What is applied politics?

If you were to take to the Internet to find a concise definition of the term applied politics, you likely would not find one…yet.  There are a handful of universities that have programs or even courses that touch upon this area, most of them taught at the graduate level as masters degrees programs, often housed in D.C. or in some cases a university that has focused on the practical end of politics for some time, such as the University of Akron.  Indeed, my first exposure to the notion of “Applied Politics” was as a graduate student at The Ohio State University in the mid 1990’s, attending a conference with my mentor, Dr. Paul Allen Beck, at the University of Akron’s State of the Parties conference held by the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics.  I was rather excited that there was a hotel that had rooms that were grain silos originally, but my enthusiasm would shift focus as I sat in an audience of political scientists and political science graduate students listing to ….practitioners of politics.  At the time I had already published my own research on candidate spending and its impact on electoral success and was stunned to learn that campaign operatives were talking about spending their campaign money in ways I had not really anticipated.  I certainly believed in the work political scientists did, but I was beginning to appreciate that our work could be informed by what practitioners did on a daily basis.  They, on the other hand, were already consumers of political science, but would sometimes bemoan  that theory did not always fit reality, that research was focused on larger more substantive issues, when in reality, as they often realized, they needed more skills-based tools to move votes, to influence decision-making, to change opinions, to make sure they raised money, and they needed to know how to use certain tools, particularly in the era of big data.

So in 2016, the School of Public and International Affairs and their political science department at the University of Georgia created a new program, administered jointly with the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, that were certify students as Public Affairs Professionals in Applied Politics and/or Public Affairs Communications.  This program responded to our alumni who worked in political and public affairs arenas and suggested that we could do more to teach and train those students who wanted a career in the political world – and that this required more than the typical class in legislative politics or campaigns and elections.  Rather we would expose students the wide variety of career paths available in the political public sector and have practitioners come and actually tell them what they did on a daily basis, including feedback on the types of skills and tools that were most needed to succeed.  Students would also learn how to write for public affairs and how to analyze data and they would learn from experience – not only through hands on skill development in the classroom, but also through internships and one on one meetings with campaign managers, lobbyists, fundraisers, digital strategists, media planners, and policy analysts.

Through the development of this first in the nation, comprehensive undergraduate experience for those interested in the professional development for a political career, we were able to create this textbook as an open educational resource for our students and for others interested in learning about and developing a strong knowledge and skill base for political work in a wide variety of areas.  And in doing so, we were better able to define what “applied politics” means.  For the purposes of this text, when we discuss “applied politics” it simply means the application of knowledge, skill, experience to the actual work of politics and public affairs as related to political activities.  Others may have used the term “practical politics” to capture the non-theoretical nature of this set of knowledge.  It is based on tried and true experience.  Practitioners would tell you that while they innovate, relying on research and development of ideas and tools, they know what works, and will often rely on the tried and true methods of influence.

In this text, we will take you through a wide variety of career areas that include legislative careers, campaign work, advocacy, political communications and more.  For each area we will discuss the field of work generally, include practical information relating to the types of career opportunities within it, paths to get there, skills that are needed, knowledge that is fundamental, and often side bars of related material that may be helpful.  Our expectation is that this open educational resource will continue to expand and be updated regularly to take in the development of new career opportunities, for example, it was not long ago that a digital strategist became a potential career path for someone interested in politics. But how do you become a digital strategist?  That is the question that this book attempts to answer, among many others.