So You Want to Work on a Presidential Campaign. Here’s What It’s Like.

By Hannah Miao ’21, POLIS

What is it like to work on a presidential campaign? About 40 Duke students gathered Jan. 17 to hear stories from the campaigning front lines from experienced students and staff.

Dina Xie ’19, Zack Silverman Guffey ’20, and B.J. Rudell, associate director of POLIS (Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service), led a discussion sponsored by POLIS and Duke-Sanford Career Services (Embark).

Xie worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the summer of 2016 and continued her campaign work in the fall on campus with the North Carolina Coordinated Campaign. Silverman Guffey worked on Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential campaign this past summer in New York City. Rudell worked on Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign from 1999 to 2000 in New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

The speakers each had different paths to working on their respective campaigns. Silverman Guffey explained that Yang’s campaign manager, Zach Graumann ’10, remains active as a Duke alum and reached out to Duke for student interns. Xie applied to the Clinton campaign’s Volunteer Fellow position online and upon being accepted the next day, immediately flew to San Francisco. To continue working on the campaign in North Carolina, she reached out to her field officer, who connected her with contacts in the Triangle area.

“If Duke can provide the right complements to core training in research expertise, we can attract even stronger applicants for the Ph.D., while improving our capacity to undertake path-breaking research and offer superb undergraduate instruction.”
— Dina Xie

Day-to-day tasks on the campaign trail varied for the panelists. Silverman Guffey expressed that as a member of a smaller-sized team, he was able to play a bigger strategy role than peers working on larger campaigns. Rudell described his campaign work as a “six-month process of relationship building,” including making cold calls and knocking on doors.

Xie also shared the sentiment of being an ambassador for the candidate, saying “You have a sense of pride and representation, and that’s a lot of the drive that helps you get through your day-to-day tasks that may not be so exciting.”

While most internship positions on presidential campaigns are unpaid, panelists cited several ways to cut costs elsewhere. Xie stayed with family in San Francisco to reduce housing expenses. Rudell recommended campaign interns consider going to an early state, as they tend to be better organized and are more likely to find free housing for interns in a supporter’s home. Rudell also pointed out that any traveling for the campaign can be deducted off taxes.

Unpaid jobs also better position students to pay their dues and prove themselves to create opportunities to later move into a full-time, paid position with greater responsibilities.

The benefits include making important connections and networks that can serve students down the line. Rudell said that 16 years later, Bradley’s deputy campaign manager was one of a handful of acquaintances who helped him land his current job.

Xie cited another value. “The success you’ll see when you work on a campaign comes from your self-motivation to contribute as much as you can to the benefit of the team as a whole,” Xie said. “People really notice when you are that good, hard-working, selfless team member. If you put in your work and you do your job really well, it’s not for your benefit, but people notice that and remember.”

In choosing a candidate, Rudell advised students to avoid trying to predict the winner. “If you’re a senior looking to get paid, take whatever campaign job will pay you. If you’re doing it for the passion of a candidate, pick the candidate that you’re most proud of that you can put in a résumé and say ‘I worked for this person’ and be proud of it.”