Beth Schapiro: Getting Candidates Elected

Beth Schapiro is a nationally recognized expert on political campaign strategy. With over 30 years of experience in the field, she has developed campaign strategies for successful candidates for all levels of office throughout the Southeast. She is particularly proud of her experience helping to elect several government officials who were the first of their race, gender, or sexual orientation to win a particular office.
Beth is President of The Schapiro Group, Inc. Here’s Beth…

You have helped elect several officials who were the first of their race, gender or sexual orientation to win a particular office. What are some examples of the strategies you used to help break these “first” barriers and get them into office?
The primary strategy was to present them in ways that emphasized their commonalities with and downplayed their differences from the majority of voters. For instance, with GLBT candidates we’d draw heavily on biography to tell their stories, emphasizing their connections to family and community. Campaign materials focused on the issues of concern to all voters, without calling attention to the historical nature of the candidacy. At the same time, we tapped into the GLBT community for resources — volunteers, money, and in-kind contributions.
Senator Obama’s presidential election win made him the first African American and first biracial person to lead the country. What do you think about his campaign’s strategies? What particular hurdles did you think his campaign had to overcome in order to elect him as a “first”?
His strategy was outstanding. He knew that one of his primary challenges was to make non-African-American voters feel comfortable with him. He achieved it on a daily basis in how he comported himself, where and how he campaigned, how he interacted with voters, and how he presented himself and his family in his TV ads. A campaign for president is a long-term courtship with voters. He understood that and his courtship ultimately succeeded.

For over 25 years you’ve provided political analysis and commentary for national media outlets such as CNN and the New York Times. What did you think about the political commentary during this presidential election cycle? Was it on target with voters? Were there issues you thought were not addressed?

I think there’s been more political commentary than any of us could have — or would have wanted to — follow. I’m a CNN fan and found that the most useful and insightful commentary came from their handful of nonpartisan sources (i.e., Gloria Borger and David Gergen) and from the partisan campaign consultants. They often offered interesting insights into the campaigns. There’s been a proliferation of other pundits who add a lot of volume but not as much content to the conversation.
From your years of experience in the field, what do you know about voters? And what do you think voters should know about the political process?
I know that voters are much smarter than many pundits and political pros give them credit for. They want substance and authenticity and quickly spot when either of those is missing. Voters should know, and I think they probably do, just how manipulative the political process is.
Do you only choose to work with politicians of particular politics, and if so, what are those? Do you have any non-negotiables?
We don’t do much candidate work anymore; our focus is on data-driven strategic consulting in the areas of communications, marketing and advocacy. When we worked with candidates, we worked for Democrats, and our advocacy work is generally on behalf of progressive issues and causes.
You started out as a teacher in Atlanta. What made you want to switch gears and get involved in politics? Are there any similarities between teaching and developing campaign strategies?
I grew up in the 1950s and 60s when women’s career options were limited. I got my undergraduate degree in education because I love kids and thought it would be a good profession to fall back on later in life (yes, we really thought like that back then!). During the four years when I was teaching, I became involved in the women’s movement and discovered how much I love politics and the political process. That led me to graduate school and an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science. The rest, as they say, is history.
There are definitely similarities between teaching and developing campaign strategy. They both require the ability to process data, analyze situations, organize your thinking, and prepare and execute plans. They also require much patience and an ability to work with many different kinds of people. A sense of humor is very helpful for both.
For women looking to make their careers in the “War Room,” what advice can you lend?
The higher you want to go in political consulting, the more important it is to spend some time in Washington while in your 20s. Work for a member of Congress, a trade association, an advocacy group, a political party, or a consulting firm. Take full advantage of opportunities to meet people and build your network. Don’t just go after “important” people; assume that everyone you meet could be helpful at some point. Look for ways to help others and always thank those who help you. Also be assertive and look for ways to show your smarts. That’s still a challenge for women in politics.
And for those who were registered, but didn’t vote, any last words?
You lost the opportunity to make your voice heard. I think that’s a shame.

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