The eternal and irresistible appeal of Obama campaign experience

Good news for those with short experience and deep pockets: 270 Strategies, a political consulting company founded by veterans of Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns, will train you and find you a slot on a campaign for only $5,000, as BuzzFeed reported on Thursday. A few caveats are in order, including that the campaign work, a five-week stint, is unpaid. And the other caveat: A presidential campaign is vastly different than any other sort of campaign -- and the Obama campaign was so unique that it's practically become mystical. And that's makes it irresistible for marketing purposes.


This could be you. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

270 Strategies was founded by Jeremy Bird and Mitch Stewart. Each started out by doing organizing in a battleground state in the 2008 primaries (South Carolina and Iowa, respectively), then earning positions in the senior staff of the 2012 campaign. If you're going to get advice, it might as well be from these guys.

But recognize it for what it is and isn't. Since 270 Strategies was founded last year, they've been mentioned as consultants to five different political campaigns in news reports. Two were easy wins: Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) won by over 10 points and Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony Williams won his primary uncontested. In two, their candidates trail. Ro Khanna (D) came in second to Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) by 2o points in their congressional primary, but will have a rematch in November. 270 Strategies signed on to Wendy Davis' gubernatorial campaign in Texas; she trails by 12, according to Real Clear Politics' polling average.

The other race was Gov. Terry McAuliffe's (D) race in Virginia, in which he eked out a 2.5 point win. McAuliffe's is exactly the sort of close race in which a campaign's field strategy should make a difference, and that's what 270 Strategies specializes in. But that very much does not mean that 270 Strategies possesses the magical key to campaign victory.

The allure of the phrase "Obama campaign veteran" is hard to escape, though. Obama won a primary he wasn't expected to win, raised an unprecedented amount of money in 2008 that he spent on tools that were new to many political observers, and then repeated in 2012 despite the odds. Politics is an enormously superstitious, but also one that likes gimmicks. The Obama campaign is the best electoral gimmick of the past decade.

Consider: A search on LinkedIn reveals nearly 11,000 people who claim to have worked for "Obama for America," the name of the campaign organizations in both 2008 and 2012. There's little question the campaigns had thousands of staff (see this 2008 Globe article), but that certainly includes a lot of ancillary field organizers and folks who got small stipends to work in battlegrounds for a week or two. It is hard to believe that each of these 11,000 people was an integral part of either campaign. But they recognize the value in the association -- particularly for those seeking jobs in the political realm.

BuzzFeed's Evan McMorris-Santoro quotes a number of Democratic activists skeptical of what 270 Strategies offers with its tutelage. "Much of what the company is offering," he writes, "sounds similar to existing campaign training programs that usually have little or no upfront cost." Which is almost certainly true. What distinguished the Obama campaigns was, in part, scale. Fifty states, thousands of volunteers, millions of dollars in small donations. The moment that struck me the most in 2008 was when the campaign announced that it was buying ads to be displayed inside video games -- the sort of thing you do if you have money to burn and a taste for breaking norms. It is not the sort of thing that a candidate for the House in Michigan is going to need to do. For the most part, field work is as it has always been: figuring out who to talk to and what to say and then getting them to vote. iPhones and databases and so on make that easier, but the fundamental activity is the same. And that's what needs to be learned.

So why will people pay $5,000 to get an unpaid job on a campaign? Because, as with "work from home" enticements that air at 11 a.m. on free cable stations, it seems like a smart investment in your future. But also because it comes with an "in." The group will attach you to a political campaign where you'll meet the candidate and make connections and so on. You're part of the infrastructure, just like that.

Maybe you missed the chance to be able to argue convincingly that you worked on an Obama campaign. For five grand, you can leapfrog the people who say that on LinkedIn, getting both connections and the chance to say that you were trained in the ancient art of Obamism. For some people, that's a bargain.

Correction: This post originally said that Khanna trailed Honda by 22 points.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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