Leading the Charge: The Diehards

Campaign teams stand at the helm of sophisticated, savvy election efforts

Campaigns for the Undergraduate Council extended far beyond the candidates themselves. Like in national elections, campaigns at Harvard are tightly-run, well-oiled operations in which a candidate can be only as strong as the campaign staff that stands behind him.

In the fall of 2006, then-UC presidential and vice presidential hopefuls Ryan A. Petersen ’08 and Matthew L. Sundquist ’09 used lunches and other forms of one-on-one meetings to round up close friends and UC colleagues who would serve as loyal workers in their quest to secure the council’s top two spots.

In the end, their campaign staff—with a core of 30 and a total of about 150—was charged with everything from ironing out the minutiae of the candidates’ proposals to setting the campaign budgets.

Some staffers even played more personal roles—like making sure that candidates looked snazzy while campaigning.

“Usually I would go to his room and pick out his clothes for the next day,” Matthew R. Greenfield ’08 says of the apparently fashionless Sundquist, the current vice president who is now vying for the council’s top spot. “We basically had to make him not spend the whole week in sweatpants.”

Since the Election Commission that runs the presidential race places strict limits on campaigning—currently, the race lasts only eight days, and there are controlls on communication, such as an ban on e-mail campaigning—it is nearly impossible for a candidate to contact the thousands of student voters himself.

As a result, presidential wannabes must rely on their proxies to perform a variety of tasks, from knocking on doors to collecting endorsements to holding signs and shouting at passerby in front of the Science Center.


“The campaign was so detailed and structured it really encompassed when we woke up, when we ate, and who we talked to,” says Adam Goldenberg ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, who made an unsuccessful bid for the vice presidency of the council last year.

Staffers were responsible for filling every minute of every day with meetings, strategy, and, for the candidates, sleep.

“I actually slept more during the campaign than I normally do,” says Petersen. “They would say, you go to sleep and we’ll handle the budget crisis.”

For candidates, time was their worst enemy. In the Hadfield and Goldenberg campaign, a task such as reading and responding to messages was even considered too time-consuming for the candidates.

“Halfway through the campaign, [presidential hopeful] Tom [D. Hadfield ’08] was going so crazy not being able to check his e-mail,” says Mark A. Shepard ’08, the chief of staff for the Hadfield-Goldenberg ticket. “He set up a meeting where he was going to check his e-mail for five minutes in the Science Center.”


Every morning during the election, Tracy E. Nowkski ’07, Petersen and Sundquist’s campaign manager, held an 8 a.m. “war room” meeting with the candidates and their staff to plan the day’s agenda.

“It would help me to figure out what the best use of Ryan and Matt’s time was at any given moment in the campaign,” Nowski says.

For Nowski—at the time, a thesis-writing senior—it was her close friendship with the candidates that motivated her to give her fall to the effort.

“You really have to believe in people,” Nowski says, “knowing that I was not even going to be there for most of their administration.”

Greenfield, who served as a close advisor on the campaign, points to other motivations for the early-morning meetings and late-night strategy sessions.

“At the end of the day I really enjoy the sport of it,” says Greenfield. “Even at its most makes two weeks out of the year full of extremely high adrenaline, filled with great joy and great friendships.”


As chief of staff, Shepard was charged with managing what he calls the “unwieldy beast”—a campaign of over 150 student volunteers.

Both the Petersen-Sundquist ticket and the Hadfield-Goldenberg ticket relied on “House captains” and “Yard captains” to ensure that every corner of Harvard’s campus heard their respective messages, and that these messages had to be consistent.

“You have to have a large bureaucracy of people in these campaigns,” Shepard said.

Greenfield also said that bureaucracy is a necessary evil of even such a short campaign effort.

“When you’ve got 100 people running around, you’ve got to keep them organized,” he says. “Or you’ll have people campaigning off-message or some people breaking campaign rules and the candidates will get in trouble with the Election Commission.”


But a staffer’s role is more than just scheduling a candidate’s time and managing a staff.

Nowski says that it was also her job to take two ordinary students with a message and transform them into a president and a vice president.

“I remember staying behind in Lowell dining hall and having them talk to me from across the room on the platform,” she said. “I was teaching them how to project their voices.”

—Staff writer Abby D. Phillip can be reached at