Demystifying the Game of Politics

The Campaign Lab launches a political career

Gunnar Vincens, Class of 2017, is many things: a U.S. Marine veteran, a graduate student poised to earn his second degree from Suffolk University, and an aspirant to elected office. He’s also a proud alumnus of Suffolk’s inaugural Campaign Lab class.

The Campaign Lab is an intensive two-week on-campus summer program that combines classroom learning with site visits and guest speakers to teach the practical aspects of planning and running a political campaign. Students in the program learn to channel their passion about issues into successful campaigns.

Civic inspiration

Vincens was an undergraduate majoring in government at Suffolk, concentrating in international relations, when he had an epiphany while studying one night in the spring of 2016.

“It was during the time in the presidential primaries when Bernie and Hillary were still neck-and-neck,” he says, referring to Democratic front-runners Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. “And I kept getting distracted doing delegate math on a piece of scrap paper. That was the point when I said to myself, ‘I might as well just go into the political science program.’”

This was also the time when Vincens’ faculty adviser, Government Department Chair Rachael Cobb, told him about the new summer program she and Professor Brian Conley were launching: the Campaign Lab. Vincens jumped at the opportunity to sign up.

Practical politics

Over two weeks last June, Vincens and his classmates tackled the pragmatics of campaigning, from filing paperwork with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance to using a formula to determine the number of supporters needed for an election victory.

The structure of the course reflects the experience of being in a campaign, as students join together for an extended period of work that can frequently be intense.

“You have to perform well on your own and perform well as a team,” says Vincens. “Everyone is working toward the same goal, so you need to help each other out. Over the two-week period, you really get into that mindset.”

From one lab to the next

Vincens knows how the Campaign Lab experience compares to actual campaigning: He now has significant real-world campaign experience under his belt, having joined Congressman Seth Moulton’s reelection campaign on the Monday following his last day in the lab. Vincens was instrumental in setting up voter registration drives around the district. He connected with this campaign internship opportunity through Suffolk alumna Victoria Ireton, who had studied government at Suffolk and serves as for the Moulton campaign’s operations director.

Once the Moulton internship ended, Vincens became a graduate fellow at a slightly different kind of lab: the Blue Lab. Describing itself as a “campaign incubator” for progressive candidates, the Blue Lab enlists professionals and college students in voter engagement, research, fundraising, and advocacy efforts on behalf of candidates for local, state, and national offices.

“At the Blue Lab, I use things I learned in the Campaign Lab literally every day,” says Vincens, including a formula for determining voter support that he learned from Conley.

“There have been multiple times now where my ability to figure out that number has just dazzled clients—people love it. Using that formula really helps us demonstrate to clients whether or not they’re viable.”

Vincens told of running the formula for Boston City Council candidate Deeqo Jibril.

“When she came into the Blue Lab, she’d been a community organizer in District Seven for a long time and had considered running when a seat became available. Our analysis, aided by the skills I’d learned in the Campaign Lab, helped her to make her decision,” he says. “If she wins, she’ll be the first Somali refugee and Muslim woman to ever sit on the Boston City Council.”

Goals ambitious and achievable

Vincens will wrap up his fellowship at the Blue Lab this summer after receiving his dual bachelor’s/master’s degree in political science from Suffolk. He already is planning his next move: back to his home state of Colorado, where he plans to put his degrees and Campaign Lab experience to further use.

“They’ll be ramping up for statewide elections, so I’m looking to get a job out there working on a campaign,” he says, “possibly a gubernatorial campaign. My ultimate goal is to run for secretary of state of Colorado.”

That may sound ambitious, but Vincens insists that it’s realistic as well, describing the Campaign Lab as a demystifying experience.

“One of the critiques people have about politics and law is that [insiders] attempt to keep it mystified, to keep it rarified. The greatest benefit Suffolk has given me is that it has taken the world from concepts to … something that’s approachable. It has given me a working understanding of [politicians], so when I approach them, I’m not approaching Mount Olympus, I’m walking up to Beacon Hill to deal with somebody who’s a real person.”

And maybe, he notes wryly, somebody who’s worried that a motivated citizen might mount a campaign to take his or her job.