Democrats Are Raking In Campaign Cash. You Wouldn't Know It If You Work For Them.

“When you look at what the Democrats fundraised and then you look at your paycheck, it’s not coming down to us.”

This year, Democrats riding what may be a once-in-a-generation blue wave obliterated their old records for fundraising and spending.

But you might not know that if you were working for them.

That’s the clear conclusion of a survey of the field staff of the Ohio Democratic coordinated campaign, the group largely responsible for Democrats’ voter registration, persuasion and get-out-the-vote efforts in the country’s second-biggest swing state. The survey, which was initiated by the workers’ union, offered a detailed snapshot of some of the struggles that are endemic to campaign life, such as financial difficulties and a culture of employees plowing their paychecks right back into the campaign.

“It’s not a sustainable career,” said Sarah Willenbrink-Sahin, a regional field director. The campaign worker life, she added, is virtually off-limits to anyone who has health issues, family obligations or lacks a substantial financial safety net. “Campaign workers are either subsidized or struggling. There’s not much in between.”

Workers for the coordinated campaign reported working an average of 11 hours a day and 6 to 7 days a week at a time when most of them earned a $3,000 a month; a handful earned $3,500 or $4,000, and the workers’ union later negotiated for a modest raise. The respondents’ average hourly wage was not “a living wage which the Democratic party supposedly supports,” Willenbrink-Sahin said, but $10.24 an hour, according to HuffPost’s calculations.

Campaign workers are either subsidized or struggling. There’s not much in between. Sarah Willenbrink-Sahin, regional field director

And a lot of those earnings went right back into the campaign. One thing the survey strived to capture is all the various ways campaign employees pay to elect their own candidates. A majority of workers indicated they’d spent at least $200 on campaign-related expenses such as office supplies, food for volunteers, driving expenses and parking tickets (a ubiquitous feature of driving in unfamiliar cities). Every worker except for three said the job required them to have a car. Those employees paid out-of-pocket for their auto insurance (an average of $131.15 a month) and car payments (an average of $331.60 a month for those making payments), and only a handful reported receiving a stipend for gas. On average, they put 253 miles per week on their personal vehicles.

In the same period they were supporting the campaign, roughly half of workers had to skip out on paying for something important, such as a prescription or a car repair.

“In a lot of ways, it feels like we’re paying to work,” said Jake McClelland, who works as a recruitment coordinator. From where he was standing, he could see that his Toyota Corolla would need new tires as soon as the election was over. He’s driven his car 15,000 miles and had the oil changed three times since April. “When you look at what the Democrats fundraised and then you look at your paycheck, it’s not coming down to us.”

The survey speaks to some of the factors which keep low-income, nonwhite people out of politics and make the career unsustainable for many people over the long run. In Ohio, it’s easy to see how burnout could undo the work Democrats are hoping to accomplish. The state is heavily gerrymandered to favor Republicans and the map won’t change before 2020. This means that even if they swamp their defenses this year, the Democrats will have to put up a similar effort to defend those gains just two years from now.

The Ohio coordinated campaign, which registers and persuades thousands of voters, dispatches local volunteers, and runs the last-minute get-out-the-vote effort, represents the tip of the spear.

This summer, a HuffPost analysis of 1,000 salaries found that the median monthly salary for a staffer working on a Democratic congressional race was $2,632. That works out to $15 an hour or more for any staffers working less than 40 hours a week. But the typical campaign staffer works twice that much. Democrats have put much of their record fundraising instead toward a record amount of advertising.

All of this defies factors that could have made 2018 a windfall year for ordinary campaign workers. In addition to smashing their previous fundraising records, Democrats are running on broad themes of economic equality and fielding dozens of candidates who support a $15 minimum wage. (More than 150 of their candidates for the House are incumbents who co-sponsored a $15 federal minimum wage bill, HuffPost found.) And Democrats are fielding so many qualified candidates, in so many races where they usually field none, that campaign managers told HuffPost they struggled this cycle to fill crucial slots.

A nascent trend of campaign workers organizing into unions may be changing things. After the survey took place — about 30 out of 80 field staff employed at the time responded — employees of the Ohio Democratic coordinated campaign and their union, the Campaign Workers Guild, negotiated for starting salaries of $3,150 and stipends to help cover their phones and auto expenses.

“We are proud to be the first state party in the nation to reach a contract with CWG for our coordinated campaign workers, and we are firmly committed to building a more sustainable progressive movement that invests in its workers as one of our most important resources,” said Kirstin Alvanitakis, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Democrats. “There’s no doubt that campaign work is and always will be tough, grueling even, but it can be rewarding like nothing else. We will continue to encourage Democratic candidates and campaigns to treat their workers with the dignity that all working men and women deserve ― and we are proud to have set the example of how to do just that.”

Other burdens will prove harder to address. Many of the respondents said the hours they worked made it difficult to maintain relationships, attend family functions, or observe religious events. To a person, they said their schedules made it next to impossible to shop for groceries or cook a meal. On a scale of 1 to 5, nearly everyone who responded put their agreement with the following statement at a 4 or a 5: “I like working on campaigns, but I have a hard time envisioning a sustainable career for myself as a campaign worker.”

But there’s no easy fix, during an election, for the dizzying stakes and the unmovable deadline.

“A lot of hard realities in campaign work go unchecked because of how passionate campaign workers are for their candidates,” Willenbrink-Sahin said. “On the whole it creates a pretty exploitative field. People don’t want to stop, because they really give a damn about electing their candidate. There’s always one more thing you can do.”