Learning and growing across campaign roles
Alaina Haworth shares what she’s learned running teams and budgets of all sizes
Welcome to Campaigner, a weekly newsletter exploring the tactics that drive winning political campaigns and highlighting the players pushing the buttons. Produced by Arena & FWIW Media.
What’s it like transitioning from being a digital staffer and team leader to a campaign manager? How are the roles and pressures different between larger and smaller campaigns? In this week’s Q&A, we asked Alaina Haworth for her thoughts on those questions and more. Haworth is currently Campaign Manager for Bruce Spiva’s DC Attorney General campaign, and last year served as Digital Director for former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.
Q&A with Alaina Haworth on how campaigners can grow across campaign roles
Campaigner: How’d you get your start in politics?
Alaina Haworth: My mom was very politically active. Growing up, we lived in two true swing states: first in Michigan and then in Colorado. My mom was a pretty classic “Super Vol.” We were doing supporter housing for Obama organizers during both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. I remember we’d have organizers sleeping in our basement and phone banks in the kitchen, and I always thought it was the coolest thing.
I went to college in New York, and I was there in 2016 and was pretty desperate to help Hillary Clinton and work in her Brooklyn HQ. I landed an internship on HFA (Hillary for America) in the winter of 2015 and I was just completely hooked. I basically annoyed people into giving me more work to do. As an intern and a college student, I was just always trying to be helpful and learn from all the cool people I had the chance to work with. I ended up working as the assistant for Michelle Kleppe, who was the National Organizing Director, and Michael Halle. I caught the bug from there, graduated college, and then I went to work in Arizona in 2018.
Campaigner: You’ve worked on a bunch of different parts of campaigns large and small. In 2021, you led former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s digital team, and now you’re Campaign Manager on a statewide race in DC. What’s your experience been like moving into campaign management, and what’s something about the shift that you didn’t expect?
Alaina Haworth: I think it's actually a quite natural transition from leading a digital team to managing a campaign. I wish that especially more young people in politics and in campaigns understood that as a pathway for them - I think a lot of people kind of fit themselves into a niche depending on what department it is that they started in.
If you think about it, digital is one of the departments that encapsulates the majority of a campaign in a way that I don't think a lot of other departments do. So, it felt like a very natural transition going from Terry’s campaign, where we had a 10 person in-house digital team that was doing everything from content and comms to paid media and fundraising. Those are some of the fundamental pieces of a campaign’s work at-large, not just that of a digital department.
For me, I did the 2020 cycle at the DCCC, working on the “campaign services” side. That experience really showed me that I wanted the job of a Campaign Manager. I thought it was so cool, and I think it plays to my skills of being very organized and seeing order in chaos. So after 2020, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
I had been talking to (former HFA colleague and Terry McAuliffe Senior Advisor) Michael Halle about wanting to move into campaign management, because I saw him as an experienced campaign manager and amazing leader. He basically said “I hear you, you'd be great, but how about doing the McAuliffe campaign and being his digital director instead? You'll learn all these things that you want to learn as a manager on a bigger budget.” He was right - with Terry’s campaign we had a departmental budget of $16 million, which was way more than I would have had if I went to manage most local or congressional races. I learned so much on that campaign about paid media, fundraising, management – all things I’m using now as a Campaign Manager.
The other thing I would say is that, in campaigns generally, if you are grinding and you are doing all the things that you need to do for your job as it's written, the sky's really the limit on the other stuff you can learn and do too. Campaigns have such a startup mentality. You can walk into someone's office and ask them things about their role and learn so much. That’s something that I've always really enjoyed about campaigns and really taken advantage of. Campaigns give you the opportunity to be in the room with a bunch of experts. I did that on Terry’s campaign, on the Kamala Harris presidential campaign, at the DCCC – really any race I’ve been on has been a huge learning experience because of the people I’m surrounded by.
Campaigner: What else have you learned as a campaign manager?
Alaina Haworth: Like with many things, your mentality is really important to the job you're doing. The mentality I brought to being a digital director is fairly identical to the mentality I bring as a campaign manager. Number one, it’s about understanding that you don't know everything, and to just be humble enough to ask a question – preferably before you mess something up. Two, is to be a good people manager and create a culture that people are really excited and happy to be a part of. Campaigns are so hard and they attract some top talent. Your colleagues could probably be somewhere else doing something else and have free weekends and get paid more. That means a big part of the job of any manager or department director is creating a culture that people really want to be a part of.
I’ve also learned that all these campaigns and jobs are so different and change a lot cycle to cycle. A couple of election cycles ago, we had “new media directors” (laughs). Assuming that you should just do what the people or campaigns before you did is a slippery slope, and working in digital gives you a crash course in that, because technology is always changing. Being a digital director first taught me that, as a campaign manager, you don't have to follow a specific playbook. You should adapt because it's never exactly the same job or environment cycle to cycle.
Campaigner: We spoke with a first-time campaign manager a few weeks ago, and asked her the same question: Has it been scary having the greater responsibility of leading the campaign and really impacting whether a candidate wins or loses?
Alaina Haworth: Totally. I think it’s a scary job generally, and anyone who says it’s not has probably done it a couple times before or isn’t being honest. (laughs). What I would say is that you have to just balance the fear and the nerves of being in charge with the knowledge that you're not alone. It’s such a choice to make yourself handle things alone or feel like you’re on an island and that's a choice I never really want to make. Yes, there's a lot of responsibility and ownership over decisions, but the idea that a campaign manager is the final arbiter on every decision is wrong - that’s not the way that I've seen campaigns run very successfully or how I would run the campaigns that I'm doing.
So while it is scary, I think it's really comforting to know that there's such a big network of people - consultants, mentors, acquaintances, random people you can DM on Twitter - who can help. The support that you can get from the entire Democratic political campaign community is such an incredible resource that to leave it untapped would be a tactical error on your part for your campaign, but also for you emotionally, when you need that support in a high stress role.
Campaigner: You’ve most notably worked on some big races, but what should smaller campaigns prioritize, particularly with an eye on digital outreach? What are the fundamentals that folks shouldn't neglect?
Alaina Haworth: I once got a piece of advice, and it stuck with me, that good campaign strategy is asking yourself over and over again: (1) what are you saying, and (2) who are you saying it to?
That's all you need to do, and if you can't answer that question super clearly, you need to clarify the campaign’s strategy, no matter the size of the race you’re working on. It can be multiple answers - you're saying different things to different groups. But as a campaign manager, and as a strategist, generally, you should be able to answer these questions: what are we saying and who are we saying it to?
For example, on Terry’s campaign, maybe that took the form of an X million-dollar ad buy with X message to specific swing voters. For the campaign that I'm managing now, I have a candidate who's incredibly qualified for the office he's running for, and he's a first-time candidate. On this campaign, we’re making sure we have a really strong ground game that can go door to door and talk to people who vote in Democratic primaries in DC.
Particularly in the small local races where your resources are so valuable because there are so few of them, you always want to consider your audience and message in order to spend most efficiently. That should always kind of be a north star for you.
Campaigner: Along those same lines of fundamentals: a lot of down-ballot campaigns don’t really know where to start in terms of staffing and structure - can you talk about that a little bit?
Alaina Haworth: I think among many candidates, there’s this temptation to run a ready-made campaign “in a box” - pulling out a digital department and a field department and a campaign manager and a finance director. On small campaigns, a lot of decisions are structural decisions and staffing decisions about where you initially put your budget. Where you put your energy into hiring, that's where your priorities are as a campaign. You don't want to just check a box because every other campaign has X person. For example: If you think about campaigns that are in really densely packed cities, where voters are in apartment buildings that volunteers can’t access, maybe you focus more on digital organizing tools instead of traditional field offices.
It’s important to structure your campaign in a way that reflects the highest chance for you to have the most impact with each staff member - not just because other campaigns do it one way.
Campaigner: Any closing advice for our readers?
Alaina Haworth: If you want your career to be a marathon, don't act like it's a sprint. Make sure that you take the time and mental space to really feel like you can bring your whole self to whatever your next project is and whatever your next thing is.
Sometimes the mental image of recharging after an election is sitting on a beach with a good book until you're ready to go again. I don't think that's very realistic for a lot of people, especially people who are on campaigns and gig work. I think it also means doing things that remind you of why you like the work and why you do the work.
Set some boundaries for yourself, take care of yourself, go on a walk in the morning. There are so many talented and amazing people that I've met through campaigns, hands down all my favorite people - my girlfriend, all my best friends - but I also have seen a lot of people leave the campaign space because it feels so unsustainable.
So my advice is this: you'll get where you want to go, but bring your whole self with you when you're on your way there. If that means slowing down to take care of yourself a little bit, you should.
Programming note: We’ll be taking next week off to plan for future issues and interview more campaigners. Interested in speaking with us? Know someone that we should speak with? Just reply to this email!