SCHENECTADY Some Union College students got to hang out with presidential candidates Jon Huntsman, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in New Hampshire recently.
Instead of going some place warm to work on their tan during their holiday break, nine students got an up-close look at the nuts and bolts of a presidential campaign. They spent three weeks in New Hampshire during their “mini-term” between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, working on the campaigns of Republican presidential candidates.
Zoe Oxley, a professor of political science at Union, said it was a great experience. Students helped set up town hall meetings, rallies and events. They made calls to voters, organized sign-wavers on street corners and put up lawn signs.
“We really got a nice understanding of the dynamics of the New Hampshire primary and some good insight into the retail politics,” she said. “They’ve been really welcomed, and their work has been highly valued.”
Oxley had the idea to create a mini-term in New Hampshire. She had served as an adviser for John Tomlin, a 2008 Union College graduate, who spent his break in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina covering the campaign. Matt Gerien, a 2004 graduate, spent his winter break there during the 2004 primary. She thought that those students’ experiences would create an interesting class that combined coursework with real-world experience.
In addition to the internship, students have to write final essays, and they will hold a lunchtime roundtable discussion on campus after Tuesday’s primary.
Sophomore Nicholas D’Angelo of Carmel in Putnam County said he has a passionate interest in presidential politics, so he couldn’t pass up the experience. He worked on several local Republican campaigns for state Senate and Congress.
“I was also interested in studying the grassroots organization that took place at the presidential campaign level,” he said in an email describing his experience.
D’Angelo worked with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. New Hampshire is all about retail politics and candidates meeting voters, which he said Huntsman has done.
“While he’s considered an underdog in the nominating process, he has been in the state the most of any candidate,” D’Angelo said.
All that personal contact appears to be paying off. When Huntsman’s campaign team arrived in Manchester, N.H., in late November, their candidate was polling a distant fifth in most polls, according to D’Angelo. But by the time the students left, Huntsman was in third place.
“Overall, what I learned from the Huntsman campaign was that you need to work hard to earn your place,” D’Angelo said. “And never count anyone out.”
Despite the large ground operation in New Hampshire, D’Angelo admitted that Huntsman lacked a clear message and memorable campaign style.
“He’s a genuine and goofy-father-like man when you meet him in person; unfortunately that comes off as quirky when you’re not seeing him face to face,” he wrote.
D’Angelo is predicting a victory for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who narrowly edged former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum by eight votes in Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses.
“The Republican Party operates in a way that honors its ‘longest standing.’ But with Huntsman’s strong grassroots effort, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take second place,” D’Angelo said.
D’Angelo added that the plummeting fortunes of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was pummeled by attack ads in Iowa, leave room for Huntsman to capture the runner-up spot.
Writing his email before the results of the Iowa caucus, D’Angelo said if U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas won there, it could give him momentum. Paul finished third in Iowa.
D’Angelo said he became interested in local politics while a senior at Fordham Prep high school in the Bronx. He and his friends didn’t like the direction of the country and formed the Be Heard political action committee and registered it with the Federal Elections Commission. He worked with candidates from the local county legislature to the U.S. Senate.
During the summer, the group began new chapters in Suffolk and Nassau counties and will be starting a Capital Region chapter in the coming weeks.
He may be active in as many as seven congressional elections from Suffolk County to Albany, he said.
“The NH mini term provided firsthand experience about large-scale campaigning that can be used during our local contests,” he said.
The other students who went on the trip were junior Elite Williams of Schenectady; seniors Andrew Cahill of Kingston, Ben Engle of Rye Brook, Brooke Donnelly of New York City, Ian Schwartz of Melville, Danielle Steinmetz of Wantagh and Hanna Squire of Cheshire, Conn., and sophomore Zach Jonas of Brookline, Mass.