Stress and Burnout: Behind the Scenes of Political Campaigns

 

Presidential campaigns are stressful, fast-moving, pressure-cooker environments. No day is the same. Obstacles can come from any direction. Like the video leaked by a Black Lives Matter protester at a private Hillary Clinton campaign event or the massive crowd of protesters that shut down Donald Trump’s rally in Chicago, one moment can change the trajectory of a candidate’s campaign.

The job security of campaign leadership and staff depends on the ability to predict, duck, dodge, and roll with punches as they come. Here’s a glance behind the curtain into the daily tasks of campaign staff who must navigate the mess.

One Mistake Can Cost You Your Job

Presidential campaigns are high stakes.

“Both campaigns and startups are high-stakes environments that require staff to over commit both inside and outside the office for an uncertain result,” said JR Starrett, a political campaign expert with 13 years experience in everything from field organizing and campaign management to serving as a senior team member for a progressive oriented Super PAC.

With every caucus and milestone election, your job is in question.

“On Election Day you win or lose. You have a definitive amount of time to accomplish one primary goal. For many staff, this steady drumbeat is just too much. The day-in and day-out pressures of continually performing to meet expectations are too great,” Starrett said.

Mike Smith was on the White House communications team for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1993, and on the advance team for both Obama campaigns. Smith talked about the calculated gamble of joining a campaign.

“I thought Obama was going to win, and he did, but I have been on other campaigns where my candidate lost. If you lose, you are out. You can’t get a job with the administration if your candidate loses,” Smith said. “It’s exciting, but there are times where the burnout is tough.”

Fatigue increases with the glorification of long hours. The mantra in many political campaigns, especially presidential, is “You can sleep after election day.” Because of the 24-hour news cycle, staffers are expected to be available at any hour, even if it is three o’clock in the morning.

“It is not uncommon for a political campaign to ask a great deal from staff members; irregular hours are common and 12 hour days and seven day weeks are not unusual,” Starrett said.

While long hours are seen as productive and worthwhile to achieve success, Gilbert Chalepas, a clinical psychologist told SocialWork@Simmons that the opposite is the case.

“Deadlines and feeling overwhelmed can creep up, possibly affecting our mood, outlook and performance,” he said.

Performing at your best at all times is key — whether you are a grassroots organizer or the lead of a campaign’s advance team — when everything you do is time sensitive. The 24-hour news cycle leaves little room for error. Mistakes are seen in real time and can dramatically and instantly impact momentum.

“With constant media surveillance and 24/7 chatter in the Twitterverse, the propensity for mistakes are higher than ever,” Smith said.

Mistakes happen because you cut a corner on what the candidate actually said, or the deadline is so quick, the press release went out before everyone got to see it.

“Cruz’s press secretary … used some clips and footage of Rubio talking about what was assumed to be discrediting the Bible. It turned out to be false, and Cruz’s press secretary ended up losing his job,” Smith said. “This is a big deal.”

Cause Is Fundamental to Sustained Motivation

In the face of high stakes, what motivates people?

“Campaigns are cause driven. Your candidate is all you think about and the cause they are going to champion. Obama was a cause. Bernie is a cause,” Smith said.

Dani Isaacsohn, who worked as the deputy political director and later as the deputy campaigns director for Obama in 2013 and 2014, explains that the strongest motivator for campaign staff is passion and belief in the cause.

“There’s no doubt that campaigns are hard work and require long hours with little pay. Campaign leadership kept staff motivated by focusing our purpose on something bigger than ourselves, never forgetting that our work was about making a difference in people’s lives,” Isaacsohn said. “It kept us motivated to work as hard as we could.”

The culture among staff is best when work is less of a race against the clock and more about the opportunity to make a difference in the moment. Cause is what makes the pressure, risk, and stress of campaigning worth it.

“Managers and department directors have to account for the fact that staff motivation comes from believing in the mission of the work, weather it be the candidate or cause, and finding personal gratification in the success of one’s work,” Starrett said.

We’ll have to see which candidate’s cause can overcome the stresses of a campaign and propel its team through the general election and ultimately into the White House.

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