After the 2016 election, millions of Americans felt the need to “do something.” So did I—and I’m not one for half measures. I’m a fan of the saying “Go big or go home.” In the spring of 2017, I did both.
I took a leave of absence from my job as an assistant professor of political science at MIT to run for Congress in my home district in California. We packed up our minivan, pulled our kids out of preschool, and moved across the country—and into a whirlwind of campaigning. Almost overnight, I had gone from researching politics to doing politics.
California’s Fourth District is just a few hours away from the coast, but it’s a world apart. Running through the suburbs, foothills, and mountains east of Sacramento, it is a place where pickup trucks far outnumber hybrid cars. Life revolves around church and family, and social conservatism runs deep.
So when I decided to run against Representative Tom McClintock, most people thought I was crazy. And in many ways, upending my entire life to challenge a five-term incumbent in a Republican stronghold was crazy. But it was also necessary: our democratic institutions were under assault, and our basic rights were in jeopardy.
My first campaign handout was four pages long and included footnotes. (What can I say? I’m an academic.) But I quickly learned to distill my platform to a few key points: Save and improve Obamacare. Implement a carbon fee and dividend to fight climate change. Stand up for equality, civil rights, and decency.
Soon I had an almost overwhelming number of volunteers, and we were booking house parties nearly every night. At each party, I gave my pitch, and we grew our grassroots campaign. #TeamBateson eventually swelled to nearly 900 volunteers, and we raised about $800,000.
Here’s what I learned on the trail.
1. Being a political scientist is very different from being a politician.
Because I have a PhD in political science, you might think I had special inside knowledge about how to run for office. Nope. Most of my research has examined violence in Latin America—not campaigns in the US.
At MIT, I’ve primarily taught graduate classes on research design and methods. So when it came time to do a poll, I had a litany of well-informed questions for our pollsters. (And yes, it was surreal to get back a data set about myself.) But beyond that, my background was rarely directly useful—and it was sometimes a liability. Unlike the lawyers, political staffers, and career politicians who more commonly run for office, I did not have existing relationships with large donors and power brokers. And even within the Democratic Party, critics charged that as an academic I belonged to an out-of-touch elite.
2. Online fund-raising gives political outsiders a fighting chance.
To launch a viable campaign, congressional candidates must prove that they can raise thousands of dollars in just a few weeks. Historically, that’s been difficult for normal people to do, but now technology is leveling the playing field.
My campaign never would have happened without Crowdpac, a crowdfunding website for politics. Crowdpac lets prospective candidates gauge support by collecting pledges that convert into actual contributions only after the candidate has filed with the relevant electoral authorities.
When I was considering whether to run, I made a Crowdpac page. To my surprise, while the page was still in private, draft mode, one of my former high school teachers shared the URL on social media. It immediately went viral. Within a few weeks, I’d raised $20,000, and I decided to file with the Federal Election Commission. Somewhat unintentionally, my campaign was off to a roaring start.
3. Hiring staff is way more challenging than you’d think.
Despite having the money to pay them, I found it nearly impossible to recruit experienced staffers. The hopes for a “blue wave” meant that Democratic campaign operatives were in high demand—and most preferred to work in battleground districts.
Our consultants often told me, “You are the product, not the salesperson. You have to let others handle the logistics.” In principle I agreed, but I didn’t have enough staff to follow their advice. For most of the campaign, I had only one staffer, who simultaneously served as campaign manager, finance director, and field director.
I worked constantly, scrambling to pick up the slack. So did our volunteers. They designed our handouts, built our databases, ran social media, prepared lists for fund-raising calls, managed the entire house party operation, pitched stories to journalists, and planned fund-raisers that drew hundreds of people and raised tens of thousands of dollars. As our neighbors slept, my volunteers and I would often be huddled together, counting contributions. Well after midnight, we would meet up on dark rural roads or in strip-mall parking lots to pass bundles of checks and cash from car to car. It was straight out of Breaking Bad.
4. Local support is not enough. To win a congressional race, candidates also need national backing.
Starting in spring 2017, local Democratic and progressive organizations hosted more than a dozen candidate forums in our district. Hundreds came out to see their Democratic candidates answer questions; thousands more routinely watched online. Most of these events included straw polls of the audience, which I consistently won—sometimes by a margin of 2:1 over the next candidate.
Yet I quickly learned that this local support was not going to “filter up” to help me secure backing at the national level. In the summer of 2017, a national organization called The Arena decided to sponsor the campaign of Jessica Morse, another Democrat running in my primary (I had also sought the support of The Arena).
That fall, major Bay Area fund-raisers jumped on board with Morse, and members of Congress started endorsing her. These party elites had never talked to me. They wouldn’t return my calls. They knew nothing about what was happening on the ground in our race. But the dominoes continued to fall: plink, plink, plink, one big endorsement after another, all for Morse. Eventually, the California Democratic Party endorsed Morse, and through their PACs, the House Democratic leadership explicitly backed her as well.
Shortly before our primary, I was endorsed by our region’s leading newspaper, the Sacramento Bee. But that didn’t disrupt the steady flow of party resources toward Morse. Politics is about power, and at every turn, Morse had more money, more connections, and more support from large organizations.
5. The costs of running for office are high.
In many ways my campaign was a positive, empowering experience. I loved our plucky band of volunteers. I loved being out in the community, visiting factories and citrus groves, food pantries and homeless shelters. I loved seeing my kids learn about politics as they cheerfully handed out buttons.
But that all came at a price. I was on unpaid leave from my job, yet we still had to pay for child care. As a result, we racked up thousands of dollars of credit card debt. I did not exercise for a year. I barely slept or saw my kids. I gained 15 pounds and countless gray hairs. And I did serious damage to my career. (My tenure clock did not stop while I was campaigning. I was unable to prepare and submit an interim promotion file by the required date in April 2018, so this will be my last year on the faculty at MIT.) It’s no wonder that “normal people” rarely seek public office.
6. Democrats and Republicans alike are willing to dismiss inconvenient reporting as “fake news.”
Just a few weeks before the primary, a controversial activist in our region got inspired by the Russians. Masking his identity, he launched a highly effective Facebook campaign criticizing me and promoting Morse. When the New York Times and NPR reported on his use of social media to spread disinformation, several local Democrats called the stories “fake news.” It was mind-boggling to see liberal activists embracing the rhetoric and tactics of Trump and his allies.
Months earlier, the Sacramento Bee had run a front-page story critical of Morse. Most of our local Democratic delegates responded by redoubling their support for her. They told me that they saw Morse as the victim of unfair scrutiny by the biased news media. Some came to believe that the reporter who wrote the offending article was my college roommate (fact check: I’ve never even met the reporter, much less lived with her).
7. Losing an election is not that bad.
In California’s “top two” primary system, candidates of all party affiliations appear on the same ballot, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. Six candidates ran in the June primary. I finished third, behind McClintock and Morse. In November, McClintock won reelection with 55% of the vote.
People sometimes wonder what it’s like to lose an election. For me, I had already been through so much drama and turmoil that it wasn’t much worse than any other day of the campaign. To be sure, I have regrets. I wish I had been able to hire and retain more staff. I wish the facts had mattered more, and social-media spin less. I spent about two weeks very actively struggling not to cry. And then it was fine.
On a blustery evening at the end of June, I attended a formal unity event with Morse. Of course I endorsed her, and I encouraged my supporters to work to elect her. But I’ll admit it was awkward. I was glad when I could retreat to my car and drive away—past my old preschool, past the parks where I played as a kid, past the rail yard at the center of town. As the sun set over the freight trains, I heard Michael Jackson on the radio, singing, “No one wants to be defeated.” I thought, Yeah, that’s right. Time to beat it. I did my part, and my work here is done.
Editor’s note: MIT does not endorse political candidates. The views expressed here are those of the author.
Assistant professor of political science Regina Bateson is spending her last year at MIT writing a book about her campaign with the help of 20 UROP students. She and her students are hosting a conference for Democratic congressional candidates, journalists, and academics at MIT on January 12. She plans to hold a similar conference for Republican candidates later in 2019.