The Campaign School at Yale Trains the Next Generation of Women in Politics
It’s the final day at The Campaign School at Yale (TCS), and in Room 127 at Yale Law School, students are presenting their case studies on a simulated race for attorney general in Pennsylvania. The case studies are the culmination of a week of intensive training, and a panel of veteran political advisers are judging the students’ presentations.
The judges left no element overlooked. They grilled one team on the details of their advertising plan, which included weekend radio ads in the Erie market to reach people driving to outdoor activities like fishing.
“How many voters are you hoping to turn out from that spend?” asked Liz Chadderdon, one of the judges. “You said radio is cheaper, but it’s also a lot of waste. You missed the mark on targeting. For instance, how many fishermen in Erie turned out to vote in 2020?”
The team explained that based on their research, radio would be a more cost-effective way to reach rural voters.
“I see your point about targeting, but a lot of the more targeted methods like mail are very expensive,” one student replied. “We thought it was better to drop a cheap ‘smart bomb’ to hit the fishermen and yes, some other people, instead of an expensive direct mail program.”
Boot Camp-Style Training
Although a discussion about fishermen in Pennsylvania may seem esoteric, that kind of attention to detail is typical of TCS, which has trained students – primarily women – to run for office and manage political campaigns since 1994.
While TCS is an independent program, Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law Kate Stith worked with University and Law School officers to help find it a home at the Law School. Since TCS’s founding, Law School deans have welcomed each class. Current Dean Heather K. Gerken has taught for several years, drawing on her experience in Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns.
After three years of virtual training during the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers were excited to return to campus this summer for the annual session. TCS welcomed 76 students from across the U.S. and around the world to Yale Law School from June 12 to 16.
Among the school’s alumni are Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, and current Rep. Lauren Underwood, who unseated a four-term incumbent to become the youngest Black woman ever elected to Congress. Many alumni are serving in state legislatures and local offices.
The school is nonpartisan and issue-neutral, and immerses students in five days of intense, boot-camp style sessions.
“Politics is hard, so we want to prepare our students for anything that comes their way,” said TCS Executive Director Patti Russo, who has run the program since 2010.
Classes taught by Democratic and Republican campaign experts cover every aspect of campaigning, including fundraising, budgeting, voter targeting, messaging, polling and research, field organizing, advertising, and digital campaigns.
The curriculum is updated annually and now includes sessions on the impact of artificial intelligence on political advertising and security on the campaign trail. After a full day in the classroom, students spend evenings with their case study groups working on a detailed campaign plan for final presentations.
This year’s program also included a discussion on moral leadership with civil rights leader Rev. William Barber. As she has done for the past five years in her role as TCS Board President and first lady of Yale University, Marta Moret ’84 MPH welcomed the class each morning.
Though the program was originally called The Women’s Campaign School at Yale, it has always been open to students of all genders and changed its name to The Campaign School at Yale in 2020 to better reflect its inclusivity. This year’s class included seven men working as campaign managers or finance directors for women candidates.
Nonpartisan and Issue-Neutral
Jennifer Adams, who is running for a congressional seat in central Florida, was attracted to TCS because of its focus on women.
“I really wanted to go where women are supporting women, because we need more representation of women in places that are making decisions,” she said.
The program also draws students like Lindsey Harris who are considering a run for office and want to learn more about the process. Harris said her experience serving as president of the Alabama Nurses Association during the height of the pandemic prompted her to think about running.
“Advocating for nurses and working with our local legislators in Alabama got me thinking about how much greater an impact I could have on access to health care, access to vaccines, and food insecurity if I was on the policymaking side,” Harris said. “Nurses are natural advocates, and being on the policy side would allow me to have that greater platform.”
Harris is currently completing a health policy fellowship with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Washington, D.C., and interning in Rep. Underwood’s office. Underwood urged Harris to attend TCS.
“That’s an example of the network and the sisterhood we have here,” Russo said.
In addition to its longevity and alumni network, TCS stands apart from other campaign training in its ongoing support of students.
“Once they graduate, we don’t let them go,” Russo said. “I’m a phone call or email away, and I can get our faculty involved if they need help. They know I’m a night owl and they can call me at 10 p.m. if they’re having a crisis.”
Russo also believes that the program’s nonpartisan focus makes it unique.
“The collaboration with each other in the case study groups, the ability to listen and get to know each other as a person versus a party, that’s invaluable,” Russo said. “Because once you get elected, you’ve got to learn how to relate to everyone in your district. That will help you with reelection and you’ll be more effective representing your community.”
Developing a Diverse Candidate Pool
Stith, who serves on the TCS board, said she considers hosting TCS to be one of the Law School’s most important public interest contributions. The program receives more than 300 applications each year for 70-80 spots.
“What makes our program so terrific is that people of all ages and from remarkably varied backgrounds and perspectives roll up their sleeves and work together nonstop for five days,” Stith said. “We admit only those who we are confident will be able to take full advantage of both our remarkable instructors and their remarkable fellow students.”
This year’s class came from 21 states and 10 countries including Colombia, Lithuania, and Zimbabwe, and more than half were students of color. In addition to becoming more diverse, the students have become younger, Russo said, with many women in their 20s and 30s stepping up to run for office or manage campaigns.
Students leave TCS energized and ready to apply their new knowledge to the work ahead. Amerika Blair is returning to her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama after TCS to consider a future run for office. She left motivated by a transformative comment from TCS speech coach Deb Sofield.
“Deb mentioned that we all have a light, but we’re just afraid to use it. That really affected my outlook on this whole week,” Blair said. “I want to use my light in a way that will open doors when I get back home, so that we can get more women elected to office.”