ADP at RIC/NBC 10 forum takes inside look at political campaigns

Dan Jaehnig
You’re a candidate for public office ... If you’re in it to win it, you must pay close attention to the polls, have a good rapport with the media, be sure to Tweet and Facebook frequently, and post videos on YouTube. You’ll also need to spend plenty of time dialing for dollars, and, when the inevitable crisis arises, deal with it quickly and openly.

Then maybe you’ll have a chance.

That’s what the experts – a panel of local and national campaign officials – said at a forum presented by the American Democracy Project at RIC and NBC 10 on Nov. 15.

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Indeed, the campaign pros can make all the difference, according to Dan Jaehnig NBC 10 news anchor and forum moderator. He noted that there have been occasions when the candidate was outstanding, but the staff cost him or her the election.

Jaehnig steered the panel through several topics fundamental to conducting a contemporary political campaign, beginning with polls.

“Polling is an essential component,” on which to base candidate’s message, said Tony Simon, deputy state director for U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

Stephanie DeSilva, executive director of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, said that adding a question to a poll can cause a shift in a candidate’s messaging, based on responses. If concern about education has become a hot topic, the staff might then set up an educational event at a school for the candidate.

Stephanie DeSilva

Christopher Farrell
RIC grad Christopher Farrell, director of community outreach for R.I. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and a former Obama campaign worker, said that polling and fundraising are the two most important aspects of a campaign.

In addition to polling, voters are contacted directly in get-out-the-vote drives, which Michael Trainor, campaign manager for Gov. Lincoln Chafee during his 2010 race, described as a “very, very important part of the campaign.” In a “GOTV” drive, callers urge voters to go to their polling centers and cast ballots on election day.

As for the role of media in a campaign, DeSilva said that staffers need to develop quality relationships with reporters. Simon noted that it was important for a contender to be available to the media and that the campaign should work to provide them with interesting stories.

“Their job is to get the message out; ours (the media) is to dissect it,” Jaehnig said.

The new social media has changed the dynamic of contemporary campaigns, the panelists agreed.

Michael Trainor
Simon noted that full-time jobs have been created to provide exposure for candidates on Facebook, Twitter and other new media.

But this “evolving media” is “still fragile,” according to DeSilva, who said that in rushing to get the message out mistakes can occur.

Trainor said that Chafee’s gubernatorial campaign used talented, college-age interns to create videos – often humorous – for YouTube.

“There is no due process in the court of public opinion."
-Michael Trainor

“Social media is going to lead the playing field in the next couple of election cycles,” Farrell predicted.

The new media is now also an important source of news. Jaehnig noted that his TV station, Channel 10, has the largest number of Facebook followers in the state.

When working with first-time candidates for elective office, there are several steps that should be taken, according to Nicole Giambusso, communications account executive for O’Neill and Associates and former field organizer for Hillary Clinton.

Giambusso, a RIC alum, said handlers should talk to a candidate about his or her background to gain awareness of positives and negatives and to determine the things a contender is passionate about.

She also suggested conducting mock interviews to fine-tune a candidate’s responses.

Tony Simon

Nicole Giambusso
According to Trainor, the very first question you should ask a new candidate is “Why?” There should be a reason for running, he said. “It can’t all be driven by the polls.”

Inevitably, a campaign will be beset by a crisis, and “quick action and clarification to the extent you can” are necessary, explained Trainor.

“There is no due process in the court of public opinion,” he added.

Trainor referred to events in the Herman Cain campaign, which is under siege from a string of allegations of sexual harassment against the candidate, as “death by a thousand cuts.”

The rewards of working on a campaign are considerable, the panelists said.

“The work ethic you learn is just invaluable,” said Simon, while DeSilva noted, “You can sharpen any skill you have on a campaign.”

According to Trainor, staffers will work harder on a political campaign than anything else they do.

And regardless of what the state of the job market is, there will still be elections, and thus a need for the political operatives who make the campaigns go.

“It’s a recession-proof job,” Farrell said.