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

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Whether you were victorious or came up a little short on election night, you still have work to do. It’s never easy, but it’s time to hold a political campaign debrief to talk about what went right — and what went wrong — that led to the outcome.

I know that after a long-fought campaign where I’ve survived on a few hours of sleep and LOTS of caffeine for weeks on end, I usually just want to sleep for a week straight. But a good leader continues to lead their team and keeps striving toward the long-term vision. In this case, that means gathering your team for a political campaign debrief–and then maybe taking them out to lunch or drinks afterward to say thank you for all their hard work.

Lessons to Learn for a Political Campaign Debrief

political campaign debriefThe lessons that come out can be invaluable for a reelection campaign, another try at the seat, or another aspiring candidate coming to you for advice. 

They can span the gamut, including:

  • When we talked to people at the doors, we did a great job of persuading them. 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.
  • We recruited 80 percent of the members of our leadership team and over half of our super-volunteers at house parties. They were a great venue for new people to get to know the candidate and become committed.
  • We missed out on some key opportunities for fundraising and to expand our social media reach because it took too long to get those communications drafted and approved. Next time, we should re-look at that process and consider pre-drafting more content and streamlining the process, at least for reactive, time-sensitive communications.

If you won, this is an important time to take stock of what you should replicate in your reelection campaign in two, four, or six years. You will also want to find what you should not do again; once is enough for lessons learned the hard way.

Whether you won or lost, I guarantee future candidates will come to you to ask  for help and advice that you wish you’d had when you started your campaign — and this campaign debrief may be invaluable to their campaign to let them build off of the foundation you’ve laid. (And who knows, it may end up that that candidate is you in a couple years.)

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

Schedule the Meeting

By a political campaign debriefing, we’re not suggesting an agonizing, multi-million-dollar analysis like those conducted after the 2016 presidential campaign. A debriefing might just be your last leadership team meeting, with a twist. Instead of planning ahead, you’ll be looking back and crystallizing the lessons to take away from the experience. political campaign debrief

Your normal half- or one-hour meeting probably isn’t enough though. Plan for how many people are in the room and how big of talkers they are. You know your people–be honest with yourself. You might want to plan for two-three hours.

Aim for one week or two weeks after the election. Allow folks to be well rested and have a bit of distance from the stress of the campaign. But, don’t wait too long such that people forget important experiences.

Prep for the Conversation

Don’t just have everyone show up and start the debriefing from scratch. Share the questions you’ll be asking in advance so people can consider them thoughtfully. Ask team members to come prepared with data related to their area of the campaign. 

A few of these might be:

  • Your final fundraising totals, broken down by month, and remaining cash on hand
  • Your final budget
  • Your voter contact stats, such as:
    • number of identified supporters;
    • number of attempts by contact method;
    • number of contacts by contact method;
    • number of voters contacted during GOTV.
  • Your volunteer metrics, such as:
    • number of volunteers recruited;
    • number of volunteer shifts completed.
  • Your digital successes/challenges, such as:
    • number of Facebook follows;
    • number of Twitter follows;
    • number of posts shared/retweeted.

Facilitated Discussion

Name a facilitator.

This person is responsible for keeping the political campaign debrief on track, maintaining a constructive conversation, and defusing any tense situations that may arise. They will generally not fully participate in adding material to the conversation, but focus on distilling and getting to the root of other people’s comments. political campaign debrief

                    A facilitation method that may work well is pluses and deltas. For each question or topic, you go around the room and each person gives one plus (or thing that went well in that realm that you should do again) and one delta (or thing that could be improved upon).

Those are noted on a whiteboard or piece of poster paper at the front of the room so everyone can see what was already covered. This method discourages one person from dominating the conversation.

The facilitator should defuse tensions and prevent the conversation from turning into a blame game. But, don’t shy away from the tough stuff. The things that went poorly are often those we can learn the most from.

Choose your facilitator wisely. If this person does a good job, everyone should walk away feeling heard and like their input and time was valued. It will end the campaign experience on a positive note. The converse is also true though.

Set Your Norms

While all our recommendations for holding effective meetings are true of a political campaign debrief meeting, 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:

  • Move up, move back. This is a favorite around here at the NDTC. Participants should be aware of how much metaphorical space they’re taking up in the room. If you’re someone who tends to jump in and talk a lot, be mindful of that and step back a bit, leaving space 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.
    • Don’t play the blame game. Focus on what happened and the process by which it happened, not casting blame on one person or department.
    • Be open & honest. This conversation only ends with constructive take-aways if everyone brings an open and honest attitude to the conversation. If folks try to hide challenges or mistakes or get defensive, you can’t learn from those experiences.
    • Be constructive. In the deltas, you should aim to come to root causes and changes you would make in the future. While this should be rooted in experiences from this election, if there isn’t a real lesson to be learned, it doesn’t need to be examined in the debriefing.

Produce a Key Takeaways Document

Ask someone to volunteer to take notes during your political campaign debrief. Then have that person or another team member distill those notes down to the key takeaways. The goal is to create a document that someone who was not on your team could read and take those lessons away from it.

At the end of the process, you want to have a document that includes all the best practices (or things you’d want to repeat again in a future campaign) and lessons learned (or things you’d want to improve and do differently next round) discussed during your debriefing.

This document will be a great jumping off point for your next campaign — or a helpful piece to hand over to an aspiring candidate.

To help facilitate this conversation, you can use our Political Campaign Debrief Guide.

  Campaign Fundamentals
Prior to joining NDTC, Rose was a National Coordinator at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, where she managed the non-partisan Election Protection hotline, training and managing thousands of volunteers who answered tens of thousands of voters’ questions in the 2014 and 2016 elections. She organized state-level poll monitoring and election reform advocacy efforts in Pennsylvania, New York and Florida. Previously, Rose worked at the New Organizing Institute creating an online guide to election laws, served as deputy campaign manager on a Virginia gubernatorial primary campaign and was a regional field director on a Florida gubernatorial campaign. Rose has a Master in Public Policy from the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and a Bachelor of Science in Public Relations from the University of Florida. She is a Chicago native and in her free time enjoys running, yoga, watching Top Chef, and trying new vegetarian recipes (and getting omnivores to try them!).