The days were short but the hours were long for the 20 students volunteering for various campaigns in the run up to the New Hampshire primary. The students chose to give up their final week of winter break to drive seven hours north of campus and spend most of their waking hours campaigning for presidential candidates.
The Pace Center for Civic Engagement's 2008 New Hampshire Primary Action Program set the students up with the campaign of their preferred candidate, providing for housing, travel and food while they worked from Jan. 2 until the primary elections yesterday.
"I believe that people learn when they care about the subject matter. When you can put people in the context, what they're learning about becomes very important," said Andrew Seligsohn, the Pace center's coordinator for civic engagement learning.
Students offered the campaigns free labor, a commodity vital in the short period between the Iowa Caucuses on Jan. 3 and New Hampshire's contest. In total, 11 students chose to work for Sen. Barack Obama, (D-Ill.), five for Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), two for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and one each for Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).
One of the most common jobs for volunteers was canvassing, a process which consists of going door to door asking people to vote for their candidate, providing literature on their issues and answering questions about their candidate's issues. Graduate students like Toni De Mello in the Wilson School and Melody Chan in the math department canvassed through the six-inch-deep snow. After nightfall, the two drove from house to house distributing literature and trying to convince residents to support Obama.
"I don't actually like what I'm doing, I don't like going door to door... it's difficult, it's not something that comes naturally to us," De Mello said. "But we really believe in this man."
Though she was occasionally invited inside residents' homes, De Mello said that much of the time spent canvassing was outside. "Most times you just freeze your buns off outside," she said.
In spite of the cold and the sometimes tedious work, the volunteers kept working, even though none of the Pace center students can vote in the primary and some cannot even vote in the general election, like De Mello, who is a Canadian citizen.
"The president of the United States really matters to everybody else in the world," De Mello explained, "and the last election was really devastating to many people."
This sense of proactively affecting the outcome of the presidential race was common among volunteers for all the candidates. Julia Kaplan '11, a Clinton volunteer, said, "If I want my candidate to win the primary, I have to get there and do something about it."
In addition to the canvassing common among all the candidates, the five Clinton volunteers arrived at their Merrimack, N.H., field office at 5 a.m. yesterday to go on a literature drop. They attached reminders about the election to doorknobs all across their designated area. According to Kaplan, she and her fellow volunteers have been working "at least 12 hours a day."
"I think it'll be very rewarding tomorrow night when we see our vote totals. We have goals for the town we are working in," Kaplan added.
Another common job for student volunteers included providing visibility for candidates, which typically involved waving signs at street corners or outside popular events. Peri Rosenstein '08 had to hold a Clinton sign out the window of her car and yell pro-Hillary chants at passersby.
Bryan Gergen '08 and Chris Nenno '08, both volunteers with the McCain campaign were the only Pace volunteers who chose to work for a Republican candidate.
"He's always been a uniter and bridger of differences," Gergen said, "and I think right now the country is so polarized that we really do need someone who can work with both parties."
The two students spent much of their time in New Hampshire trying to reach voters via telephone.
"People here are getting so many phone calls... so most of them don't want to talk to you," Gergen said.
In spite of the cold weather and the difficulties canvassing and calling, most of the volunteers said they had a good time.
Rosenstein said the experience may have made an impact on her future involvement in political campaigns.
"I've loved it," she said. "The whole thing. The people, the experience. I definitely want to do it again."
© 2008 The Daily Princetonian via U-WIRE