WASHINGTON — Two top veterans of President Obama's campaigns are asking political campaigners to pay $5,000 per person for the chance to learn their secrets and then work for five weeks in an unpaid campaign job somewhere in America.
Democratic operatives and progressive activists are questioning this training program launched by Obama campaign architects Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird. The $5,000 program promises access to the wizardry of Obama's presidential bids — and a five-week, unpaid gig on an "important Democratic campaign."
Run by Bird and Stewart's consulting company, 270 Strategies, the new program's emphasis on placing paying customers in essentially volunteer roles on Democratic campaigns is atypical in the campaign training industry, and some Democrats say it sets a dangerous precedent. The firm's first-ever "270/360 Training Intensive" program is scheduled to begin in September.
The program's website describes a six-week program, consisting of five days of "intensive" campaign training at 270's Chicago HQ featuring Stewart and Bird and other "architects of the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns," followed by five weeks of volunteer work on an "an important Democratic campaign in the United States."
The cost for the five-day training with Bird and Stewart is $3,500. It costs $1,500 more if a student wants the five weeks of work experience. Critics say those costs are way above the market rate for campaign trainings.
"It's deeply concerning that leaders in our party are launching a 'pay to play' system for would-be campaign staff," said a Democratic campaign veteran. "As Democrats, we should be working together to eliminate workforce barriers — such as unpaid internships — rather starting programs that further discourage participation in electoral work."
The firm says it's offering a new kind of campaign training with a special emphasis on training political organizers from around the world, who can then return to run campaigns in their home countries with skills honed by team that helped Obama win twice. Lynda Tran, 270's top communications strategist, said that the $5,000 fee would not be paid by all participants.
"We are offering full scholarships and discounts to participants on a case-by-case basis," she said.
Tran said 270 is trying to think beyond the domestic political market with its training.
"Our vision for the 270/360 Training Intensive is to share best practices we've learned across grassroots organizing, digital strategies, data analytics, and communications with would-be campaigners from around the world. We've designed a program that will deliver value for campaign organizers whether they are able to join us for the five-day skills-building session in Chicago or as part of the full six-week program with its corresponding hands-on application and ongoing professional mentorship and development," she said. "Our hope is that the organizers who take part in the program will take the lessons they learn back to their communities and apply them in a way that helps change the world for the better."
Much of what the company is offering sounds similar to existing campaign training programs that usually have little or no upfront cost.
Immersive campaign trainings have been a staple of Democratic politics for decades. Near the end of every cycle, a visit to a campaign headquarters can find sometimes dozens of volunteers working for little or no money as part of a training experience run by progressive allies like labor unions, Democratic campaign committees, or independent consulting firms. The programs benefit participants by giving them a small stipend, a valuable credential for their resumes, and access to a network of operatives that is the lifeblood of a career behind the scenes in politics. The campaigns get free or cheap labor, and the trainers get to build an army of experienced organizers to use on issue advocacy fights and other political efforts. The system is a win-win-win, say Democrats on all sides of the campaign training experience.
270's emphasis on foreign students is outside the norm for campaign trainings, which generally focus on building a domestic progressive political workforce trained in everything from managing a campaign budget to creating a walk list for door knockers to dealing with the media after a candidate's gaffe. What's not different is the work experience 270 is offering.
Participants will work on GOTV efforts for their assigned campaigns, according to the 360 program FAQ on 270's website. That includes making phone calls, knocking on doors, and online campaign efforts. This is the grunt work that wins campaigns; it's also the standard task for immersion trainees.
To Mikey Franklin, a former progressive field staffer who's now trying to end the D.C. practice of unpaid internships, asking people to pay to to volunteer goes against progressive values.
"It's a basic principle that people should work for pay; they shouldn't pay to work," Franklin said. "It's shameful that 270 Strategies are throwing their progressive values out of the window by charging $5,000 for a 5-day training and an unpaid internship. How will we win for the 99% if we only recruit from the 1%?"
Democratic political training professionals weren't as tough on 270, though they all noted that trainees could get just about the same experience as 270 is offering for no money or even a little cash in their pocket on Election Day. What 270 has that no one else does is Bird and Stewart, who are two of the best in the business. Democratic training professionals were quick to praise what a student could learn from them.
"I don't think think there's any question that a person who matriculated in their program would have made a worthwhile investment," said Robert Creamer, general consultant for the Chicago-based firm Democracy Partners and a godfather of the modern Democratic campaign training system. "Can you get a similar experience in a situation where you didn't part with that much money? Probably."
Creamer's firm also conducts immersive trainings; trainees are not asked to pay to work on campaigns.
"The pitch is if you want to come work your ass off for the x number of weeks then we'll give you the best training you can get," he said.
A top official at another prominent progressive campaign training firm said 270 shouldn't be running the program at that cost.
"The idea of paying to be a volunteer, I don't entirely understand why they thought that was the best approach," the official said. "I think it's a terrible idea."
Progressives and Democrats are talking about 270's training program, the official said, and they're not speaking highly of it.
"The chatter is, 'I don't think that's a great approach,'" the official said, dryly.
There is a variant of Democratic campaign training without the immersion component that costs money to attend. It's similar to the five-day experience 270 is offering, and it's another staple of professional development for Democratic political operatives. Costs are typically born by a student's employer — as would likely be the case with some 270 trainees, as well — or paid by a sponsor, like a labor union or issue advocacy group. Students are often paid by their employers while they're away on trainings, too, which means 270 students could still be getting compensation while they're working for a campaign, but they won't be getting it from the campaign or 270. That's not typical, professionals say.
Several campaign training professionals contacted by BuzzFeed this week said the costs of non-immersive programs were typically well below the $3,500 that 270 strategies is charging.
Midwest Academy, a prominent progressive training outfit that specializes in issue campaigns, is offering a five-day "Organizing for Social Change" program in Chicago next month. The cost ranges from $850 for students who can commute to $1,200 for those looking for six nights of lodging in a "private room."
Midwest Academy also runs immersion training programs. The group pays its immersion trainees, a top official said, so it can expand the progressive workforce beyond those with enough resources to give away five weeks for free.
"At Midwest Academy we think it's very important to pay people as we train them because it's important to get people who can't afford to get into the field," said Judy Hertz, executive director at the academy.
"We feel pretty strongly about paying people," she added.