In New Hampshire, VCU students get behind-the-curtain look at presidential primary politics

January 22, 2020

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren poses for a selfie with VCU students in New Hampshire as part of their class, Political Campaigns and Communication.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren poses for a selfie with VCU students in New Hampshire as part of their class, Political Campaigns and Communication.

Before a crowd of hundreds of college students at the College Convention 2020 in New Hampshire earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar touted the Democrats’ success in Virginia last fall, prompting a loud cheer from a couple dozen Virginia Commonwealth University students in attendance.

“I didn’t even know there were people from Virginia here,” Klobuchar said. “Maybe I’ll try every state.”

In under 30 seconds, the senator from Minnesota rattled off the names of all 50 states, in alphabetical order. A New Hampshire TV station called it a “classic primary moment.”

For the VCU students, it was just one of many times they found themselves at the center of the presidential primary action in New Hampshire over a 10-day stretch. The 28 students were taking a January term VCU political science course, Political Campaigns and Communication, focused on New Hampshire, home to the nation’s first primary election, following shortly after the Iowa caucuses. The trip to New Hampshire was supported by a $10,000 gift from the Hansan Family Foundation.

“Whereas you see the glitz and the glamour on the national stage, in New Hampshire our students were really surprised to walk into these state [campaign] headquarters that were, for example, inside a strip mall and next door to a Subway sandwich [shop],” said Alexandra Reckendorf, Ph.D., assistant professor and associate chair of the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Part of [the class] was just to get the romanticized vision of political campaigns out of the students’ heads and be able to talk to the people who are actually doing it on a day-to-day basis, and hear from the people who hold jobs they might one day want to hold themselves.”

During the trip, the VCU students crisscrossed New Hampshire, meeting with candidates and campaign professionals, attending political events and getting an on-the-ground view of how retail politics work in early presidential primary states.

“The idea is to give the students an opportunity to assess whether or not New Hampshire is truly fit to be first in the nation, what reasons might New Hampshire be a good [first state], and what reasons might we start looking at some of the reforms candidates have started to talk about?” said Reckendorf, who taught the class with Deirdre Condit, Ph.D., associate professor of political science. “And also give them a chance to get to know the candidates who are also still in the running, but who maybe don't get the most national press.”

Several of the students phonebanked alongside Jill Biden, Ed.D., wife of former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Several of the students phonebanked alongside Jill Biden, Ed.D., wife of former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The students interacted with a number of candidates, including Democratic hopefuls Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang, Cory Booker (who has since dropped out), Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bennet and Tulsi Gabbard.

And at the College Convention at New England College, they saw Klobuchar, as well as Jill Biden (who was serving as a surrogate for her husband, Joe Biden), Marianne Williamson (who also has since dropped out) and Republican primary candidate Bill Weld.

“Our students got to interact in some fashion with all the candidates by asking questions, shaking hands, taking photos,” Reckendorf said. “There wasn't a single candidate that was present that didn't know VCU was there.”

Service learning

As part of the course, each student was required to perform three three-hour sessions of hands-on volunteering with at least two campaigns. The idea was to allow them to compare and contrast different campaigns and see how they’re run at the ground level.

Students chose to volunteer for Yang, Klobuchar, Biden, Sanders, Warren, Donald Trump, Booker, Buttigieg and Bennet. A few students even had the opportunity to make phone calls alongside Jill Biden.

Owen Hughes, a senior political science major, made phone calls and knocked on doors for the Sanders campaign.

“In the morning we canvassed, knocking on doors. And then we did phone banking in the evening,” he said. “I had a great experience volunteering for Bernie. He's really the only candidate I'm considering voting for, so I was happy to do it.”

Over the past few years, Hughes said he had disengaged a bit as he focused on political science class work over real-world politics. But being embedded in New Hampshire and meeting the candidates and campaign professionals, Hughes said the trip rekindled his passion for politics.

“It was awesome. It was honestly better than I could have imagined. Getting to talk to people who are making their living working on campaigns — I have maybe one or two friends who have graduated from VCU political science who are doing that, and seeing them has been cool, but talking to people working in New Hampshire gave us a cool perspective.”

First in the nation

At the center of the class is the question of whether New Hampshire is fit to be the first presidential primary state.

To help explore that question, the students listened to a podcast called “Stranglehold” produced by New Hampshire Public Radio. The podcast — which was essentially the class “textbook” — explains the heralded history of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary status, celebrating its 100th year in 2020, as a story of power, and as with all stories of power, how it’s hard to convince the people who have it to give it up.

At New Hampshire Public Radio, the V.C.U. students were interviewed for the podcast
At New Hampshire Public Radio, the VCU students were interviewed for the podcast "Stranglehold" about their impressions of the New Hampshire primary.

Having listened to the podcast, the VCU students had heard a lot about New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who was first elected in 1976 and is the biggest defender of the state’s first-in-the-nation status. So when Gardner spoke at an event attended by the VCU students, they were ready to grill him with skeptical questions.

“Why aren’t you willing to give other states this opportunity, especially states that are more diverse?” asked Tarazha Jenkins, a freshman political science and mass communications major, from the front row.

“Look at what states have the highest turnout consistently over the years,” Gardner said.

“New Hampshire has the highest turnout because y’all are getting personal connections with presidential candidates, but you’re not allowing other states to get these personal connections as early as you guys do,” Jenkins said. “If you don’t have an answer, that’s also OK.”

He replied, “Well, the answer is, you cannot re-create what exists in New Hampshire in another state.”

“Yes, you can,” Jenkins said. “What if you give other states that are more diverse socioeconomically, racially, religious-wise, if you give them the opportunity, don’t you think they’d be more civically engaged and have higher voter turnout rates as well?”

That exchange was caught on video. After hearing about it, “Stranglehold” co-host Jack Rodolico invited Jenkins and four other VCU students, along with Reckendorf, to be interviewed on the podcast. They were featured in an episode titled “The Outsiders,” and highlighted their outside view of the New Hampshire primary.

“Our students invested the necessary time and effort into listening to this podcast so that they would be prepared when they met a variety of different people, and they were so impressive to the person who is co-hosting the podcast that we are now part of the story,” Reckendorf said. “VCU is now part of the story about: Should New Hampshire be first in the nation?”

The episode also featured a few lighthearted moments from the VCU students’ experience in New Hampshire.

“If you boil down all the myths and traditions of the New Hampshire primary into one breakneck week, that’s what these students got,” Rodolico says on the podcast. “And it was a rush.”

“I saw Warren today,” says Sarah Webb, a sophomore political science and international relations major. “I got to hug her. I touched her dog.”

On the ground

For Webb, meeting the candidates and attending the events was the highlight of the class. But the trip was also a reminder of the real-world stakes of this fall’s election.

“My interest in the class was instantaneous,” she said. “The chance to be there? On the ground? How could I pass that up? This election is so incredibly important. It will decide policy for decades to come. The next administration will determine how climate change will be addressed. I can’t even put into words how important this election is.”

Kelsie Rudd, a senior political science major, called the trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“I honestly loved every part of the trip but there are certain events that stand out for me,” she said. “I enjoyed the chance to meet Yang, Booker, Buttigieg, Bennet, [John] Delaney, Klobuchar, Williamson, Dr. Biden, Gabbard, Weld, [Deval] Patrick and Warren. Just knowing that one of them could become president and that I met them has me for a loss of words. I was most excited to see Pete [Buttigieg] and Warren. I was fangirling the entire time and got a selfie with Warren.”

V.C.U. students and faculty members took a photo with Senator Cory Booker, who was still in the Democratic primary race at the time.
VCU students and faculty members took a photo with Sen. Cory Booker, who was still in the Democratic primary race at the time.

For Jack Kline, a sophomore political science major, a favorite moment was meeting Bill Weld, one of two Republican challengers to Trump and Kline’s preferred candidate at the time.

“I will take away a lot from this trip,” he said. “First and foremost, what it’s like to interact with a candidate, whether it be at a rally, town hall, house party, or just one on one. Another thing I will bring back is the knowledge of what it takes to make a campaign happen, which was gained by listening to many campaign staffers and their experience.”

Career in politics

Laura Bryant, a VCU political science alumna who graduated in 2018, was one of the campaign staffers the VCU students met with in New Hampshire.

Bryant participated in Reckendorf’s Political Campaigns and Communication course that traveled to New Hampshire in January 2016.

“Since 2016 was the first presidential election I was able to vote in, the class provided me with a lot of knowledge about who was running and what the process of working for a presidential candidate was like up close and personal,” Bryant told the College of Humanities and Sciences in a recent profile.

Bryant went on to work in New Hampshire politics, and then served as state political director for Beto O’Rourke’s New Hampshire presidential campaign.

“Within a four-year period, Laura went from VCU intersession in New Hampshire to a very high ranking role in a national presidential campaign,” Reckendorf said.

Kyle Rowsey, a nontraditional VCU political science student and the operations and events manager for Barnes & Noble at VCU, had a great time learning and volunteering in New Hampshire, particularly with the Biden campaign. Rowsey has been asked to continue volunteering with the campaign.

“Going on the trip allowed me to learn how well the skills I've learned with my job experience combined with my course studies translate to campaign work, something that I had not considered beforehand,” he said. “I was undecided heading into New Hampshire — there are far too many candidates still — so I didn't want to become attached to anyone in particular. But volunteering with the Biden campaign stood out to me because of how welcoming the team was to me and some of the other students.

“Their team was also the most diverse team that we met with, which was really important for me (and the majority of students on the trip I would imagine) because a lot of the trip was focused on if New Hampshire deserves the political responsibility to narrow the field so heavily for the country as a whole despite lacking diversity in their population,” he said.

Last week, Rowsey was considering heading back to Manchester, New Hampshire, to resume working for the Biden campaign.

By Brian McNeill
University Public Affairs