Campaign Semester takes on many forms as Oxy students get out the vote
As the 2020 election was going into the home stretch, Oxy students were busy getting out the vote as part of Campaign Semester, the only undergraduate program in the country that offers a full semester’s credit for a fully immersive experience into the American political process. Given the peculiarities of campaigning in the midst of a pandemic, that “fully immersive experience” feels a little different this year.
After it looked like COVID-19 might put the biennial program into lockdown this fall, nine students persevered and worked up until Election Day full-time on campaigns in Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas. “Four are actually on-site working under strict COVID-19 protocols including mandatory mask-wearing, physical distancing, daily temperature checks, and regular testing,” explains Regina Freer, professor of politics and program co-director.
With the heightened interest in the 2020 presidential election—which, with 89 million ballots cast before Halloween, was on pace to shatter all voting records in the United States—31 students signed an “intent to participate” form for Campaign Semester. Those students were encouraged to continue making contact with campaigns to secure an internship for the fall. But when it became apparent that campaign season would be like none before—without in-person fundraisers, house meetings, or door-knocking—the Politics Department pivoted to a hybrid model.
Now, the College is offering a seminar on political campaigns (POLS 204, Campaigns and Elections) to provide students with a deep understanding of the theory and practice of electoral politics in the United States. Ten students are taking the class in conjunction with a Campaign 2020 Internship course (POLS 203) that requires they actively participate in either an internship with a campaign of their choosing in their hometown or the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s contest, which New York Times writer Jill Cowan called “one of the most consequential races in the country,” attracting more than $14 million in campaign contributions.
The addition of the two classes was meant to ensure that students had the opportunity to gain the campaign experience even if they could not volunteer on-site. (First-year students were allowed to participate in Campaign 2020 but could not do Campaign Semester.) “Oxy’s probably doing more than any other school in the country to get people involved,” says program co-director Peter Dreier, the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics.
“One of the guidelines for this Campaign Semester program is that you can’t work in your home state,” says Elina Woolever ’22, a diplomacy and world affairs major from Brunswick, Maine. She’s a constituent of Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who cast the deciding vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018 (and faces a tough reelection herself this year). “That was a real wakeup call to me,” says Woolever, who chose a campaign to advance her primary objective: flipping the Senate.
“In order to maintain the kinds of checks and balances that are supposed to go on in a democracy, we need to have a Senate that will be working for the people,” Woolever says. Consequently, she’s been working to unseat Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona (who was appointed in 2018 to fill out the remainder of the late John McCain’s term by the state’s Republican governor) as part of Mission for Arizona, a joint effort to elect Democrats up and down the ballot in 2020.
As a member of the organizing team, Woolever’s main role is direct voter outreach—making sure that all those mail-in ballots that went out are getting returned on time. If the polling is correct, McSally is facing a tough challenge from Democratic candidate Mark Kelly, former astronaut and husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords. “If 2016 taught us anything, you don’t win elections based on poll numbers,” Woolever notes. “You really have to wait and see what the votes say.”
If not for the pandemic, “I would be in Texas right now,” says Campaign Semester student Madeline Aubry ’23, an undeclared major from San Francisco. Instead, she’s been in Los Angeles, working with the communications team for former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, who is looking to unseat freshman Republican Chip Roy in his bid for reelection in Texas’ 21st Congressional District. The coronavirus has overshadowed all other campaign issues—especially given that Davis and Roy, a Trump loyalist, “basically take an opposite stance on every aspect of COVID,” Aubry adds.
Every Friday, Davis invites a guest to have a Facebook town hall on various topics, and Aubry helps with choosing the topic, finding the guests, and preparing background materials. She also answers questionnaires from nonprofits asking about Davis’ policies before endorsing the candidate: “It has been a really great way to get to know her and understand her campaign more in depth,” Aubry says.
As part of the Campaign 2020 class, Cheer Huang ’23, an undeclared major from Taiquan, China, is interning remotely with Republican Daniel Gade, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and American University professor looking to upset Democrat incumbent Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who is running for a third term. The reason why she chose his campaign is that “I’m watching what is changing in the United States as an outsider,” says Huang, who is living on the Oxy campus this fall. “I basically want to get to know the other side of U.S. democracy.”
“I’m not a politics major but I thought it would be really important to get engaged, especially this year,” says Campaign Semester participant Aya Sugiura ’23, an undeclared major from Menlo Park. More than 2,600 miles from Oxy, she’s working on-site for Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, the incumbent for Virginia’s 7th District (who in 2018 became the first Democrat elected to that district since 1969, winning by just over 6,000 votes).
Spanberger is locked in a tight race with Green Beret combat veteran Nick Freitas, and Sugiura is one of two field organizers tasked with handling out-of-district volunteers. “We are doing so many phone calls trying to reach our volunteer base and then those volunteers will be the ones who will hop on the phones and reach our voters.”
She is still a little surprised that she is working on-site. “It came together at the end pretty quickly,” Sugiura says. “I originally assumed I would be working from my home in the Bay Area for the rest of the year, but I’m actually in our campaign office right now.” While the campaign team is holding all its meetings virtually and volunteers are not canvassing door-to-door, “I do think Virginia is a little more relaxed on COVID than California maybe is,” she adds. “I know the cases here are a little scary.”
As someone who has spent her whole life in California, “Coming here to this extremely competitive district has been really enriching for me personally,” Sugiura says. The experience has really helped to ground her in terms of political strategy: “We can talk about theory all day but how are we going to plant our feet on the ground?”
Regardless of the setting, Oxy’s Campaign Semester students are “working harder than they ever have before,” Freer says. “We are really impressed with their maturity, flexibility and dedication. They are having robust experiences and continuing the rich tradition of the program.”
One of the lessons that Sugiura has learned outside of what she calls her “little liberal bubble” is that politics is inherently personal: “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I don’t do politics.’ Just living your life, you’re doing politics every day.”
Photo courtesy Madeline Aubry ’23.