In 1992, Bill Clinton assumed the United States’ presidency, ending the 12-year reign of the republican party.
This feat was partly achieved by James Carville, a political strategist who was instrumental in ending the long Democratic drought. One of the formulations he used for the campaign is commonly used by parties today.
There is no denying that political strategists are an integral part of a campaign and an aspirational career for many.
But what does a political strategist do, and what does it take to become one? This post will help you define a clear path to becoming a political strategist.
What does a political strategist do?
Political strategists, also often referred to as political consultants or political advisors, specialize in specific competencies designed to help an electoral candidate win.
Strategists may only be responsible for one aspect of campaigning (at least in national campaigns). But, if they have the experience and knowledge, they can take up other responsibilities too, as described below:
A voter polling strategist conducts polls in the field to determine how a candidate is perceived or even what causes will be best received by the voters. Their job is to suggest changes in the methods of campaigning or the causes based on these polls.
A political polling strategist must be well-versed in the following:
- Designing different types of polls (public opinion, baseline, bushfire polls, etc.)
- Choosing samples/focus groups (based on the target audience)
- Data analysis
- Tailoring political strategies (based on the polls)
Some political strategists dedicate their time to learning about the opposing candidate. They focus on revealing ideological inconsistencies, personal transgressions, and anything else to showcase the opposition’s weaknesses to dilute their support.
Key skills that an opposition researcher must possess are:
- Strong written and verbal communication skills
- Investigative skills, an eye for detail
- Networking skills
Given how integral technology is today, campaigners also need political advisors to help them adopt the right political technology for campaigning. As a technology strategist, you will be required to have a good understanding of:
- Voter communication tools (mass texting and call center software like CallHub)
- Data collection and management software
- Internal communication tools
- Staff recruitment and management software
- Website and app development technology
Political fundraising strategists are responsible for raising money for the campaign. Apart from raising money, their job also includes managing and allocating funds appropriately. The essential skills that you will need to become a fundraising strategist are:
- Fundraising event management
- Strong written and verbal communication (to communicate with donors)
- Up to date with fundraising technology
- Organizational and leadership skills (to manage your volunteers)
While the roles may seem different, strategists of all fields work closely together to achieve the common objective, which is, winning the elections. That is how they gain experience in other aspects of campaigning.
Resources to learn more about these fields in detail:
– American Associate of Political Consultants Certificate programs
– Opposition Research Handbook
Qualifications to become a political strategist
While it’s not mandatory, most campaigns prefer hiring political strategists with a graduate degree, as it indicates a strong foundation.
Here’s a good combination of majors you can opt to get a headstart:
Majoring in political science, communications, history, or public administration would be a good start. A few subjects that will help your career in this field include:
- Research methodology
- International government
- Political theory
- Communication studies
- International law
- Public policy
- Political behavior
- Voting and protests
- American political system
- Racial attitudes and racial politics
After your bachelor’s, opt for a graduate degree to earn a specialization and for more exposure to the work as a political advisor.
A graduate degree that includes practical learning and explores campaigning, legislative action, and voter involvement would be perfect for giving you a boost towards becoming a political strategist. A few subjects that you can consider taking up are:
- Human rights laws
- Public choice
- Judicial selection
- Political and civic organizations
- Election laws
- Decision theory
Work experience is critical to building a career as a political strategist. Even if you don’t have a degree in the relevant programs (or don’t want to opt for it), this is where you can make up for it.
Gain experience by:
- Volunteering for political campaigns. This will give you the insights you need into campaigning and also help you decide what field you want to specialize in.
- Applying for relevant internships. Internships will provide you with relevant hands-on experience of your responsibilities. You may have to intern for 3-4 years (even after college) before you can start moving up the ladder.
Apart from gaining experience, you also need to make sure that you showcase your skills wherever possible.
- Showcase your work and opinions on social media. This will help you build a relevant audience and can get you under the radar of the right people. Apart from that, it also serves as social proof of your existing knowledge.
- Network with relevant people. These include your college professors (if applicable), campaign managers and staffers (from your internship), other consultants, etc. Be in touch with them on social channels, share your work (and ask them to do the same), and ask for referrals and recommendations.
- Create a website portfolio: Upload all your work on a website so you can share it easily. Plus, a website portfolio will also make you more discoverable by people searching for strategists online.
Every bit of experience will be an added point to your resume. The more points you have, the better your chances will be. Here’s an example of a job posting for a political strategist at a consulting firm. Notice how the focus is more on experience than education:
What do people look for in a political strategist?
Understanding what campaigners look for when hiring a political strategist is an excellent way to prepare yourself for interviews or meets.
Apart from the key skills and qualifications we spoke about above, campaigners look for the following:
- Track record: Whether you have experience devising good strategies. They don’t always have to be successful, but a creative, data-driven approach is what you need.
- Social proof: This includes recommendations from peers or seniors, how many people adapt or listen to your opinion, etc. If you are active on social media (as we pointed out above), this would be covered.
- Rapport/relationship-building skills: Networking and collaborating are essential parts of your job. So be confident and respectful when putting forth your points. Also, really listen to what they have to say. This helps build trust and rapport with the campaigner.
Political strategist job prospects
If you fulfill the above requirements, there are three major job prospects for political advisors.
- Political strategists for candidates: This includes helping local and national level candidates win elections. You’ll be working with the candidate’s election office.
- Political strategists for businesses/organizations: Other organizations also hire political strategists to help them promote a cause or legislation.
- Political strategy consultant: If you have a good enough portfolio, you can also work as a consultant. You could either be a part of a consulting agency or work independently. Your clients would include both businesses and candidates.
When hiring a political strategist, campaigns put out RFPs on their website or other third-party websites. Alternatively, they may also ask for recommendations and send RFPs only to them (which is why networking is so important).
A political strategist is quite a rewarding role. However, it doesn’t come easy and requires a lot of work during the initial phase. Hopefully, you now know exactly where to direct your efforts to start climbing that ladder.
Featured image source: Jeshoots