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Behind the Scenes of a US Presidential Campaign
Interview conducted in May 2020 - Mike Schmuhl graduated from Sciences Po's School of International Affairs in 2015. A few years later, he became the lead campaign manager of Pete for America, Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. Read the interview below on his impressive career path so far.
You obtained your Master’s degree at Sciences Po’s School of International Affairs; can you tell us about your experience and your main takeaways from your time at PSIA?
I did my Master’s in International Public Management with a focus on Asia and emerging economies. Sciences Po was a great fit for me. I had previously worked in journalism and politics in the United States for a few years, and I was really excited to go back to school and get an advanced degree overseas. Being surrounded by people from all corners of the globe was an enriching and unique experience - and very different from graduate schools in the US, where the student body is less global.
What did you do after graduating; what led you to where you are today?
After Sciences Po I was offered a position at the consulting firm 270 Strategies in Chicago, founded by former leaders of the Obama campaigns. (“270” refers to the number of Electoral College votes it takes to become president). I joined their firm in Chicago which is not too far from my hometown of South Bend, Indiana. There I was able to work for campaigns, but not necessarily political or electoral campaigns; I mainly worked for labour unions or voting rights organisations, which gave me broader experience in large scale campaigns. After a couple of years, I moved to New York and did a bit of consulting on my own before moving back to Indiana to work with Pete Buttigieg on his presidential campaign.
You became the lead campaign manager for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign; what was the most challenging part of this job? What is the most important lesson learned from this experience?
I think the biggest challenge was the scale, the speed, and the complexity of it all. The United States is unique in the sense that our elections, caucuses, and campaigns are really long compared to systems in other countries. In France, for example, a person announces his or her candidacy and the election is just a few months later. In the United States, the campaign process is not just a sprint towards an election - it’s more like a marathon with many milestones along the way.
At the beginning, we had to hire a team of over 550 people very rapidly. We were pretty much starting from scratch, seeing that when it all started, Pete Buttigieg was the mayor of a relatively small city (South Bend is the 4th largest city in Indiana, with a population of approximately 100,000) and he was not as well-known as other candidates who had already run in bigger races.
The most frustrating aspect, and kind of my golden rule of politics, is that there is so much outside of your control, and you can run a great campaign and have a really clear message, but at the end of the day there are things that you can’t really foresee. For instance, the results of the Iowa Caucuses in February 2020 were questioned immediately. We won, but a problem in the reporting mechanisms delayed and mixed up the results.
Would you say there is any specific 'training' that a person should have in order to do well at this job?
I don’t think there is any formal training for jobs in politics, but I do think it is important to have a few things: curiosity, a lot of energy, and the ability to dive deeply into something. Some of the team members we hired for the Pete for America campaign had already worked on one or multiple electoral campaigns, others had never worked in politics before. But that blend of newcomers and more experienced people is to me what makes working on campaigns really special. Also the balance of tradition and innovation.
What do you feel are the crucial elements of running a successful political campaign? Is there anything “behind the scenes” that the public doesn’t see that is worth exposing, to give citizens more transparency or clues as to how these campaigns are conducted?
I think one thing to keep in mind is the physicality of the campaign. As a campaign manager, it can be extremely challenging just to move around the candidate. We are constantly travelling and moving from one city to the next. That, in and of itself, can be gruelling. There are times when the only chance to talk with the candidate is over a sandwich in the back of an SUV -- it’s not glamorous. Then, the most important thing is the message: the purpose of the candidacy. It is absolutely crucial to have a clear message. If it’s muddled or confusing or changing, people aren’t going to know what your candidate stands for. A clear message drives your candidate’s speeches, debate preparations, interviews, research, and the hearty exchange with voters. The message feeds all of this work and how the candidate is presented.
How do you see US politics and elections evolving in the coming years? How do you compare the situation in the United States vs. France for example?
I think that eventually, we will see some reform in our electoral processes; there is a growing number of people who are advocating for changes to our nominating process, our caucus system, and expanding the number of members of our Supreme Court. In the United States, we have this heavy reliance on the two-party system, whereas in France there are numerous parties, and we saw how in the last presidential elections Emmanuel Macron was able to start his own party from scratch and get elected - which is not really imaginable in the United States right now. Nonetheless, through various movement candidacies (like Trump and Sanders), traditional and digital media trends, and the level of engagement or disengagement with average Americans, the normal definitions of Democrat and Republican are a bit blurred.
Do you have any plans to continue working in politics at the national or international level?
I plan to do whatever I can to help Joe Biden become the next president. Throughout my professional life I have gotten deeply involved in politics, then taken a short break and then gotten back into it. I hope to jump back in and try to give it my best to see Joe Biden beat Donald Trump.
Mike Schmuhl is an occasional guest speaker in Lex Paulson’s course taught at PSIA Sciences Po.
Interview by the Sciences Po Editorial Team.