Eighteen Campaign Semester students spent 10 weeks in the trenches of some of the most competitive races in the land. What did they learn about politics, democracy, and themselves?
Ten days before Election Day, in the Minneapolis suburb of Apple Valley, U.S. Senator Tina Smith—tapped to replace Al Franken amid allegations of sexual misconduct in January 2018—speaks to an overflow crowd of volunteers. It’s a precinct where the 2016 presidential tally ended up in a tie (712 votes apiece) between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Even as statewide polls show Smith leading her Republican opponent, Karin Housley, 10 percent of the electorate remains undecided, and no vote is taken for granted in this special election to fill out the remainder of Franken’s term.
“Think about those people whose doors you’re going to be knocking on,” Smith says. “I would bet you that most of them are thinking about their own lives—what they have to get done today. … Those are the people that we need to put at the center of our politics and at the center of the way we govern. They’re wondering if we can get anything done in the state house or in Washington, D.C., anymore. You are like an ambassador of joy and positive action.”
Milling among the locals, Occidental sophomores Madeline Scholtz and Koyote Fee await their marching orders like a couple of veteran politicos—which, after more than two months on the job, they effectively are. “Campaign Semester is this awesome opportunity to become involved in the process that you study in the classroom,” explains Scholtz, a politics major from Denver. “For 10 weeks, you get a chance to completely immerse yourself in campaign life. After the election, you get to reflect on your experience and analyze the results of the elections all across the country. You get both the real-world experience out in the field and the academic component back on campus.”
While rallies bring together volunteers whose passion for politics matches that of the 18 students across eight states who participated in Campaign Semester in the 2018 midterms, part of that real-world experience is talking to potential voters who are less engaged in the process. “I live, breathe, and eat politics at this point—not everybody does,” says Fee, a politics and economics double major from Trout Lake, Wash. “It’s important to see where other people come from and talk to them about politics in a way that relates to them, rather than pushing your own agenda.”
“There’s a lot of high-profile, very competitive races this year in Minnesota—that’s definitely something that drew me here—but ultimately, I really wanted to work for Sen. Tina Smith,” Scholtz says. “When I look back on this experience and this election year, it will be awesome to know that I dedicated my semester to working on issues that I care about and working for someone who I’m very passionate about.”
While a reported 31 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 turned out for the midterms—a 10-percentage-point surge over 2014—Fee and Scholtz suggest that it should be even higher. “It’s really important for students to vote because it’s something that we almost take for granted—that these politicians are working for us in D.C.—and a lot of young people just choose not to participate and not to vote. They don’t realize how important it is and how much of an effect it has on our everyday lives,” Fee says.
“And what a privilege it is,” Scholtz adds.
“That’s a good one!” Fee exclaims.
In early 2008, energized by Barack Obama ’83’s success at the outset of the Democratic primaries and caucuses, a number of students came to Peter Dreier, the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental, expressing an interest in getting involved in his campaign. “My first advice was drop out of college for a semester, take a leave of absence, and go work for the campaign—that’s what I did in 1968 when I worked for Bobby Kennedy,” recalls Dreier, who was housing director at the Boston Redevelopment Authority and senior policy adviser to Boston Mayor Ray Flynn prior to coming to Oxy in 1993. “But not one of them wanted to do that, and I think it had to do with their parents, who wanted to make sure they graduated on time.”
Upon further reflection, Dreier and his colleagues looked at the model of Oxy’s longstanding study abroad program, where students would spend a semester immersed in “some culture that is different than their own,” he says. What if Oxy students went to some place away from their home states to work on a political campaign for the first 10 weeks of the fall semester, and received a full semester of credit—16 hours—for their work? Eric Frank, acting dean of the College, was receptive to the idea, which would include a seminar component during the last month of the semester where students would “put their experiences into some kind of context,” Dreier says. “We had to invent the wheel because no other college had been doing this.”
In fall 2008, 17 Oxy students christened the Campaign Semester program. While many of them worked on the Obama campaign, others opted for Senate or Congressional contests on both sides of the aisle. “We required only one thing, which is that whatever race they picked, it had to be a battleground race where the outcome wasn’t known in advance. Because you wanted them to see the competition and the fierceness of a political campaign and some of the chaos as well,” Dreier says.
“For many of them it’s a life-changing experience where they learn about themselves,” he adds. “Even if they don’t want to become full-time political junkies—which most of them don’t—they learn skills about how to recruit people, how to get volunteers, how to make an argument, how to build a constituency that will be helpful if they want to work with their local PTA or their union or their community or environmental group. Those skills are very transferable in making them more effective citizens.”
The fact that an overwhelming number of the approximately 100 Campaign Semester participants to date have opted to work for Democratic candidates is not lost on its organizers. “I think that it really is a reflection of our student body,” says professor of politics Regina Freer, who has taught at Oxy since 1996. “Peter and I are very conscious about recruiting students from a diverse array of perspectives, and making sure that we are representing those perspectives in the class as well so that our students don’t get lazy in their assumptions.
“What we’re now recognizing and appreciating more in the class is the diversity of the student perspectives even as they work on Democratic campaigns,” she adds. “One of the more robust debates that we had this semester was amongst students who had very different visions about where the Democratic Party needed to go and what was happening under that tent.”
“Part of the appeal of Campaign Semester is that you are able to choose whichever campaign you want as long as it’s in a competitive district,” says Anya Silverman-Stoloff ’20, a politics major from South Orange, N.J. “There were a few races that were on a more national scale that I knew about, but there were hundreds of smaller races that weren’t on the media every day.”
In talking with her parents, she discovered that her mother had a colleague who personally knew Gina Ortiz Jones, who was running for Congress in Texas’ 23rd District. “She convinced me that not only was she a really strong candidate but also a really great person,” Silverman-Stoloff says. “I thought working for a woman was really cool,” she adds—and, having never been to the Longhorn State, “Going to south Texas would be important for my personal development.”
Once she got there, “I expected the whole apparatus to be a little bit bigger,” she admits. “Our team was about 15 at its biggest. I was surprised with how much of an integral part I was able to play because I thought for some reason that there were going to be 100 people all working to get Gina elected, like it was a presidential race or something.”
Josh Bogen ’20, a politics major from Denver, found himself operating on a larger scale as a field organizer for the Arizona Democratic Coordinated Campaign that helped elect Kyrsten Sinema to the U.S. Senate. From August 15 until Election Day, Bogen logged upward of 15 hours a day, seven days a week, with little down time. “You’re really not thinking about how much work it is,” he says, “because it’s honestly the most incredible experience that you can have—there’s no other experience like it at an undergraduate college.”
A typical day on the campaign consisted of community outreach in the morning—meeting with volunteers, registering voters, signing people up for the mail-in ballot—before returning to the office to arrange the rest of the day around “call time.” As Bogen explains, “Call time is sort of a sacred thing on these campaigns, because it’s the No. 1 way of recruiting volunteers and reaching voters. So we create our lists for the day that we’re gonna call through, and we train the volunteers who are coming in that day to knock on doors or make phone calls.”
For Violet He ’20 and Junica Meng ’19, both of whom enrolled at Oxy from mainland China, the whole electoral process was a foreign concept. “They can’t vote in China, and neither can their parents,” Dreier says. “They’ve never seen an election. Because of the propaganda of the Chinese government about the United States, they all thought that all American elections are fixed and rigged—that it wasn’t really a democracy.”
He, an economics and politics double major from Shanghai, was one of four Oxy students who went to Missouri to volunteer for U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who lost her bid for re-election in the historically red state. (Three Oxy grads—all of them Campaign Semester alumni—were working full-time for McCaskill as well.) Meng, a diplomacy and world affairs major from Shenzhen, interned in Orange County for Gil Cisneros, who was elected to his first term in Congress in a district that is split almost evenly among Asian, Latino, and white voters.
“There were lots of Asian and Latino staff working on the campaign,” says Meng, who is fluent in both Mandarin and Chinese. “They gave me a lot of important work, such as translation for all the Chinese documents, and I even became the translator for Gil.”
Hearing about He and Meng’s experiences during the seminar sessions, “They were on a par with their classmates in terms of understanding American politics,” he adds. “I hope in future Campaign Semesters we have more international students, because it’s a real eye-opening experience for them and it’s interesting for the others to hear their perspectives.”
Growing up in Minnesota, which is a very blue state, and going to school in California—another very blue state—“I’d never spent much time in a red state before,” says Corrine Schmaedeke ’21, a politics major from St. Paul who worked on Kara Eastman’s campaign for Congress in Nebraska’s 2nd District. But during her Campaign Semester experience, “I knocked on a lot of doors. I talked to a lot of Republicans, and I really learned how to have good, honest, meaningful conversations with them.”
Schmaedeke also quickly came to appreciate the lengths that volunteers are willing to go to for democracy. “I had a 90-year-old woman canvass with me,” she says, “and it’s hard to get out there and walk for two hours and get doors shut in your face.”
Canvassing for McCaskill in south St. Louis, Baxter Montgomery ’20 knocked on the door of a house with a rather detailed sign: “Forget the dog. Beware of the owner with the revolver pointed at me.”
“I hear this big, burly guy yelling and screaming coming down the stairs as I knock on his door,” recalls Montgomery, an economics major from Houston. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Please don’t come to the door with a gun.’ He comes to the door, he’s the nicest guy you’ve ever met. We talked for two or three minutes, and he said he would support Claire.
“It had been a really rough morning—a lot of people slamming doors in my face and telling me to go away,” he continues. “I think this guy saw my smile when he signed my commit-to-vote card.”
Rachel Winningham ’20, a politics major from Portland, Ore., who worked on Joseph Kopser’s congressional campaign in Austin, Texas, recalls a woman answering the door, “baby on her hip,” who was unaware that there was an election going on. After listening to Winningham’s talking points, the woman had one question: “Is Joseph pro-life?”
No, Winningham explained, Kopser was pro-choice—and she expected the door to be shut in her face. “But this woman was genuinely listening to me, very curious,” she recalls. “We had this 30-minute conversation about what it means to be pro-life, what it means to be pro-choice, what responsibilities the government has to protect young women and people in general.” Although Winningham left uncertain whether she had picked up a vote for Kopser, the conversation “definitely restored my faith that people can talk and disagree but work toward a better solution.”
As Dreier sees it, “The more our political culture gets polarized, the more important those conversations are. Another lesson our students learn is that politics is about the art of persuasion. You don’t get very far in getting people to vote for your candidate if you only talk to people who agree with you.”
Silverman-Stoloff recalls door-knocking in the small, “kind of conservative” Texas town of Castroville when she approached the house of a middle-aged man who took one look at her Gina Ortiz Jones T-shirt “and said something like, ‘Get out of here. I’ll never vote for a Democrat in my life,’” she says. “And I gave him a visceral reaction like, ‘What? That’s so mean, I’m just a person wanting to talk to you.’ And I think he felt kind of bad. So he said, ‘OK, OK, come back over. Let me hear your spiel.’”
In conversation, she learned that the man’s name was Alejandro. “He was 51, and his parents were Mexican immigrants. We ended up talking for a really long time. He was very wary of the immigration issue that’s happening on the Texas border. He liked that the Republicans were hard on immigration. But he was a veteran himself, and so the fact that Gina was a veteran really appealed to him,” she recalls.
The longer they talked, Silverman-Stoloff continues, “I could imagine my field director saying, ‘You need to move on to the next house. You’re spending too long on one person.’ But I felt like I was getting to him in a way that it’s hard to get to with people who disagree with you.” Alejandro explained that he had grown up poor in Los Angeles but had moved up to the middle class through hard work. “I knew exactly where he was from in Los Angeles, and that’s pretty rare in Texas,” she adds. “So he really liked that.
“By the end of the conversation he was being very appreciative for having listened to him,” she says. “I thanked him, too, because not that many people who are Trump supporters are willing to hear me out and have a conversation.” Before leaving Castroville, “I drove by his house just to say goodbye. He was sweeping his driveway and he told me to wait up. He brought over to me a little American flag pin, and he told me he had gotten it when he had retired from the military, and it was very special to him. And he had tears in his eyes when he said, ‘I want you to have this. Because I’ve never felt someone listen to me more, or care about what I had to say more.’
“All of a sudden I had all these feelings about the problems of our democracy. And I said to him, ‘I’ll always look at this pin and think about you as that Trump supporter who wasn’t actually that bad.’ And he was holding the literature that I had gave him 30 minutes earlier and he said, ‘You know, I might vote for this Gina person.’ And I left there thinking about how necessary it is to talk to people that we don’t agree with. And I have this new theory that if every Oxy student had to do what I did for a few months and talk to people they disagreed with, and vice versa, this country would be a whole lot better off.”
In the end, Jones came up slightly short in her bid to unseat incumbent Will Hurd, losing by 926 votes out of more than 210,000 votes cast. The election wasn’t called until well after Silverman-Stoloff had returned to campus. “I remember calling Professor Freer and asking if I could stay until the race ended, and she told me I couldn’t,” she says. “I had to be back at school, which was understandable. I had to do the academic component.”
While Bogen returned to campus all but certain that Sinema had won her race in Arizona, “It wasn’t called until my first day of class,” he says. “It was a little disappointing being back in Los Angeles while Kyrsten was giving her acceptance speech and the campaign staff was having their celebration.
“But what makes Campaign Semester so amazing is we get to come back to school and talk about it with a bunch of people who had the exact same experience on a macro level,” he adds. “Then we get to talk about the details of what happened on each of our campaigns and compare and contrast our experiences.”
After the election, “I was really scared that I didn’t know how to be a student anymore,” says Winningham (who spent 10 days on campus during orientation as a member of O-Team before hitting the campaign trail last August). “It kinda felt when I was on campaign like I had graduated, gotten a job, and was being an adult. Being back in the classroom with other people who have had this same weird experience was definitely something that I needed to process my own thoughts about the campaign.”
“When the students return, they don’t just read political science,” Dreier says. “They read a lot about American culture, and about the changes that are going on technologically and economically. They get a sense that as the country changes, our politics have to change as well. They learn from their experience that America is a more interesting place than they might have thought otherwise.”
“Every campaign cycle there’s new technology, new theory being built on the ground, and new experiences that I could not have anticipated,” Freer adds. “For example, we know that active contact with voters is going to make a difference. What’s the form of that contact? What about texting? What is the form of a robocall now? Often I’m thinking through these questions with the students simultaneously, and I love that experience as a professor.”
Did the experience leave students eager to jump back into the election fray? Depends on who you ask. “If I worked on a campaign again, I would want to work solely in the communications department, because I really liked interacting with the media,” says Schmaedeke. “It opened my eyes to how journalism and politics collide. That is something that I never thought of doing before, and now I am taking a journalism class next semester.”
“The most unexpected thing for me was the willingness of so many of our volunteers to give up their time making food for us, driving us around, knocking on doors, being emotional support for the campaign,” says Winningham, whose candidate lost by less than 3 points to the Republican challenger—an 18-point improvement over 2016.
The experience has left her ready for more. “I have big plans in 2020,” Winningham says. “I’m graduating at the perfect time, gonna hop right on a campaign. And that’s something that I never thought I would say.”
“I’m actually trying to find a campaign to work on in 2019—like a ballot initiative or some special election,” Montgomery says. “In 2020, I will 100 percent be there.”
Photos by Stephanie Rau and Marc Campos. Additional photos courtesy Campaign Semester participants.