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Hire for Potential in the Democratic Talent Race

On Oct. 15, the top 12 candidates for the Democratic primary will meet for the next major debate. While the ongoing race to be the nominee will play out live in front of a national television audience, a different race is going on behind the cameras: the race to attract the best staff and volunteers to their campaigns. But are campaigns doing all they can to attract talent, or are there lessons from professional recruiting that they can adapt?

While attracting talent is part of any campaign, it’s especially important in a presidential race. Drawing in the best campaign staff and volunteers is a critical part of the "invisible primary" that happens months or years before any primary vote. Attracting top staff early on can enhance a candidate's reputation, support their early fundraising and help shape their larger messaging. Hiring staff in key primary states highlights a candidate's strategy and their ability to get out the vote in important early states. 

But recruiting staff is tough. Political campaigns face intense competition, tight deadlines and limited resources. They also pay very little and offer zero long-term stability. Despite these limitations, the need to hire the best can make a difference for campaigns. 

Like the crowded Republican campaign in 2016, the crowded democratic candidate field has led to a surge of hiring. By the end of June 2019, several top campaigns had hundreds of staff members, including Warren with 303 members, Sanders with 282 and Biden with 193. Many campaigns bring hundreds or even thousands of independent contractors and volunteers for fundraising, communication or policy support.  

What lessons can the campaigns draw from the executive search world? How can they differentiate themselves and find the best talent? For typical hiring, organizations often assess potential hires by "hard" factors, including their education or experience. In the case of campaigns, this would be their previous political work and expertise in areas such as communications and fundraising. To differentiate themselves, campaigns need to measure the potential of new hires. This moves away from their past experience and looks to their capabilities in the future. With things changing so fast in a campaign, adaptability, agility and emotional fortitude are more important than previous experience.  

Specifically, campaigns need to ask themselves questions based on four different metrics.  

  • Curiosity – Are staff and volunteers learning, changing and consistently reaching out for new ideas about improving the campaign? 
  • Insight – Are they able to make sense of new information that emerges about the campaign? Can they integrate shifts in polling or voter data?
  • Engagement – Are they fully engaged with other campaign members, stakeholders in local areas or even voters? Are they able to channel an emotional commitment to the mission and inspire further engagement from others? 
  • Determination – Are they determined enough to drive on, despite sagging poll numbers, lower than expected fundraising or the other daunting hurdles that confront campaigns? Are they capable of bouncing back from the setbacks that happen all too often in a campaign? 

Bringing these hiring metrics into their campaign will help campaigns step away from their competitors and bring the best people into their growing organizations. This approach also serves as a valuable proving ground for any future president who needs to hire 4,000 political appointees once he or she takes office.

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