You’re Not Done Yet: Don’t Forget a Political Campaign Debrief

Whether you were victorious or came up a little short on election night, the work doesn’t stop after Election Day. Now it’s time to hold a political campaign debrief. Here, campaign teams discuss what went right and what went wrong.

After a long-fought campaign, many of us in the political world go through an “Election Agony” period. Not seeing our favorite volunteers, chugging coffee, and making hundreds of daily calls leaves us time to reflect. Now it’s time to take that period of reflection and use it to build long-term Democratic power! A good leader continues leading in this period by bringing their team together to keep the good work going. It’s also a great time to take your team out for dinner (not just bringing in pizza!) to thank them for their hard work. 

Areas of Growth from a Political Campaign Debrief

The lessons learned may help you during re-election, another try at the seat, or for another candidate down the line. Examples of key lessons from a debrief might sound like this…

  • When we talked to people at the doors, we did a great job persuading them to vote. But we had three times the contact rate on weekends compared to weekdays. Next time, we should consider focusing our big canvassing pushes on Saturdays and Sundays.
  • House parties work well for new people who need to get to know the candidate. We recruited 80 percent of our leadership team and over half of our super-volunteers at these events. 
  • We missed out on key fundraising opportunities and expanding our social media reach because it took too long to get copy drafted and approved. Let’s review that process and consider pre-drafting more content and streamlining the process, at least for reactive, time-sensitive communications.

If you won, this is a critical time to take stock of what you should replicate in your re-election campaign in two, four, or six years. You also want to find out what you should not do again. Once is enough for lessons learned the hard way.

Regardless of the election’s outcome, future candidates need your experience to help them win! Debriefing gives the rest of your local Democratic party access to knowledge, both strategy and experience. It’s the direction you wish you’d had when you started your campaign. This campaign debrief may be invaluable to future campaigns in your district or state. Let them build off of the foundation you’ve laid!

Now that you’re committed to debriefing with your team, what does that look like?

Schedule the Meeting

By a political campaign debrief, we’re not suggesting a massive, multi-million-dollar analysis like those conducted after the 2016 presidential campaign. A political campaign debrief is the final meeting with your leadership team. Instead of planning ahead, look back at your experience.  

Timing is essential! Make sure to give your team time to rest, while also ensuring that the memories remain fresh in their minds. We recommend about one to two weeks after the election. 

Regular strategy meetings with your team probably won’t be long enough. You also don’t want to make folks spend all day in a team-wide meeting. You know your team the best, but a good recommendation is anywhere from two to three hours with a scheduled break in between. Length also depends on the seat, size of the campaign, and intensity of the race! A school board seat debrief would probably be shorter than a state Senate debrief. 

Prep for the Conversation

Don’t just have everyone show up and start the debrief from scratch. Share the questions you’ll ask in advance. This way, the team can consider them thoughtfully. 

Ask team members to come prepared with data related to their area of the campaign.

Facilitated Discussion

Name a facilitator other than yourself. You want this person to keep the conversation on track and constructive. The facilitator might not be able to fully participate (which is why it shouldn’t be you!), but they are an equally necessary component. This person is in charge of holding space for all team members. They also might need to dissolve tense exchanges and sensitive subjects. This person can’t be afraid to step in and mediate.  

We recommend a meeting style called “pluses and deltas” (or “yeas and nays”). For each question the facilitator proposes, each person gives one thing (“plus” or “yea”) that worked well and one other thing (“delta” or “nay”) that needs improvement. After everyone speaks, the facilitator returns to certain individuals to dive deeper, asking more probing questions to get specific responses and a clearer picture of the situation. 

To help team members stay on track, bring in a large poster board, whiteboard, or Jamboard (a digital whiteboard from Google). This discourages one person on the team from dominating the conversation because it makes clear who is contributing more than others.  

You can also use the board and sticky notes to allow quieter team members to have their voices heard. When the facilitator poses a question, participants write their answers on a sticky note and then place them on the boards. It is up to the facilitator to read them all and ask questions if something is unclear. 

The facilitator’s ultimate job is ensuring the debrief is conducive to learning the positives and negatives of the campaign. This is not the time to blame others. This is a time to come together around shared successes and shared pitfalls. The conversations might be hard, so pick a facilitator wisely. Ultimately, you want everyone to leave the conversation on a constructive note and with a solid set of points for the next campaign. 

Set Your Norms

We recommend this guide for holding effective meetings as a good starting point. Setting norms up front is particularly important in a debriefing where openness and honesty are essential and blame and negativity can be detrimental to the process.

A few norms we recommend for this setting are:

  • Be solutions oriented. In the deltas (“nay”), you should aim to identify root causes and changes you would make in the future. Focus on what happened and the process by which it happened, not casting blame on one person or department. While this should draw from your own election experiences, if there isn’t a real lesson to be learned, it doesn’t need to be examined in the debriefing. 
  • Take space, give grace. This is a favorite around here at the NDTC. Participants should be aware of how much space they’re taking up in a conversation. If you’re someone who tends to jump in and talk a lot, be mindful of that and step back a bit. This gives room (or grace) for others to participate in the conversation. And if you’re someone who tends to be more reserved and speak less, try to lean into this conversation and challenge yourself to be more vocal. Your input is important and valued.
  • Be open & honest. This conversation only ends with constructive takeaways if everyone brings an open and honest attitude. If folks try to hide challenges and mistakes or become defensive, you can’t learn from those experiences.

Produce a Key Takeaways Document

Ask someone to volunteer to take notes during your political campaign debrief. This could be the facilitator in smaller conversations or a separate person in larger meetings. The goal is to create a document that someone who is not on your team could read and apply the lessons learned to new situations. 

At the end of the process, you want a document that includes all the best practices and key takeaways discussed during your debrief. This document is a great starting point for your next campaign or someone else’s. 

Remember, even after the election—you’re not done yet! I hope the Political Campaign Debrief Guide and Campaign Debrief Toolkit will help. 

Let’s Debrief


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