Heat waves, drenching rain, slammed doors, and rants have not kept students in Professor of Government Philip Klinkner’s Electoral Politics class off the streets of the Mohawk Valley this summer. It’s a “survival of the fittest challenge” as well as a “dynamic experience” according to Savannah Kelly ’21.
She, along with 10 classmates, spent more than 20 hours a week for eight weeks volunteering for either U.S. Representative Claudia Tenney or Anthony Brindisi, who is a New York State Assembly member (119th Assembly District) running against Tenney in the 22nd district race. Despite the challenges, several students plan to continue in their campaign roles into the next semester up to the election. Sam (Samantha Gordon ’19), a Brindisi worker, said she would feel incomplete were she to stop volunteering at the end of the summer.
Their reasons for engaging in the Levitt Center-funded course and their support of one candidate over another vary, but most express a passion for learning more about the electoral process, a desire to engage in the two campaigns, and commitment to the issues each candidate supports. “I support Claudia Tenney for many different reasons and one of them is second amendment issues,” Edward Shvets ’21 said when asked why he supports Tenney. He added, "Values of individual liberty, economic freedom, and the right to bear arms urge me to support Claudia Tenney."
Phillip Tran ’20 also worked on Tenney’s campaign, and both students were tasked with making phone calls, canvassing voters door-to-door, conducting news research and analysis and formulating discussion points. As was true with the Brindisi canvassers, Tran “witnessed two different worlds on a weekly basis. I have been experiencing affective polarization” as well as single-issue supporters. Liz (Elizabeth Brautigam ’19), a Brindisi volunteer, agreed and added that some individuals whom she called for contributions simply agreed to donate because the money would go to support any Tenney opponent, regardless of who that was.
Jonny (Jonathan Gerstein ’21) discussed the two primary areas in which the Brindisi canvassing team worked: canvassing voters for opinions, level of interest, and issues followed by their “giving the pitch” for the candidate door-to-door and working on events like community kickoffs where you meet “people across a spectrum and you hear their support for democratic issues.” Other Brindisi volunteers worked in the finance office researching and soliciting contributions on the phone. They made approximately 200 calls a day. Joyce Lee ’20 made a call unknowingly to Daphne Assimakopoulos ’17, who had also taken Klinkner’s course a couple years earlier.
Ben (Benjamin Rhind ’19) worked in the field for Brindisi and with his director of communications. He commented, as did several others, that the horizontal structure of the campaign allowed him to work on “substantive stuff – talking points, gathering relevant news and opposition research, developing materials for press conferences and monitoring and contributing to social media management. Talking with voters and what they care about and what macro issues we should be most focused on,” is what he enjoyed most.
Without exception, the students agreed that their work on the campaigns offered them a powerful learning experience. They also met weekly with Klinkner to review their experiences and to discuss class readings and assigned papers. The group focused primarily on issues related to campaign finance, candidate positioning, media’s role, community organizing, demographics, lobbying organizations, and overall campaign strategies, among other topics. Klinkner has offered this class in midterm and presidential election years in the past and hopes to continue to do so every other year. Other students in the class, not mentioned earlier, were Gabrielle Colchete ’21 and Kimberly Ly ’20.