“I think we’re definitely going the wrong way,” Daniel R. Ki ’15 says, examining the MapQuest printout of Rochester, N.H. He pulls out his phone to double check the location, shifting the device so his partner can see their blue dot moving in the opposite direction of Lincoln Ave. “The real question is how people were able to canvass before iPhones,” he jokes as the pair turns around, doubling back down Main St. towards their designated canvassing area.
The first house on the list is 9 Lincoln, a voter named Deborah. Ki knocks on the door to no response.
“Deborah does not seem to be here,” Ki says. Two figures are visible in the second-floor window, pulling their barking dog away from the open screen. He turns and heads down the street.
The woman at the last house on the block must be in her early seventies. She wraps her head around the door before emerging, as Ki asks enthusiastically if she plans to vote.
“I have every intention of it,” she nods, slowly.
“Would you mind telling me if you plan on supporting the President this year?” Ki asks politely.
“I wouldn’t count on anything,” the woman says, shaking her head. “I’m still weighing it.”
“Well, I’ll tell you why I’m supporting the President,” Ki begins, sticking to the script he practiced earlier. He mentions education, healthcare, Obama’s commitment to expanding Pell Grants—a 30-second speech. “That’s why I’m supporting the President,” he finishes, ending where he started.
“You can afford to. You’re young. I’m old. How much longer am I gonna be around?” she says, laughing a little. “The best I can tell you is that I’m gonna vote,” she finally offers.
“Thanks for your time. Have a nice day,” Ki says, still smiling as he steps off of the porch. He makes a mark on his canvassing packet and consults the map again. Twenty-seven more houses to go.
“The last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind, I can’t even remember what I’ve done—it’s been great!” says Aditi Ghai ’14, laughing breathlessly. The sound of beeping cars and surrounding traffic mingle with her voice as she navigates the busy road, driving back from an impromptu work conference. Though based in Boston at the Romney headquarters, she has also been anywhere and everywhere else, recently returning from out of state handing a campaign situation.
The last few weeks—indeed, months—have been a blur for Ghai, who has taken the semester off to work as a full-time Romney campaign staffer. Even her summer work as a Romney intern has merged into her current job. “I don’t even remember, I couldn’t even tell you when summer technically ended,” she says.
For students off campus, working full-time in campaigns is an all-encompassing experience that does not leave much time for reflection. It is such a large process with so many moving parts, that it is hard to find the place of the individual cog within the bigger machinery.
“How can we in this campaign, as a part of a larger machine, make a difference?,” asks Jason Hirschhorn ’14, as he nears the end of his Virginia-based campaign work for former Governor and senatorial candidate Tim Kaine. “Had we not been here, there probably would have been someone else in our place, so what can we do to make a difference? To be creative? More efficient?” Jason pursues the question further—an issue as much personal as it is philosophical.
Given the immersive nature of Ghai’s work at Romney headquarters, there is a lack of clear demarcation between life as a part of and apart from the campaign. “It’s so hard to distinguish when the nature of the work is so cooperative,” says Ghai. “I’m doing whatever and anything I can to help and I know that everyone else is too.” Perhaps that, then, is the point. “Everybody in the building—from staff, interns, operations, communications—is indispensable. You definitely see the impact on the campaign world. Everybody is contributing in some way. Everyone is willing to help out.”
To be at the center of a movement, to work in constant collaboration with a community of people who believe in one goal, with one election in mind—it is this larger purpose of the campaign that drives these students.
CATCHING ONE'S STRIDE
“I think falling onto it is actually a good way to describe it. It was kind of on a whim,” Ki recalls of the beginning of his involvement with the campaign to re-elect Obama. During the final week of winter term last year, Ki was on campus taking a writing class that only met for a few hours daily. “I wanted to try something that would fill up the other hours of the day,” he remembers.
Ki was interested in politics throughout high school, but he had never been involved in a campaign. To fill the empty hours he spent on campus that January, Ki got in touch with the Massachusetts state director of Obama for America (OFA), the field organizing initiative of Obama’s presidential campaign, to further explore volunteer opportunities.
He began working in the local OFA office, organizing phone banks and canvasses to rally Democrats for the primary elections early this year. On January 10, the day of the New Hampshire primary, Ki traveled up to Manchester to knock on the doors of registered Democrats. “New Hampshire on primary day this time didn’t count,” he admits.
Even though Obama had no opponents on the ballot that day, it was a pivotal moment for Ki. “I ended up meeting Ron Paul as I was canvassing and got a picture with him,” he says of his first day on the trail. “That was kind of the start to my experience on the campaign. I was absolutely hooked.”
After the school year started up again, Ki became an organizing fellow for the campaign, and over the summer he was in charge of training college students to lead their campus teams in the fall. Since the start of the fall semester, Ki has been the Massachusetts campus director, responsible for organizing Democrats into canvassing and phone-banking groups at Harvard and eight other universities across the state.
When Luciana E. Milano ’14 returned to campus this semester, she was riding high off the energy and momentum of the Republican National Convention. Her summer work in Washington, D.C. had also provided her with encounters with high-profile Republicans. “Having the opportunity to meet Paul Ryan and meet so many people I really liked, for me that was really exciting,” says Milano, with a lingering sense of awe. Recounting the Convention, she continues, “It was incredible to be on the floor, to be in the front row—up close, listening to them, getting one-on-one time with important pundits.”
These encounters gave her “a whole new perspective on the Romney campaign,” and provided a stronger impetus for taking a greater leadership role within the Harvard Republican Club as Vice President of Campaigns. “Coming back to campus,” says Milano, “I was just really excited to get other people invested in the campaign—to inspire people to be involved.”
“I wanted to see this campus during a presidential election year, since back in 2008 I heard it was quite the place,” says Simon M. Thompson ’14, Campaigns Director of the Harvard College Democrats. Though Thompson seriously considered taking the semester off to work on a mayoral campaign in Maine during his sophomore year, “This fall it was a pretty easy decision to come back here,” he says. An important part of this choice was the groundwork that Thompson had laid already for the College Democrats involvement in the campaigns of President Obama and Elizabeth Warren. “I was already coordinating stuff for the fall with OFA and the Warren campaign,” he says.
Ki also made the choice to stay at Harvard this fall, despite suggestions from the the state director of OFA that he take the semester off to work for the campaign. “I decided that I’d rather stay on campus, mainly because I wanted to graduate with my class,” he says.
Faced with the same dilemma as Ki, Ghai chose the opposite path. “I do want to graduate with my friends, I do want to be sitting on Lowell courtyard in 2014 with my blockmates, but I do know I will be graduating behind,” says Ghai, whose graduation date may depend on the outcome of the election. Ghai is uncertain about her continued role in politics, but it is a possibility for her to continue working for Romney if he moves into the White House.
Ghai still maintains close contact with her Harvard friends, describing moments with them as her anchor. “It keeps me grounded. It breaks up my day, rather than it being work, sleep, work, sleep.” It is important for her to see them even if, as it often is, only for 15-minute coffee breaks.
Being in Boston made the decision to take time off easier, but it was still a difficult choice. “Harvard is a community when you’re there, a community really structured around being there for four years on campus,” says Ghai. While Romney headquarters have become a second home for Ghai, she is aware of her other community, one that she has left behind across the bridge.
It is a sentiment shared by fellow off-campus campaigner Hirschhorn. Speaking on the phone from Richmond, Va. where he is currently based, Hirschhorn is grateful to be living and working with Michael A. Walker ’15, a friend he originally met through a community service program at Harvard.
“Before Michael got here, I was on my own, and it was daunting, building new friends and new social circles.... It’s nice to have one really close friend here,” says Hirschhorn, who views leaving behind the tight-knit community at Harvard as one of the more difficult aspects of his experience. “I miss Harvard, my friends and close relationships,” he says.
Still, “when all is said and done,” Hirschorn says, “I don’t think there was anything I gave up too much. My friendships will still be there; everything will still be there.”
BACK TO THE OLD GRIND
Milano speaks on the phone with the kind of high-tempo intensity that matches the frenetic energy of her day. She is on a lunch break, having spent all morning knocking on doors in northern Massachusetts with Republicans from the College and the Harvard Kennedy School. This fall she has led trips for the Scott Brown campaign, and on election weekend she and her group will make one last big canvassing push in New Hampshire.
“When you’re not afraid to stand up for what you believe in, you quickly meet people who are understanding...or they disagree with you,” says Milano. She has found her campaigning experiences both challenging and exciting. However, she is happy simply to share her experiences: speaking to voters in Italian and Spanish, explaining her Texan background, the little conversations she struck up on the Boston T about her Romney iPhone case.
Despite its demands on her time, Milano looks forward to her weekly campaign work. “Some people see it as work, but I see it as a break,” she says. “I do it because I love it. It’s so exciting, I want to do it,” concludes Milano as she rushes off to grab a bite of food, refueling to go door-to-door once more.
Similarly, Ki views his weekly meetings and trips to Boston and New Hampshire as extracurricular activities. “Of course, it takes up a lot of time, “ he says. But, he recognizes, “Just like any Harvard student, you’ve got to make choices.”
Those who have spent considerable time on a campaign develop a particular shared lexicon that is immediately apparent to outsiders. “There are things in my vocabulary that are probably changed because of the campaign,” says Ki, who spends 15 hours a week making phone calls, knocking on doors, and sitting in meetings with other campaign staffers and volunteers. “One of my friends noticed that I refer to the President as ‘The President’ instead of just Obama now,” he notes.
With 30 hours a week split between fieldwork and organizing members of the College Democrats, Thompson’s role is nearly a full-time job, and his vocabulary, too, has come to reflect this. “Whenever I am knocking on doors or calling people or anything like that, I always use ‘folks,’” he says, laughing. When calling voters in other states, “folks” is frequently thrown around by those working for the Obama campaign. “It plays really well up in Maine and then, when you’re calling in Virginia, it plays perfectly,” Thompson says.
For Thompson, the canvassing trips up to New Hampshire have been welcome forays into the real world. “You knock on one door and it’s a Ron Paul supporter, and the next door it’s [a] Romney [supporter], and the next door is an Obama supporter,” Thompson says. “It’s nice to get out of the Harvard bubble where everyone’s basically some shade of liberal.”
In small and unconscious ways, campaign work colors the world of these students’ lives. It is something that they are, at least for the duration of the campaign, living, breathing, and speaking. It is easy to be swept up in the pace, in the workload, in the tight communities that are formed.
“You hit the ground running and you don’t even realize how wholly surrounded you are by this whole atmosphere,” Ghai says. “Having dinner with my friends, having a normal conversation, somehow, give it five minutes and the conversation will turn to politics and my friends will ask me ‘Hey, can you talk about anything else ever?’”
While Ghai’s position prevents her from disclosing the specifics of her job, she describes her work as extremely time-sensitive and fast-paced—things can crop up at any moment, requiring immediate attention: “This is what you need to do. Do it right now, you have 20 minutes, go!” Ghai says in a light-hearted imitation of a task assignment.
The sensitivity of her work and its importance, however, is not lost on Ghai. “If I want to go get a glass of water and take two minutes to walk to the kitchen...people are very aware of the fact that what I’m doing just took two minutes longer,” says Ghai. “It’s not a problem in and of itself, but that’s the nature of the work I’m doing.”
“I feel like I know almost everybody,” says Ghai, referring to the 400-odd employees at the Romney headquarters. Ghai warmly shares one of her office anecdotes: “One of the girls in my office jokes that she’s like my little sister.”
Along with her co-workers, Ghai pulls long hours, sometimes staying in the office until 2:00 or 4:00 a.m. These hours are not enforced. Rather, she says, “I love spending time in the office, and sometimes my boss needs to tell me ‘Go home! You’re done!’” It is at moments like these, says Ghai sheepishly, that “I realize that I do need to eat dinner and so on.”
So close to the election, the sense of urgency has escalated. Work and life have converged to a concentrated point inside the Romney headquarters. In these last few weeks of the campaign, working lunches—with staffers crammed into a small room, tapping away at individual screens, leaving only to take calls—are the norm.
It is not unusual, Ghai recalls, for even the most simple daily tasks to be done together. When one staffer picks up dry cleaning, an invitation is often offered to pick up others’—no one knows when they’ll be leaving the office, or if the the dry cleaners will be open at that time.
“There is a lot of cooperation,” Ghai says. “Everybody looks out for each other. It does extend beyond work—it is important that there is loyalty to the candidate, but also loyalty to each other.”
A BALANCING ACT
Sarah T. Pierson ’14 works as an intern at the Romney campaign headquarters four days a week. She commutes 30-45 minutes to the North End in Boston, where the Romney offices are located, working anywhere from six to upwards of 10 hours a day. A History concentrator, her 11 hours of class per week are crammed into Tuesday and Thursday. Sleep is a distant dream, her blockmates have not seen her in days, and in the lead-up to Nov. 6, it’s all only going to get crazier.
“From the start I knew it would be difficult,” says Pierson, regarding her decision to intern for the Romney campaign while remaining a full-time student. Pierson has also put her varsity sailing career on hold. It was a painful decision—some of her best friends are on the sailing team, and they had just come out of a championship season. But, between her campaign job and catching up on missed schoolwork, there is not much room for anything else.
As an intern, Pierson has moved among various teams within the campaign, but she has never felt lost within the large office and its ever-moving, ever-expanding cycle of interns, staffers, and volunteers. “Within 10 minutes of walking in the door there was automatic integration,” she says.
Campaign headquarters have given Pierson a strong support system and a place where she has built deep relationships. “We’re all friends, we text each other all the time,” she says of her fellow interns. Being part of the campaign team is, for Pierson, “exhilarating and real, believing in something and working for a cause you believe in.”
It has not been so easy, however, transitioning back to campus life. “I have to constantly switch modes,” Pierson says. “It requires focus and the ability to compartmentalize.” It has at times been frustrating to make the transition. Pierson has less time to see her friends and roommates, to hang out like any other college student. “People sometimes don’t understand…” says Pierson, hesitating, “the commitment, what it involves,” she says.
The process of campaigning is inherently a collective one. A team of individuals come together to form a moving, shifting organic whole. For these students, to have been part of such teams is to have been swept into something bigger than themselves—the candidate, the campaign, the ideal. However—even though the process is one of losing themselves in the work—ultimately the journey is one of deeper self-discovery.
For Ki, working to convince others to support President Obama has allowed him to gain perspective on his own understanding of politics. “Even when I first started working on the campaign, just like any other college student who thinks hard about their political views, I questioned still,” he admits. Talking through the issues with undecided voters on the phone or at their doorsteps has helped solidify his stances. “Now that I’ve seen both sides, I’ve seen all those facts and figures—it makes me actually more firm in my beliefs.”
For the students who are taking time away from Harvard, leaving the bubble has given them an opportunity to broaden their perspectives—to learn about both the outside world and themselves.
“I think I’ve definitely gotten to know myself better and understand what matters to me a lot more,” says Ghai, reflecting on her campaign experience. “I have learned, in a more defined and chiseled-out fashion, what I care about and why I care about what I care about,” she concludes. For Hirschhorn, “What I’ve learned from working with other people...the experiences from outside Harvard—to work and then return—will make my time at Harvard more meaningful.”
As students immersed in campaigns have discovered on the ground, this kind of education has a steep learning curve. Thompson admits that canvassing and phone-banking can be frustrating when his efforts result in minimal contact with voters. “Once, when I was up in New Hampshire, I spent two to two and a half hours knocking on doors and I talked to one person,” he says. “And that person refused to talk to me about the election.”
Interactions like these can be discouraging for Thompson, but he still believes in the significance of his contributions to a larger movement. “I definitely have those moments where it’s like, ‘Okay, I could be spending my time more valuably right now than I am,’” he says. But Thompson always chooses to dial the next number, to knock on the next door, to keep working until the polls close. Ultimately, he continues, “You kind of just have to look back at the broader picture.”