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The Hill Staffer Campaign Trail Survival Guide

Campaign teams hard at work. Welcome to the Election season! (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Campaign teams hard at work. Welcome to the Election season! (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It’s October! Which brings postseason baseball (sorry, Nationals) and the return of football. It’s the end of iced coffee and the overly sweet arrival of latte concoctions like pumpkin spice and cinnamon dolce.  

It also brings the dog days of campaign season, with just 13 days to Election Night. But who’s counting ?  

During an election season, Capitol Hill staffers are likely to spend their hard-earned free time volunteering on the campaign trail . Maybe just a few days, maybe a few weeks, but get ready for some door-knocking, turf-cutting, cold-calling, or — just holding signs on a highway and cheering.  

Whatever you’re doing, it’s going to be vastly different than your day-to-day life as a hill staffer.  

Hill Navigator is here to help . Here is an updated list of things to know going in to the campaign trail. For some this will be a euphoric experience, a chance to make new friends and see new parts of the country. For others — be warned — there is heartbreak ahead. There are no participation trophies on Election Night. But these tips from Hill Navigator may help cushion whatever rough landing might be in store. Good luck!  

1. 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, which can vary from guest-bedroom suites to fold-out basement futons. On a campaign, the line between work and home becomes even more blurry. You’re there to win. And winners work all the time.  

2. It’s you vs. the elements.  Say hello to fall foliage. Welcome to campaign mode, where outdoor events are part of the charm. From Election Day canvassing to sticking yard signs in the interstate medians, you’ll be out and about. In some parts of the country, it snows in October — like Iowa, Colorado or Alaska. There are no such things as rain delays on Election Day. Dress appropriately.  

3. It’s you and your co-workers. The campaign team is your new social life. This environment has made for many friendships, romances, weddings (and divorces) and drama to rehash on campaign reunion nights. But unlike a House or Senate office, there is no external group of friends. Keep the at-work behavior extra cordial; you don’t want to be the one left out when everyone goes to the bar.  

4. Your boss is a real person. On Capitol Hill, members of Congress are larger than life — that shiny voting pin, the “yes, sir; no, sir,” the metal detector walk-around. But back in the state or district, bosses are on a first-name basis with voters. They have families — sometimes kids, sometime St. Bernard puppies — in tow. Campaigns can be a great time to see a human element to an otherwise distant boss, but it brings new challenges: Maybe you didn’t expect to see the boss assist a keg stand , or wear cargo shorts and flip-flops. Be prepared to adapt and see him or her in a different light.  

5. Your credentials don’t matter. Yes, you may have negotiated the Affordable Care Act in the Senate Finance Committee, but on the campaign trail, your relevant skills will likely be of the door-knocking variety. Put the policy smarts on hold, and don’t be too haughty to take orders from a 22-year-old with a clipboard and a sharpie.  

6. It only matters if you win or lose. Sadly, campaigns are often evaluated in terms of winning and losing sides, whether you are the volunteer coordinator or campaign manager. Try to soak up as much of the experience while you can. You’ll make contacts, gain experience, and cultivate goodwill for spending time on the trail, but it’s a much sweeter end if you’re on the winning team. And a better election night party, too.  

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