Campaign Semester Takes on Many Forms as Oxy Students Get Out the Vote

Dick Anderson

With the 2020 election right around the corner, Oxy students are 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.

Of course, 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, nine students persevered and are now working full-time on campaigns in Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas. “Four are actually onsite 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 co-director of the program.

“All of the campaigns are relying heavily on remote operations and our students are offering creative energy to design new ways to reach voters,” she continues. “We have one student in charge of their candidate’s Twitter feed, others running lawn sign programs, one who is high up in the finance team, and another is tracking media for both their candidate and the opponent.”

The 2020 campaign marks the seventh iteration of Oxy’s Campaign Semester, which began in fall 2008 with 17 students. While many of them worked on Barack Obama ’83’s first presidential campaign, others opted for Senate or Congressional contests on both sides of the aisle. Reflecting on the program in 2018, co-director Peter Dreier—the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics—recalled: “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.

“For many of them it’s a life-changing experience where they learn about themselves,” he added. “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.”

With the heightened interest in the 2020 presidential election—which, if early voting is any indication, looks 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 rallies, house meetings or door-knocking—the Politics Department pivoted to a hybrid approach.

Now, Freer and Dreier are teaching 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 them 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 couldn’t go and volunteer onsite. (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 Dreier.

Participants in Oxy’s “Homecoming at Home” webinar series on October 21 got a firsthand impression of the campaign landscape from five current students—three from Campaign Semester, and two in the Campaign 2020 class—in a panel discussion moderated by Silva Zeneian ’01.

“One of the guidelines for this Campaign Semester program is that you can’t work in your home state,” said 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,” said 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 continues. Consequently, she’s 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 by Arizona Democrats 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, McSallie is facing a tough challenge from Democratic candidate Mark Kelly, the former astronaut (and husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords). But, Woolever cautioned, “If 2016 taught us anything, you don’t win elections based on poll numbers. You really have to wait and see what the votes say.” 

Campaign Semester student Madeline Aubry ’23, an undeclared major from San Francisco, is spending this semester in Los Angeles, where she is working remotely 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 Central Texas district includes portions of San Antonio and Austin.)

Aubry was assigned to the communications department, working mostly with social media, press releases, and a weekly campaign update sent to all Davis’ supporters. 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 on them. 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.”

If not for the pandemic, Aubry noted, “I would be in Texas right now. I think it has made campaigning significantly harder for her because she obviously can't hold events in person and so much more outreach has to be done via the Internet.” 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 added.

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,” said Huang, who is living on the Oxy campus this semester. “I basically want to get to know the other side of U.S. democracy.”

Carissa Torres ’23, a diplomacy and world affairs major from El Paso, Texas, is working on George Gascón’s campaign to unseat two-term incumbent Jackie Lacey as L.A. County District Attorney. The challenger's platform is centered on reforming the criminal justice system, “an element of American politics that I am particularly fascinated by,” Torres said. “Picking this campaign to work on felt like a perfect match.”

Like the rest of the campaign team, she is working 100 percent remotely, and her responsibilities include writing press releases, managing the campaign website, and helping out on the financial side of the campaign, “managing contributions and keeping up with expenditures and contributions that our opponent is receiving.”

While Torres is uncertain about what she wants to do later in life, “I do hope to go to law school and become an attorney,” she said. “But this campaign has really opened my eyes to a career as a public servant holding office.”

“I’m not a politics major but I thought it would be really important to get engaged, especially this year,” said Campaign Semester participant Aya Sugiura ’23, an undeclared major from Menlo Park. More than 2,600 miles from Oxy, she’s working onsite for Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, the incumbent for Virginia’s 7th district (who 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 onsite. “It came together at the end pretty quickly,” Sugiura said. “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 added. “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 said. 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 said. “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: 2018 Campaign Semester participants Madeline Scholtz '21 and Koyote Fee '21 canvass a neighborhood in Apple Valley, Minn. Photo by Stephanie Rau.