A message for heartbroken campaign staffers and volunteers

The time and effort you put into boosting your candidate was not wasted.

As I walked to the Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice Dinner on November 1, my heart went out to the staffer removing Beto O’Rourke signs along the sidewalk. O’Rourke had just ended his presidential bid, acknowledging “this campaign does not have the means to move forward successfully.” Some of his supporters had traveled great distances to hear him speak, and he spent about an hour thanking and comforting them at what was supposed to be an upbeat, pre-event rally.

I’ve never done paid work for a presidential campaign, but I’ve spent a lot of time with people who devoted months or years to someone who never made it to the White House. To those in that boat now: please know there is no shame in working for an unsuccessful candidate. Given the most crowded presidential field of our lifetimes, no one will ever blame the staff for this or that person’s failure to break through.

Consider the talent and collective accomplishments of the Democrats who are already out of the race: O’Rourke, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Governors Jay Inslee and John Hickenlooper, U.S. Representatives Tim Ryan, Seth Moulton, and Eric Swalwell, and Mayor Bill DeBlasio. Every one of them brought good ideas to the table.

Working on a presidential campaign can be a painful road, often involving a lot of personal sacrifices. Of course it’s most rewarding when that hard work leads to victory. But whatever the outcome, staffers gain many skills that can translate to future jobs: learning how to plan and stage events, recruit and manage volunteers, effectively use spreadsheets and databases, put together canvassing lists, and talk to voters at the door, to name just a few examples.

As a volunteer, I’ve mostly supported Democrats who didn’t win their primaries, so I empathize with all who did unpaid labor spreading the word about candidates who have departed. To those who have known that devastation this year, please know that you too have gained something valuable.

Maybe you met like-minded Democrats in your neighborhood as a precinct captain, or formed new friendships online through shared passion for a candidate. I’m grateful for some people I first connected with supporting John Kerry before the 2004 caucuses or John Edwards in 2008 (I know, don’t get me started).

If you improved your phone banking, postcard-writing, or door-knocking skills for a presidential candidate, all of that knowledge could help other good Democrats in your area. Maybe someone running for your school board or city council could use your help this Tuesday. There’s a good chance you live within striking distance of a competitive 2020 Iowa legislative race too.

Following the implosion of Nate Boulton’s gubernatorial campaign last year, Julie Stauch wrote about how she almost disengaged from politics after Gary Hart’s presidential aspirations vaporized in 1987.

Some wise and more experienced activist (was it Constance Samsel?) convinced me to stay involved and get on with another candidate sooner rather than later. I did and I’m so very glad I did.

So many terrific opportunities have come my way from these strong roots in activism.

Stauch went on to senior roles on a number of campaigns (an incomplete list is here) and now serves as Iowa political director for Pete Buttigieg.

“Honor your feelings – you are hurt by this. But also recognize the need for YOU to stay engaged,” she wrote then. I couldn’t agree more. Give yourself some recovery time, then find another worthy candidate and get back out there.

Top photograph by Emilene Leone of Beto O’Rourke in Iowa City on April 7, 2019, published with permission.

Maintenance Notice - As of November 14, 2023 we are still seeing issues with replying to comments...Thanks for your patience, this will be restored.