January 30, 2020

A primary experience: Students go to New Hampshire for presidential campaign

Associate Professor Nina Kasniunas took her J-term class to New Hampshire so they could learn hands-on about the democratic process leading up to the primary election.

Will Kelly ’22 was thankful he wore his Washington Capitals hat to a New Hampshire Democratic primary event because it started a conversation with Michael Bennet, who is candidate running to become the Democratic nominee.

“It was just a really cool conversation, not about politics at all but just about his life. He likes going to Capitals games and, you know, hopefully we’ll see each other at a game sometime,” Kelly says. “And another person who is really great in person is Elizabeth Warren. And Tulsi Gabbard was really good in person too—we talked about surfing and the military.”

Kelly and 16 other students in Associate Professor Nina Kasniunas J-term class, Presidential Primary Politics in New Hampshire, spent two and a half weeks immersed in candidates’ presidential campaigns. The first half of each day was a discussion-based seminar with Kasniunas, and, for the second half, students went to candidates’ campaign offices to do whatever work needed to be done, usually canvassing by phone or text. For their final project, they researched both parties to create an online guide for each candidate that will be shared with the Goucher community.

Kasniunas typically designs some of her classes to allow students to earn credit in exchange for 20 to 30 hours of campaign work. It was her first time taking students to the lead-up to the New Hampshire primary, which is the first state to hold its presidential election each cycle, and she would absolutely do it again. “This was our wildest dream to have this much access to the presidential candidates and to be able to work on the campaign that we believed in,” Kasniunas says. “It was a really hyped experience. Most of the students have shared with me that it was the best experience they’ve had in a learning situation, ever. And for me, it was very similar.”

Goucher students have a history of being involved politically, and at the 2019 ALL IN Challenge Awards Ceremony, Goucher College received a gold seal for achieving a student voter engagement between 40 and 49 percent. The ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge is a national, nonpartisan initiative to encourage students to vote. Additionally, as part of the Goucher College Poll, the highly regarded poll measuring the opinions of Maryland residents, students conduct calls to Marylanders to ask them their opinions on current issues.

This level of student engagement is because of the work that professors and students are doing in the classroom, Kasniunas says. Our professors do a really great job of showing how theory connects to either policy or the real world, which inevitably is linked to politics. And we have a good record of allowing students to organize and engage, which contributes to their sense of agency and their sense of being able to do something when they think it’s important,” Kasniunas says. “We see this every time elections come around and students cast their votes.”

During their J-term class, students visited the national headquarters for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign; some went to a GOP (Republican Party) meeting; they spoke with experts in the field, such as the Secretary of State for New Hampshire; and of course, they met the Democratic candidates.

It was an exciting experience to meet candidates in such intimate settings, say Kasniunas and her students. Still, as they discussed in class, its a privilege for New Hampshire to have so much pull in the Democratic primary, in which candidates gain momentum from the early stages of the primaries, which then carries them through the election process. As a state of predominantly White people, New Hampshire’s status becomes an advantage for White candidates, which does not fairly represent U.S. demographics as a whole, Kasniunas says. To her point, she adds that almost every Person of Color has dropped out of the Democratic race.

Kasniunas says she and some of her students offset their frustration over the unfairness of the New Hampshire primary with an appreciation for their intimate access to candidates and the election process.

After seeing how important the first primary is to the people in New Hampshire, Kelly has become equally passionate about a tradition that allows candidates to make crucial connections with voters, he says. The small gatherings, he adds, help lesser-known candidates gain recognition. Kelly thinks that something should change in the election process; however, he doesn’t think it should be New Hampshire’s status as the first primary.

Stella Krajick ’22 sees the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary as a larger problem. “I would advocate for some sort of national primary process or randomly choose states to go first in the primary instead of just giving all this power to these two states,” she says.

When students weren’t debating the caucus and the primary, some of the most interesting conversations took place with voters. 

Krajick says she spoke with mostly retired voters when she called but was able to connect with many younger voters through text. One particular session of 200 calls resulted in one conversation, but 200 texts created about a dozen thoughtful conversations, Krajick says. “A lot of people are concerned about Trump, and who can unite the country,” Krajick says. “And voters are very concerned about climate change, at least in New Hampshire.” 

People working the campaign advised the students on how to speak with voters—to be polite, friendly, and to start personal conversations so that people will be more likely to listen, says Maura Connell ’22.

“Over the phone, there was one guy who I was calling from Iowa, and he was talking about how hunger is a big problem for him. And since he’s a senior citizen, this kind of issue gets overlooked because people assume that senior citizens are taken care of. He would support Elizabeth Warren because he believes that she would actually help his community and help get rid of hunger,” Connell says. “I think those conversations were the most important and the ones I cherish the most because it was just the everyday person and their problems.”

Connell says she spoke mostly with voters registered as Democrat or Independent because the system filters out Republicans to streamline the canvassing process to include only the people who would most likely vote for a Democratic candidate. Because President Donald Trump is an incumbent, historically, it means he is extremely likely to win the Republican nomination, Connell explains. In fact, most people don’t even know who the other Republican candidates are, she adds, which is why it made sense to focus their energy on the Democratic campaigns.

On rare occasions when they spoke with Republican voters, Kelly says his experiences were positive. “We’ve had great conversations with those people, which I think the media is not covering. There are people who are being respectful across party lines because you know, we’re all human, and we all want the best for our country,” Kelly says. “And that’s something that has very much stuck with me through my interactions with people.”

Krajick attended a GOP meeting in Manchester where people were welcoming and understanding, she says. From talking with Republican voters, she learned that they’re mostly upset about the Democratic party machine. Honestly, she says, it seemed like they misunderstood a lot of things and had different perceptions of issues from herself. It was an interesting experience.” 

In talking with the people working the campaigns, Connell learned something that changed her perspective of politics—not everyone in politics intended to end up there. They started with an issue they were passionate about—the environment, criminal justice, or immigration reform—and worked with organizations to help the cause. “And then that led them into the policy and the politics side of it,” Connell says. “I’m glad that I heard that from other people. Because sometimes, for me, politics is so daunting. … But it really is just people who care about some person or some issue that they’ll do, like, anything for.”