I was first paid to work a campaign in 1992. After volunteering or consulting on hundreds of campaigns, I decided to return to graduate school in the fall of 2015. Setting aside the math, it would be fair to label me as a non-traditional student in the UF Political Campaigning Program.
As the old, battle-scarred operative in the class, I was asked countless times, “Why did you return to school”?
“I want to get better” was the standard reply — but there is more to it.
Political consultants participating in campaigns, for the most part, lack formal academic training. We are a motley crew comprised of professionals, hacks, and at times scoundrels — many of whom never consciously set out to be consultants at all. For the most part, the profession relies on apprenticeships and mentorships to pass down accumulated knowledge. I have been fortunate to have great mentors and to collaborate with competent practitioners; it is easy, however, to see that the pace of change is accelerating to the point of potentially rendering rules of thumb to be trite and banal.
Was I, like some generals and consultants, reverting to a tendency to fight the last war? In between cycles this kept me up at night.
As graduation day drew closer, I was asked countless times, “After working in the field, what did you get out of the program?”
The answer: A lot.
This program allowed me to verify or correct rules of thumb and largely self-taught statistical procedures that I had relied upon throughout my career.
In addition, I graduated with improved research and analytical skills that will provide invaluable assistance to answer new questions that arise in future cycles.
Most importantly, the principal benefit is the improving of my critical thinking skills. My professors shattered some of those old rules of thumbs — forcing me to dig deeper into the nuances, conditions, and possible alternative explanations of political phenomena.
Those professors were challenging, but fair, and the bottom line is that they and the program have made me a better consultant and thinker. I consider it an honor and privilege to have been taught by some of the finest minds in the country. Go Gators!
P.S. As an added bonus, the program gave me the opportunity to observe and study the millennial cohort up-close and personal. Boy, are they a “special” group.