Joel Rivlin has followed a somewhat atypical career path from political scientist to political practitioner. Born in Leeds, England, he studied politics at Oxford University and volunteered for several U.K. parliamentary campaigns before heading to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate in political science focusing on campaign advertising and marketing at the University of Wisconsin.
Missing the pace of the campaign world, Rivlin left academia behind in 2008 to work for the Democratic mail firm MSHC Partners in Washington. He was director of analytics at the firm when it closed its doors last November, and has since joined The Pivot Group, a new firm made up largely of MSHC veterans, as senior vice president.
While working toward a Ph.D. in political science, Joel Rivlin decided that the pace of the campaign
world suited his style better than that of academia. Currently senior vice president at The Pivot Group,
he worked at MSHC Partners from 2008 to 2010.
C&E recently spoke with Rivlin about his career, his future in politics, and what being a university professor taught him about the campaign industry:
C&E: What drew you to political advertising as an academic subject?
Rivlin: It combined what I cared about most in terms of the media, persuasion, and marketing. I was fascinated about how many ways you can get to fifty plus one using the different techniques that people in the commercial world use.
C&E: What took you from Leeds to Wisconsin?
Rivlin: It was by way of a couple of places. My undergraduate work was in the South of England at Oxford. There I met a fantastic professor, his name was Chuck Jones. He taught in Wisconsin for a long time. I had been talking to him about graduate school and he asked me to come to Wisconsin and meet some of the folks there. There, I met Ken Goldstein, who was a professor at the University of Wisconsin—he ran the Wisconsin Advertising Project. He offered me the chance to study as part of the project and run the research program. That was great because the goal of the program was for academic purposes, but we did things in real time, so we engaged in the campaign by getting information to the media about what was going on in a campaign. We were the first people to point out how few times the Swift boat ads had actually run. It was really a free media story. The ad had only run about one hundred times in a few markets, but it got tremendous play in the press.
C&E: What campaigns have you worked on in the United States and the United Kingdom?
Rivlin: In the U.K., I worked on some parliamentary races; I worked with [Labor MP] Fabian Hamilton when I was in high school and I later managed his race. [Illinois state Rep.] Lauren Beth Gash when she ran for Congress in 2000. Since I moved to Washington, D.C., I have worked on a number of campaigns but in a consulting role rather than on the campaign’s payroll.
C&E: What do you find most different about campaigns in the U.S. versus the U.K.?
Rivlin: Money. And centralization.
In the U.S., the average candidate spends most of the day raising money for the campaign. In the U.K., even little campaigns are managed at the national level. The messaging, the structure—it is all top down. Whereas in the U.S., campaigns have great autonomy. They have to raise their own funds, but they don’t take dictation on what they do.
A great example: In the U.K., you would get faxed phone scripts [that would say] this is the message the party wants your campaign to say. A van would arrive with mailings to distribute that we didn’t ask for or design. That doesn’t happen in the U.S., in part due to coordination laws, but also because [campaigns] are run by individuals rather than party members. When I taught in Madison, I held up bumper stickers and yard signs from the U.S.and the U.K. Unless you are in a primary, you never see a party label on a yard sign [in the U.S.]. In the U.K., you wouldn’t dream of seeing a candidate without party ID as part of the communication.
C&E: What lessons have you taken away from your experience working on campaigns?
Rivlin: I think the best lesson is working hard. The great thing about campaigns is the lack of structure. If you are ambitious and work hard, and leave at the end of the day after everyone else is gone, you can get promoted far faster and get experience far faster than you could in the corporate world.
The other thing is to get perspective. The big picture, in terms of what you are trying to achieve and who you are speaking to, is stable during a campaign. It is easy to get distracted and go off track.
C&E: What did you work on at MSHC Partners?
Rivlin: I was the director of analytics. I was responsible for microtargeting models and projects that required sophisticated statistical analysis as well as helping design a range of tests. MSHC was a very innovative firm on the mail side in Democratic politics. We did a lot of testing on the mail we did. We didn’t just send it out, but worked to see what kind of mail was most effective. I was on the front end and the back end and the middle in terms of setting up the creative and testing it on the other side.
C&E: Now that you are with The Pivot Group, what are you working on?
Rivlin: It is a similar kind of thing, except I am able to extend more into the creative and strategy side of the mail. Pivot has a lot of the same people who came from MSHC, but we are a lot smaller. I work directly with campaigns on day-to-day strategy, messaging, and the creatives that go into their mail.
C&E: Do you prefer the more hands-on environment at Pivot?
Rivlin: It is more effective for me and the clients. We have taken the best practices from MSHC but have the flexibility that we didn’t have there. We can draw more people into any one project and then pivot, for want of a better word, to change course quickly and where it is really necessary.
C&E: What drove your move from university teaching to the private sector?
Rivlin: There were a lot of things that I liked about academia, particularly teaching; having the opportunity to frame the way students look at politics in the future.
I had some frustrations in the way that research in academia is emphasized. The publish-or-perish culture was something that didn’t fit my style as much. In the private sector, working with campaigns, I was able to use the skills that I learned in academia and put them towards the causes I care about—progressive causes and candidates. I do miss the delights of academia, especially being able to engage students about politics to help them understand the world they live in.
C&E: If you could teach all campaigns one thing, what would it be?
Rivlin: The audience matters beyond anything, and you have to be aware of who the electorate is and who the persuadable voters are. The people I think would gain more value from my advice would be campaigns that are trying to redirect individual voter contact money in terms of phones, mail, and canvasses. There I would say precision matters. You have got to know that, with limited resources, you can have a massive impact by speaking to the right people.
C&E: What is your fondest campaign memory?
Rivlin: Without a doubt, the 1997 election in the U.K. I was born when the Conservative Margaret Thatcher came into power. In 1997, I was eighteen and was voting for the first time.
I remember so vividly that night when Labor had a landslide victory. I remember going home from a party for the local candidate, who had won handily. I walked down the center line of the street with a big smile on my face. I can only compare it to my wedding and the birth of my daughter a few months ago.
C&E: What is something you wish you could do over again?
Rivlin: I think there were a few moments on campaigns where I got lost in the moment. You can make decisions or comments that in the cold light of day two months later or so, you wouldn’t have done it that way. The atmosphere in a campaign is so fast that you can feel yourself reacting faster than you should. There was one mail that I sent out in England to first-time voters that had the tag line, “You never forget your first time.” When the angry father came into my office and told me how his daughter was embarrassed to receive that mailer… That tag line is something I would never use again.
C&E: Are you excited for the 2012 season to start?
Rivlin: I am very excited for the possibility of the Democrats taking back the House. The political strategist in me says the president needs to do everything he can to structure the campaign, and the academic in me will tell you the fundamentals will determine where the ball starts: Obama’s forty-yard line, the Republican’s forty-yard line, or the fifty-yard line.
There is the risk, from what we are seeing in Wisconsin at the moment, that the Republicans will overplay their hand. I look forward to divisive primaries that draw candidates to the right. I never like the idea of extreme conservatives winning primaries because there is a risk of them winning in the general. But I like the odds of a good, moderate Democrat against an extreme, conservative Republican in any fight.
C&E: What are you looking forward to most in the next election cycle?
Rivlin: It is a cliché, but I like working with talented people. The reason why I like to get out in the morning and go to work is that I learn things from my colleagues and clients. It is a knock on that I get to do work with clients I like both at an organizational level and at a candidate level. I want to continue doing that wherever I can.
Noah Rothman is the online editor for C&E.