It’s inevitable for most Capitol Hill staffers: At some point, you will be on a campaign. Maybe it’s by choice, or maybe it’s coerced; it could be three days or three weeks.
You might move across the country, and you might be sleeping in your parents’ guest bedroom. Whatever the circumstances, a time will come when you leave the marble halls of Congress for the brave outdoors of the campaign trail.
Despite the twin nature of campaigns and Congress, the workplace environments have little resemblance. Before the culture shock sets in (and since this is a nonelection year, you have a little time), here are six tips on how your campaign job might differ from your Hill job. And here’s hoping that the better prepared you are, the better experience you’ll have.
On a campaign, there’s no line between work and home.
Often this is because you don’t have a home, as many campaign staffers rely on supporter housing. This means you’re in someone’s basement or guest bedroom or fold-out futon. When you’re on a campaign, the blurry line between work and home is eliminated. You’re there to win. And winners work all the time.
Gone are the heating and cooling systems that keep the House and Senate office buildings at a perfect room temperature all year round. Gone are the days of sitting in an ergonomically appropriate chair, working on a computer with a 24-inch screen, and calling IT when your BlackBerry breaks. You’re in campaign mode now: You’re lucky to get a folding chair and card table with an outlet for your laptop. You’re also going to be doing outdoor events — from county fairs to Election Day canvassing. Dress appropriately.
Unless you are working on the hometown campaign where your family and friends live, your campaign team is your new social life. This environment has made for many friendships, romances, weddings and plenty of delicious drama to rehash on your campaign reunion nights. But unlike when you’re at your House or Senate office, there is no external group of friends. So keep the at-work behavior extra cordial. You don’t want to be the one left out when everyone goes across the street to the bar.
On Capitol Hill, they might be larger than life — that shiny voting pin, the “yes, sir; no, sir,” the metal detector walk-around. But in their state or district, your bosses are on a first-name basis with voters. And they have families, sometimes kids, in tow. And that thrice-weekly newspaper’s endorsement is a big deal. Campaigns can be a great time to see a human element to an otherwise distant boss, but it can bring some new challenges. Maybe you didn’t want to split a funnel cake with the boss, or maybe you didn’t need to see him in khaki shorts and Tevas. Whatever the situation, be prepared to see the boss in a very different light.
This particularly applies to the full-time campaign staffers (as opposed to Hill employees who take a temporary leave or use vacation time). Working for the government has significant benefits: health insurance, thrift savings plan, access to myriad services provided by the House and Senate. Campaign workers have yet to receive such benefits, so you could be in a health insurance lurch and wind up with big tax bills when you get your 1099 forms. Do your best to negotiate a strong compensation package before you start, but keep in mind that most campaigns are on a shoestring budget, and even making the same dollar amount might fall short of what you’re used to in a Capitol Hill office.
Sadly, campaigns are often evaluated in terms of winning and losing sides, whether you were a field organizer or the campaign manager. It all boils down to the Election Day results, so try to soak up as much of the experience while you can. You’ll make contacts and gain experience either way, but it’s a much sweeter end if you’re on the winning team. And a better election night party, too.