‘The only way you’re going to get involved is by being involved’

‘The only way you’re going to get involved is by being involved’

One piece of advice given to young people who want to get involved in politics is to volunteer for political campaigns. There is a constant demand for extra help from campaigns, and this is how many people get their foot in the door in politics. On the Overton Window podcast, Luke Derheim, perennial volunteer turned campaign manager and legislative aide for state representative Bill G. Schuette (R-Midland), talks with us about the changing nature of legislative staff work.

In campaign outreach, there are a few things campaigners look for. “The most important factors are how often that person votes and whether we can tell if they have a party preference,” Derheim says. When campaigning in a Republican primary election, the people who have a long history of voting in Republican primaries get the most attention.

“If you’re a hardliner on the other party, we don’t want to waste our time talking to you because it doesn’t look like you can be convinced,” Derheim says.

Campaign tactics change depending on whether the district has a strong partisan lean or whether it is competitive. “I, as a Republican, am going to be very focused on making sure my Republican voters come out to vote,” Derheim says. “But I will have to reach over into independents and soft Democrats, just to make up for any Republicans who don’t come vote.”

Trying to make a candidate appeal to independents and people on the other side requires judgment. “We have to figure out what they care about,” Derheim says.

There are tools to help decipher voter preferences. Polling can answer questions about what people in the district want from their policymakers. It can help a candidate figure out what swing voters want to hear and what they don’t. “There are a lot of issues where 90% of people are on the same side. They just don’t care enough about it to think about it when they vote,” Derheim says.

Polling is expensive, and not every candidate does it. “That’s a different process if you’re running by the seat of your pants in both time and money, it’s literally just vibes,” Derheim says.

Often what matters most is direct contact by campaigns with voters; in other words, winning an election requires people to knock on voters’ doors. “Unfortunately, it is the most effective campaign outreach there is,” Derheim says. “I would love if it didn’t work and I could stop knocking on people’s doors all day every summer of an election year, but it is by far the most effective outreach.”

Because it is effective, candidates always need people to knock on doors for them. If you want to get into politics, you need to figure out which candidate to volunteer for.

Derheim says people have many different reasons for volunteering. Some people, like him, want to get a career in politics.

“Building a relationship with somebody who is going to help you is the most important way to get your foot in the door,” Derheim says. “So pick somebody to build a relationship with and volunteer for them.”

Others have personal motives. “I am friends with this guy and he’s got a hard election, so I’m going to help him out. That happens a lot, too,” Derheim says.

Landing a job in a political office is subject to political fortunes. “It depends on how well they did in the last election,” Derheim says. “If your side loses seats, there are fewer jobs. New people who want in are going to have a very hard time.”

Conversely, swings for your side bring opportunities for young people who want to get a job in politics.

Riding out the waves in popular voting behaviors is a challenge, and having a network of people has helped him. Derheim credits one person in particular, longtime legislative staffer Bob Anderson, who is now on the staff of Bay City state Rep. Timmy Beson. “Bob has worked in Lansing for a long time now and he always puts in the work to help college Republicans from Saginaw Valley find a job,” Derheim says. “There’s got to be at least twenty of us wandering around the state that Bob helped find jobs for.”

Once you’ve got a job, you’ll need different skills to do the job well. While everyone in a lawmaker’s office mixes roles, there are generally constituent services and legislative services; or front office and back office jobs. Derheim has worked in both.

Staffers help elected officials take the pulse of their districts. They also help lawmakers figure out how their constituents might respond to their stances on legislation. “None of us have the budget to be running polls in nonelection years. Whatever you said you were going to do in your election campaign is the safest thing to pass,” Derheim says.

“Politicians are people, too, and they operate under incentives just like the rest of us,” Derheim says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard somebody criticize someone by saying, ‘They’re only doing that to get reelected.’ Well, we don’t look at anybody else and say ‘You’re only doing your job like that because you want to keep your job.’”

Which is to say that politicians care about what is popular, or at least their sense of it. When it comes to changing their stance on an issue, Derheim gives an example of Detroit sports stadiums, which lawmakers routinely support and economists often criticize. “Until the voters of Detroit decide that subsidizing a stadium is going to make you less likely to vote for this guy for reelection, instead of more likely, it’s not going to do anything,” Derheim says.

Check out the conversation at the Overton Window podcast.

Editor’s note: This article originally was published by The Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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