stakes game. Only a select few get to play; the rest of us are welcome as spectators, but not on the field.
This is a particular problem for the Democratic Party, which has a brand inextricably linked to racial and economic justice. White people are over-represented among Democratic campaign staff: I found that roughly 70 percent of people working in the 2020 Democratic presidential campaigns were non-Hispanic whites, as compared with only about 60 percent of Democratic voters. White people held roughly 80 percent of roles in communications teams in these campaigns, crafting and delivering the messages voters receive. Further, all six of Biden’s innermost 2020 campaign advisers were white.
The class mismatch is even starker. Nearly 95 percent of Democrats in national-level roles in 2020 had college degrees, compared with only 41 percent of Democratic voters. The most selective colleges and universities only enroll about 13 percent of all U.S. college students, but over 60 percent of the Democratic operatives in my data were alumni of elite schools like Princeton, Yale, Georgetown, UCLA or my own Swarthmore College — schools where the children of the 1 percent often outnumber those from the poorest 20 percent of households.
To be successful, many campaign staff and consultants told me they started by getting into a campaign through a personal or family connection, and then proving themselves through round-the-clock work with little or no pay. As one fundraising consultant I interviewed put it, “being involved in this type of work is almost like a luxury.” That path is unappealing or impossible for any young person who doesn’t come from a privileged family background or who needs financial security.
These disparities are not about skills: Campaign staff and consultants repeatedly told me that most campaign work can be — in fact, has to be — learned on the job. One operative told me her political science degree did “jack sh*t” for her work.
Instead, campaigns are losing out, turning away the cultural competence, strategic insights and deep understanding of the lives of everyday Americans that people from these communities would bring to campaigns.
Many campaign professionals confessed to me that, despite all the polls and research at their fingertips, they are mostly guided by their “gut sense” of the right move. But these instincts and intuitions are shaped by their privileged view of the world, a view not shared by the voters they are trying to reach.
One former Democratic communications professional explained that campaign messages “seem so cookie-cutter” because “it’s the same people over and over again using the same methods and techniques.” He decried the “recycling of the same [BS] rhetoric on both sides” and said it leads to “running really mediocre campaigns.”
That’s a big part of why, in my team’s interviews with nearly 200 poor and working-class people, we heard over and over again that politics feels disconnected from people’s daily lives. Working class people told us politics looked more like a game being played by elites than a way of making changes in the policies that shape their lives.
Even in 2020, the highest-turnout election in a century, one-third of eligible voters stayed home. Non-voters are disproportionately people of color and lower-income people, and Democratic campaign professionals are consistently unable to mobilize more of them despite years of attempts.
There have been some positive moves toward increasing representation in Democratic political work: The candidates and staff in the 2020 primary campaigns were the most racially diverse ever. New initiatives, such as the Arena Academy, have started that aim to recruit and train a more diverse pool of political operatives.
But there are still too many barriers to real power, and the people of color who do get work in Democratic politics are too often isolated from leadership. Many are pigeonholed into “political” departments, where they are tasked with outreach only to their particular communities. One Latina staffer told me that campaigns will “only put [a Latino staffer] in states that have a sizable Latino population,” which can mean less opportunity for professional advancement.
Ultimately, these things should matter to anyone who cares about the policy goals of the Democratic Party, including many well-off white people like these campaign operatives and myself. If Democrats are going to hold power and deliver on promises to restore abortion rights, fight climate change or raise the minimum wage, they need to build campaigns that are made up of — and led by — the people they aim to represent.
Daniel Laurison is an associate professor of sociology at Swarthmore College, a Carnegie fellow, and author of the recently published book “Producing Politics: Inside the Exclusive Campaign World Where the Privileged Few Shape Politics for All of Us.”