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Workshop Teaches Policy Fellows About Political Campaigns

About 40 current and former AAAS science and technology policy fellows, including congressional fellows sponsored by APS, got some practical advice on how to run a campaign for public office at a workshop in July in Washington, DC. 

Fellows are typically PhD-level scientists who spend a year involved with science policy by working either on Capitol Hill or in the Executive Branch. The workshop was designed to give participants an introduction to political campaigns. Some of the participants had worked on a campaign, but few had run for office themselves.

The workshop was organized by Scientists and Engineers for America, a recently formed organization that aims to help scientists and engineers run for public offices. “Policy makers don’t know science. Scientists and Engineers for America was formed to address this at the root–namely the election,” said SEA director Mike Brown at the workshop.

Speakers at the workshop included professional campaign managers, pollsters, and former AAAS policy fellows who have run for office. They discussed the basics of running a campaign in races ranging in size from local offices to President of the United States.

Dean Levitan, a campaign manager with MSHC Partners, said that having a written campaign plan and a realistic budget is essential. “A campaign is like a business,” he said. 

Workshop participants were somewhat surprised to learn that a candidate must spend a lot of time making phone calls to raise money, often as much as 40 hours a week. Levitan also suggested spending 75% of campaign funds on paid media and direct voter contact, keeping in mind how many votes each expenditure can be expected to bring in. For instance, trinkets and yard signs bring visibility to a campaign, but don’t bring in many votes.

Small campaigns, such for school board seats or other local offices, may cost only about $1000, and may require only one campaign staff person, namely the candidate himself or herself.

Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, talked about the advantages and challenges of running for office in the internet age. “We’re now moving to an era where you have to be who you are,” he said. Trippi believes voters would welcome someone from a different perspective, such as a scientist. “More and more the problems we have are not likely to be solved by the standard group of politicians,” he said. If a candidate has clear positions on issues, the internet can be very useful in bring in campaign contributions.

The group also heard form pollster Anna Greenberg on crafting a message. “Your message has to be simple,” she said. You can’t assume people know anything, and you have to repeat your message many times before people hear it, she advised.

Scientific credentials can put distance between the scientist-candidate and the voters, she said, but communicating directly with voters and connecting the message to their lives can help overcome that distance. “It’s very important to be respectful of other people’s worldviews,” she added.

Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), a former APS congressional fellow and one of the two physicists in Congress, also offered some advice on being a scientist running for office. At first, in his campaign, he had tried not to over-emphasize his science background, but he soon found that he could make it work to his advantage. “I’ve managed to talk about science in a way that didn’t paint me as an egghead,” he said. Holt said he believes he won his seat by raising a lot of money early in the campaign, by working hard, and by a particularly effective television ad.

He said that scientific aspects of some issues are ignored because Members of Congress are afraid of science. “They are reflecting their constituents. That is the public attitude,” he said.
A discussion by former AAAS science and technology policy fellows who had run for office also yielded some pieces of advice. For instance, Doug Meckes, a veterinarian who ran for and served on the Board of Commissioners in Apex, North Carolina, said it’s helpful to be active in the community. “I had great name recognition. I’d been taking care of everybody’s animals,” he said. David Westerling, a civil engineer who was elected Town Moderator in Harvard, Massachusetts, added, “You’ve got to get involved with the local party. You’re not going to win without their support.”

After the workshop, SEA director Mike Brown called the event a “great success,” and said that feedback had been “overwhelmingly supportive.” Participants asked many good questions during the workshop, and several have followed up with SEA since the workshop to learn more about potentially running for office.  Brown says SEA hopes to hold similar events in the future.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff