Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016:
A girl stands at the front of the school bus, holding two sheets of 8x11 paper. “We all know why we’re doing this today,” she announces, brandishing one sheet in her left hand. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s smiling face peers out at us all. “We’re doing it for this woman.” The crowd cheers.
The girl retracts the photo, and replaces it with the sheet in her right hand, a photo of Donald Trump. “We all know how we feel about this man.” The crowd nods.
A girl with a blonde French braid and clear-framed glasses speaks up. “I hate him,” she says. “I hate him.” The bus takes off and rumbles through Cambridge.
The Harvard Dems are on a canvass trip to New Hampshire, and I’m tagging along. My editors have asked me to track the election as it plays out across campus for the next month. They wanted someone “impartial.”
(Who’s impartial, in this election? I’m Canadian, so I can’t vote. If I could vote, I’d vote for Hillary Clinton. But I can’t vote.)
At 10:30 a.m., the bus rolls to a stop in downtown Nashua and the Dems pour out, forming a raggedy line in front of the Nashua Democratic Party headquarters. I choose two people at random—Devontae A. Freeland ’19 and Alexandra Shpitalnik ’19—and tag along on their assignment.
Elizabeth Warren makes a cameo and shakes everyone’s hand.
A flannel-clad, van-owning man named Jeff picks us up at HQ and drops us off in a suburban neighborhood a little north of Nashua. The crosswalks are cherry brick, embedded neatly in the wide smooth roads. The houses are large and new and far apart. The residents are overwhelmingly white and retired.
The Dems begin to knock. Few people have heard of Colin Van Ostern (aspiring governor). People are split on Maggie Hassan (current governor; aspiring senator). Almost everyone is voting for Clinton. The day passes quickly.
By the time I climb back on the bus, I am almost certain that Clinton is going to win. How could she possibly lose?
John Della Volpe is the Director of Polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics.
Laura E. Hatt: There is a stereotype that millennials don’t vote, that they aren’t politically engaged. How true is that?
JDV: Young people don’t vote. That’s in large part true. Less than one in two people between 18 and 29 who are eligible to vote actually show up.
It doesn’t mean, though, that they’re apathetic. The reason that they don’t vote is because they have little faith or trust in the system, in the political establishment, that their vote will make a tangible difference. They prefer to find other ways to make their community and their country better, mainly through volunteerism.
LH: What about college students?
JDV: When I look at the college voter, clearly they are more likely than the average 18 to 29-year-old to vote. Something like 45 percent of all 18 to- 29-year-olds will vote on Nov. 8. You might have 55 or 60 percent of college students vote.
Monday, Sept. 26:
Plan A—The Institute of Politics Debate Screening
“Let’s GOOOO! We’re CLOOOOSED,” yells the security guard standing in front of the Institute of Politics. His arms are crossed and his expression is sour. It is 8:09 p.m. The first presidential debate begins in 51 minutes, and the IOP is already full.
“This fucking sucks,” says a man in a suit.
It does suck. At least 40 people are milling about the sidewalk in front of the building; groups are splitting off and others are arriving every few minutes. The IOP debate screening has been widely publicized, and it seems like half of Cambridge has shown up.
I raise my chin and approach the guard. “I’m a reporter for the Crim—” I say.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” he says, stepping right up in my personal space. I look him in the eye for three long seconds before I shrug and turn away.
Plan B—“Government 1359: The Road to the White House” Debate Screening
I reach the Science Center at 8:50 p.m., just in time to catch the end of The Road to the White House lecture and watch the room shift out of “class” mode.
The guy on my right slips out to pop popcorn, and the group to my left unzips their backpacks to reveal jumbo bags of candy corn and steel bottles of hard apple cider. Other students trickle in. The ambient noise rises. At 8:59 p.m., we count down together.
At 9 p.m., the debate begins.
Clinton strides onstage first. Her pantsuit is glaringly red. The Science Center erupts in gleeful approval, matching, then drowning out the studio audience.
Next, Trump emerges. The studio audience continues to cheer. In the Science Center, the applause peters out and dies. Someone boos.
The candidates take their place at the podiums and, for the next 90 minutes, proceed to tear each other apart. Clinton attempts to coin the phrase “Trumped-up trickle-down economics.” (The Science Center rocks with laughter.) Trump accuses Hillary of causing the Recession. (The Science Center is silent.) Clinton brings up the tax returns. (The Science Center cheers.) Trump brings up the emails. (The Science Center is silent. The studio audience loses it and Lester Holt has to stop the debate to lecture about respect.)
At 10:45 p.m., Gov 1359 lecturer Carlos E. Díaz Rosillo mutes the commentary and strides onstage. “Does anyone have any questions?” he asks.
A girl near the front raises her hand. “How is this a choice?” she asks, laughing.
Díaz Rosillo frowns. “Of course it’s a choice,” he snaps.
Elena Sokoloski ’18 is a junior Government concentrator and a phonebank organizer for the Harvard Dems. She has worked for the Ohio Democratic Coordinated Campaign.
LH: How do you watch the presidential debates?
ES: I’m in the Harvard University Band, so a bunch of us get together and watch them in the band room. Most of the band is liberal but I don’t know if that’s relevant—it’s just a very liberal group of students here.
LH: Who do people root for?
ES: Some people are very partisan, very much in favor of Hillary. Most of them are not partisan and were just standing back watching like, “Wow, Donald Trump… looks so creepy right now.” It had nothing to do with his policies. They were just watching the spectacle.
LH: Does anyone root for Trump?
ES: There is one person who doesn’t support Trump, necessarily, but makes sure that we aren’t being unfair to him. When somebody would call Trump out for something that he said, this kid would explain, “Actually that’s what he was going for. He was going for this thing.” And we said, “Oh, that makes sense.”
Friday, Oct. 7:
At 4:02 p.m., David Fahrenthold, a former Crimson editor, of the Washington Post shares his article on Twitter—“Trump recorded on hot microphone having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.”
At 10:21 p.m., the Harvard Republican Club posts on Facebook: “Donald Trump is immoral. He is disgusting. He is unworthy of the highest office in the land.”
Saturday, Oct. 8:
It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday—exactly two weeks after my canvass trip with the Dems—and I’m standing outside Quincy House in comfortable shoes, waiting to join another undergraduate political organization on a canvass trip to New Hampshire. I am hit by a wave of deja vu.
This time, though, two details are different. One: I’m canvassing with the Harvard Republican Club. Two: We’re not campaigning for a presidential candidate. After all, the Republican Club has refused to endorse Trump since Aug. 4, 2016, when it denounced Trump as “a threat to the survival of the Republic.” Its Facebook announcement has accumulated more than 133,000 shares and 189,000 likes to date.
Nope, we’re not traveling to Milford, N.H. for Donald Trump. We’re going for incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte.
“We don’t think either one of the candidates is going to be a good president, so we’re focusing on races like this one,” Republican Club treasurer Kent Haeffner ’18 says. “The president is going to need a strong Congress to stand up to them. We’re focused on the big picture.”
Unfortunately, “big picture” canvassing is a bit of a tough sell: Only four Republican Club members and an Ayotte organizer are here.
The Ayotte organizer briefs us as we drive. Apparently, Ayotte is a strong opponent of the Keystone pipeline. She plans to crack down on the opioid crisis. She misspoke last week when she said she would “absolutely” consider Trump a role model for children. The last bit of briefing is the most awkward: Ayotte has not yet taken a firm stance on Trump, and it’s not clear that she will.
By 11 a.m., I am standing on the shoulder of a one-lane country road in rural New Hampshire. The earth slopes away to either side of the road, merging with the hilly pastures below. Haeffner and J. Miguel Undurraga ’19 walk quickly, and I have to scurry to keep up.
A few houses in, Haeffner excuses himself to take a conference call. When he returns, he is bubbling over with excitement. “Miguel! Miguel!” he shouts, waving one arm and beginning to jog. Undurraga turns to look. Haeffner yells the news: As of 11:37 a.m., Ayotte has refused to endorse Trump.
“I’m a mom and an American first, and I cannot and will not support a candidate for president who brags about degrading and assaulting women,” Ayotte wrote in a statement announcing her decision. “I will not be voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and instead will be writing in Governor Pence for president on Election Day.”
Haeffner and Undurraga are jubilant. They scour Twitter, rattling off every senator and governor who has denounced Trump since last night’s scandal and hypothesizing who will be the next to go. “Twenty-four hours ago, this was a different race,” Haeffner says. #NeverTrump Twitter is going wild.
By mid-afternoon, every female Republican senator but one will withdraw her support.
Around 1:30 p.m., the Ayotte organizer picks us up and takes us to the Milford House of Pizza. I slide into a booth with Undurraga and a group of other Republican students from Dartmouth and Babson College, including Alex, a Dartmouth senior.
Unlike Haeffner, Undurraga, and most of the Harvard Republican Club, Alex supports Trump. Also unlike the Harvard Republican Club, Alex is not a longtime Republican. “I’ve actually identified as a Democrat until recently,” Alex says. “But I feel like the Democratic Party has moved too far left and is too focused on social issues and racial issues and not really focused on the economy.”
Undurraga looks shocked. “But you feel comfortable voting for someone from either party, right?” he says.
Alex shakes his head. “I don’t feel comfortable voting for a Democrat right now,” he says. “The Republicans, at least they have a conscience. A lot of them were reluctant to support Trump. Whereas, I never heard any Democrats come out and have second thoughts about Hillary. Do they care at all about character and integrity?”
Baffled, I look to Undurraga for guidance. He has edged all the way back in his booth and is gazing intently at the table, ignoring his co-canvasser as best he can.
Sunday, Oct. 9:
The second presidential debate hardly makes a dent on campus. It’s Columbus Day weekend, after all, and many students have gone home.
Alexander J. Cullen ’18 is a junior biomedical engineering concentrator and secretary of the Harvard Republican Club. On Oct. 4, 2016, he published a controversial op-ed in the Crimson titled “In Defense of Donald Trump.” On Oct. 10, three days after the Washington Post leaks the Trump tape, we meet in Harvard Yard.
LH: Why did you decide to write the op-ed?
AC: I know that my perspective is not popular, and I don’t have any shame in that. I wanted to get it out there so that people actually have something to contemplate that they wouldn’t receive otherwise at a campus like Harvard.
LH: Did you experience any kind of social backlash?
AC: Within the Republican Club, my position of being a Trump supporter is not super popular on the board. I’ve taken a little bit of silent flak for it—an unspoken disapproval.
LH: Do you know other Trump supporters on campus?
AC: I’m more of, not a loner as a Trump supporter, but a loner as someone who’s become more active and more verbal about being one. There are a couple people who, not naming any names, but they’ll talk to me. They might not be as ready to support Trump, but they’ll definitely say pro-Trump things and negative anti-Hillary things. They just won’t come out and say it publicly.
Saturday, Oct. 15:
I wake up in Brooklyn, in the bony bunk bed of a second-floor walkup “hostel” in East Flatbush. I leave at 9 a.m., ignoring the thick layer of white powder (baking soda?) that has accumulated on the stairs overnight.
I’ve left campus this weekend to track down Harvard students taking time off to work on political campaigns. I figure they must have some kind of special understanding of the election, some kind of exceptional insight. You don’t just do this—put your whole life on hold, graduate off-cycle, pack up your stuff and move to New York—on a whim, right?
My first interview is in Brooklyn Heights, at 10 a.m.
Sarafina J. Chitika ’18 is a Biomedical Engineering concentrator who’s currently taking the semester off to work as a full-time digital marketing intern at the Clinton campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.
LH: How did you get involved in politics back on campus?
SC: I don’t really do politics at Harvard. Once, I got in an argument about politics. This girl was like, ‘You should be on the debate team. Why don’t you do debate?’ Uh, because people who like to argue for fun are the worst.
I try to hear different people’s opinions. I think when people are really involved in politics—and this is a terrible thing to say because now I’m really involved in politics—when they’re really a known IOP or Dems person, they’re just point-blank not able to have the same conversations with people. I think there’s a culture of judging people for their political groups. Campus is obviously very, very liberal, in a very aggressive way. I just wasn’t interested in being part of that conversation.
LH: So why work for Hillary?
SC: The media coverage kind of drove me to get involved in the campaign because I felt like it was so gendered. In [Women and Gender Studies 1225: Leaning In, Hooking Up: Visions of Feminism and Femininity in the 21st Century] we spoke a lot about caricatures, and when I turned on the news I saw it: an untrustworthy powerful woman. I’m tired of the caricature. It’s old and it’s tired. Electing the first female president? It’s about damn time.
LH: How does digital marketing affect the campaign?
SC: We do all the paid digital advertising—the Facebook advertising and Twitter advertising and Snapchat advertising. [You have to understand] the extent to which data is being used to make sure we’re giving these ads to the right people. We’re not going to pay to send an ad that says “register to vote” to a 45-year-old white man. He’s probably already registered to vote. We’re targeting these ads towards certain demographics to make sure we’re reaching people in the most effective way.
LH: Which demographics do you target?
SC: We’re looking for the people who are likely to vote for us [but] are a) not going to turn out or b) going to vote for a third party candidate. Millennials are a big target demographic for us. Also independents, swing voters, moderate Republicans. We’re far more interested in those people.
The campaign isn’t concerned about Trump supporters, because at the end of the day they’re going to support Trump. He could walk down on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and his supporters would be like “Second Amendment rights!” and they’d stand by him. If you support Trump, you’re never going to support Hillary.
LH: Have you met a lot of Trump supporters? Do you feel like you understand them?
SC: Have I met a lot of Trump supporters? No. I have Republican friends, back home, but I don’t have Trump supporter friends.
I live in Currier House, and Currier House put Donald Trump in our Housing Day video. A lot of people of color were really offended, but there were some students in the House that were like, “Oh, it’s just a joke. It was meant to be satire.” That was the moment I realized that being able to laugh at Donald Trump is a product of your privilege. You think he’s funny because you’re not going to be the one getting deported.
That’s when it really hit me that, as liberal as Harvard is, a lot of people write Trump off. I think they really underestimate the undercurrent of tension in this country, and how powerful he is.
Saturday, Oct. 15:
Chitika guides me through the Clinton campaign headquarters. The walls are plastered with slick “I’m With Her” posters and nubbly “Stronger Together” flags. A 10-foot “H” covers an entire wall. A tiny pumpkin announces “IWillVote.Com” in black Sharpie. Twenty- and thirty-somethings in casual dress hunch over low desks as far as the eye can see. The air ripples with gentle keyboard sounds. Chitika is visibly proud.
I take Chitika’s photo in front of the giant “H.” She asks me to send it to her, and she posts it on social media with the caption, “So my daughter knows she can be president.” It gets 250 likes on Instagram and 281 likes on Facebook.
By lunchtime I am back on the bus.
Gwen R. Thomas ’17 is an English concentrator, a former Crimson business editor, and the former president of the Harvard Republican Club. She is taking the semester off to intern for the Google Election Team, a bipartisan digital marketing agency in Washington D.C.
LH: Google Election Team is a bipartisan service, but you’re a Republican. Do you cross party lines?
GT: Google asked us, “What team are you on?” I work with Republican clients and the Dem interns work with Dem clients. Of course, we’re firewalled from each other. It wouldn’t be good if the same person working on Hillary’s campaign is the same person working on Trump’s campaign. It’s all down-ballot candidates—like I said, Super PACs and things like that.
LH: It seems like this job has a business side and a politics side. Which are you here for?
GT: I was definitely interested on the politics side. I did Crimson business, I did business and advertising, but I was excited about politics and understanding the back end of campaigns. How do you get your name recognition up? How do you get your voters to come out to the polls?
LH: So why not work on a campaign directly?
GT: [If I wasn’t working at Google,] I think I would have preferred to [continue as] president of the Harvard Republican Club, if only because the opportunities to volunteer and run the club and engage there would have been wonderful. I could have left to work on a campaign, but I also could have stayed to help other people get super engaged in campaigns.
LH: Are Harvard students politically engaged?
GT: When I think of Harvard, I think of the times when I would sit at Lamont [with my friends], we would see something in our newsfeed, and all my friends would start talking about it. In a lot of other places, maybe young people don’t sit around talking about politics, but I’ve always found that people are very willing to engage at Harvard. People don’t shy away from these serious discussions, and people don’t lose friends. In some ways, it is homogenous, for sure, but that makes it interesting when I ask people why they all feel the same way.
Sunday, Oct. 16:
Thomas guides me through the Google office on my way out. Unsurprisingly, the space is sleek. The lounges are stocked with large fridges and even larger cappuccino machines. The nap pods (remember that terrible Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson movie/marketing ploy “The Internship”?) are real. I type my parent’s home address into a computer and the walls around me come to life, a 24-square-foot 180-degree Google Maps.
Thomas is sleek, too. Calm, polished, thoughtful. About 10 notches less exuberant than Chitika. In fact, it’s not until I’m halfway back to Boston that I realize I didn’t learn anything about her politics. Why is she here? Which campaigns does she handle?
Who is she going to vote for?
Wednesday, Oct. 19:
It’s the evening of the third debate. Having learned my lesson, I arrive at the IOP with a plan—the Republican Club has booked a private screening in the FDR room, and I’m invited.
I scuttle inside and nab a seat at the table. Only a few Republican Club members are here so far. They tap away at their laptops in relative silence. The minutes pass slowly until I notice the patriotic mini-cupcakes scattered about and slip out to investigate.
As it turns out, the FDR room opens directly onto the JFK Junior Forum, where a crowd is watching on a larger screen. I spot a friend in the crowd and sit down with her.
“Look at that pantsuit!” my friend hisses in my ear, pointing to the scene being projected above us. Clinton emerges from her SUV, dressed in blinding white. “She looks so presidential.”
The opening comments begin and I scurry back to the Republican Club’s room. As I enter, someone points at Clinton. “Look at that pantsuit!” she says. “She looks like a bedsheet.” Laughter ripples among the 15 or 20 people in the room.
I begin to get nervous. I’ve never really heard anyone on campus make fun of Clinton before.
The second laugh, though, is at Trump’s expense (“wrong!”). So is the third (“bad hombres”). So is the fourth (after Trump refuses to accept the results of the election if he loses)—although it’s more of a mass gasp than a laugh.
The rest of the time, the FDR room is silent. It’s not the attentive silence of the first debate at the Science Center, nor is it the disinterested silence of the second debate. Every Republican here—and there are more than a dozen—just looks… discouraged.
Every so often, cheering swells in the Forum.
Declan Garvey ’17 is a History concentrator in Mather House, and the current president of the Harvard Republican Club.
LH: The Harvard Republican Club refused to endorse Trump in August. How did that affect the club?
DG: Last year we started with 40 members, and by our fourth meeting we probably had 15 to 20. This time we started with 150 and by our fourth meeting we had 50 to 60 people.
LH: Did the decision make it more acceptable to be Republican on campus?
DG: Yes. I think it gave us a degree of goodwill. It gave us the ability to speak to parts of the school that wouldn’t have listened before, to put it bluntly. Democrats have come up to members of the club and said, “We really respect what you guys did.”
There’s this meme on #NeverTrump Twitter, “Strange New Respect.” Democrats will tweet at #NeverTrump people, “I have strange new respect for you and your positions.” Of course, as soon as the election’s over they’ll go back to “You’re a crazy right-wing nutjob.”
LH: Are you going to vote for Trump?
DG: I’m going to vote third-party because I’m in Illinois. If I was in a swing state I would be voting for Hillary, because Trump is dangerous. I could never see myself supporting him.
LH: Do you understand why people vote for Trump?
DG: I’m from Illinois. I come from a family that is Republican. I have family members that are voting for Trump. I am one of the more conservative people on campus, probably, and I don’t fully understand it. I still can’t fully grasp how you’re able to overlook him and all these hypocrisies and double standards in his candidacy.
LH: Does the average Harvard student understand why people vote for Trump?
DG: No. If I can’t understand it then I don’t see how more liberal people, from the East Coast, from areas that are less inclined to support Trump, would start to grasp it. A lot of people on this campus probably haven’t met a Trump voter in their life. I think people are genuinely trying to understand. But it’s hard, if you haven’t lived those experiences. I haven’t either.
The country is two completely different worlds. That’s what we’re realizing in this election. There’s the urban population and the rural population. Different set of facts, different worldviews, different beliefs, different everything.
Sunday, Oct. 23:
It’s Sunday evening, and I’m on Facebook.
A guy I met freshman year has shared a photo by Humans of New York about a little boy who wants to be president of Venezuela. I like it.
My standing Thursday dinner date has posted a photo with a caption about Beyoncé. I like that too.
Someone I knew in high school has liked an article by the New York Post, accidentally dredging its other content up into my dash. “Eleanor Roosevelt’s ‘mistress’ died heartbroken and alone,” the New York Post informs me. “Celebs celebrate Chicago Cubs win in style,” it says. “Trump leading in poll that has best record over last three elections.” A tiny image of the orange man smiles out at me.
What? That must be wrong. Everyone’s been saying that Clinton’s going to win.
I scroll down my newsfeed. Someone in the Dems has shared the New York Times again. “Victory in Sight, Clinton Seeks to Leverage Lead Down the Ballot,” the front page states with assurance.
“Clinton Leads Trump By Double Digits,” promises a girl from my freshman dorm, via MSNBC.
“16 DAYS LEFT: HILLARY ON FIRE!” screams a guy in my section, via the Huffington Post.
I am relieved. I am so relieved. Post-debates, post-sexist tape, the presidential race feels like it’s passed some kind of turning point. I truly think Clinton is going to win. My friends think Clinton is going to win. The New York Times thinks Clinton is going to win.
But—I never really believed she could lose. I don’t mean I haven’t aware of the possibility. I was. I am. I know that some people are repelled by Clinton’s cool professionalism (and/or her gender.) I understand that America has a vast, angry, usually politically apathetic electorate that’s been roused by Trump’s rhetoric of nationalism and change. I’ve seen their Facebook posts, their lawn signs, their hats.
I’ve just never met them.