Students get hands-on experience ahead of New Hampshire primary

Alex Miller and Vimin Nanavati canvas a neighborhood on behalf of the Ron Paul campaign on Jan. 5. Twenty-eight of our students from across our academic schools and colleges are in New Hampshire working with Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls to get out their message and encourage people to vote for them in the Jan. 10 primary. By Jan 10, the students will have spent 14 days leading up to the primaries in the state in what may be the only such collegiate academic-grassroots campaigning experience in the country.

Twenty-eight undergraduates, spanning university disciplines, are spending two weeks in New Hampshire prior to the state’s 2012 presidential primary. To drum up support for their chosen candidates, students are canvassing neighborhoods, calling residents and helping to coordinate town hall meetings and rallies in hopes of influencing potential voters.

Scott McLean, professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences, has prepared the students for this hands-on experience with an advanced-level presidential campaigns seminar on grassroots campaigning.

“Last semester, real politics tumbled into the classroom every day, because students could really see how political science applied to their hard work of organizing voters in New Hampshire,” he said. “Very few political science courses integrate campaigning work with a college course to this degree of intensity. New Hampshire is only a three-hour drive away from campus so we have a laboratory for applying and honing our knowledge of voter outreach strategies.”

This is the largest class McLean has brought to the Granite State since he began teaching the course in 2000. Prior to their 10-day stay in January, the students spent two weekends in October and November in New Hampshire. Between trips, students worked remotely with the campaigns.

At the beginning of the fall term, each student chose a presidential candidate to support. Students chose to work with the Huntsman, Obama, Paul, Perry, Romney and Santorum campaigns. Much of their class time was spent debating hot campaign issues.

“This class has been great,” McLean said. “They have been able to develop their talents as grassroots organizers. They have gotten a lot of attention and personalized training from the campaigns – certainly much more than other volunteers.”

The campaigns have had so much confidence in the students that several have put them in charge of training volunteers, McLean said.

The experience gave recent graduate Tara McMahon a better understanding of politics.

“I didn’t understand how important the grassroots organization aspect was to a campaign,” she said. “I feel like we’re making a difference.”

McMahon, who graduated in January, applied for a fellowship with the Obama campaign to help organize events and energize voters.

“This is an amazing experience,” she said. “We’ve been inspired to make a difference.”

Alex Miller, a public relations major in the School of Communications, said the course opened his eyes to how much work goes into winning a campaign.

“A lot of work goes into getting one vote. You really see that when doing this,” said Miller, who went door-to-door speaking with independent and Republican voters about Ron Paul in a neighborhood in southern New Hampshire.

“To be successful, you need the right combination of teamwork and self-motivation,” said Vimin Nanavati, a biology major in the College of Arts and Sciences, who worked with Miller. “For me personally, I am now better able to adapt more quickly to an unfamiliar situation.”

Adam Saunders, a political science major, said the course enabled him to meet other Quinnipiac students and people from other parts of the country he would likely not have met otherwise.

“It’s a lot of fun to interact with voters, volunteers and other students who care,” he said. “This is a great environment to learn.”

The students brought an important element to the campaigns, said Frank Benenati, regional press secretary for the Obama campaign.

“We could not be happier that they are here to help,” he said. “We thrive off of their enthusiasm and love that they are so engaged and involved.”

Benenati said the course also benefits the students.

“They get to be on the front lines,” he said. “They get real, first-hand experience of what it takes to be on a campaign – and what it takes to win a campaign on the grassroots level.”

Ben Cloutier, a political science major, said working as a team helped him to get more out of the course.

“This experience has given me a greater understanding of our political world,” said Cloutier, who attended a political rally in a packed airport hangar while in New Hampshire. “It’s great to be working toward a common cause with a common goal in mind.”

Michelle Gearrity, a broadcast journalism major in the School of Communications, who began working with the Perry campaign but transitioned to the Santorum camp, said she believes her work will help her in her future broadcast journalism career.

“I like the fast-paced nature of this,” said Gearrity, who helped to organize a town hall meeting in Manchester, N.H. “I like jumping in and going to the next speech and event.”

Jordanne Anderson, a criminal justice and political science double major in the College of Arts and Sciences, also worked with the Perry campaign. The two students received tickets to a nationally televised debate for their work.

“It was awesome,” Anderson said. “Just the access we have to the candidates is amazing. It makes them feel so much more real. You could be talking to a future president. It’s incredible.”

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