St. Olaf College | News

Looking back at a month of primary politics in New Hampshire

A range of campaign signs, stickers, and buttons from recent years hang on a wall in the New Hampshire State House, which students in Professor of Political Science Dan Hofrenning’s Interim course visited this January. Photo by Dana Pflughoeft ’21

Most Americans only witness the more publicized view of political campaigns through televised debates and social media advertising. But behind the scenes, volunteers and campaign organizers tirelessly knock on doors in order to raise as much awareness about their candidates as possible and to encourage voter turnout.

This past January, a dedicated group of Oles traveled to New Hampshire to participate in this work on the front lines of a presidential primary. With Joe Biden now the presumptive democratic nominee and campaigns having slowed down and moved to virtual spaces, we want to reflect back on the experiences these St. Olaf College students had as part of the early campaigning process for this fall’s presidential election.

Led by Professor of Political Science Dan Hofrenning, the Interim New Hampshire Primary and U.S. Presidential Politics course allowed 24 St. Olaf students to study and work on presidential campaigns in the “first in the nation” primary. While in New Hampshire, the class saw seven different candidates during rallies and worked on four different presidential campaigns. About one-third of the students’ time involved more traditional classwork, with classes taught on the details and history of the primary and the broader process of nominating candidates in the U.S. But students spent the major portion of the course working on the campaigns, attending candidate rallies, and knocking on doors — lots of doors. Some students knocked on more than 1,000 doors during the month of January!

For some of the students, the experience didn’t end after returning to the Hill. On February 7, Finn Johnson ’22 and Julia Himmelberger ’22 joined Hofrenning on the TPT television program Almanac to talk about their hands-on experience working on the presidential campaigns. In addition, Hofrenning has continued to cover the nomination process, publishing an op-ed in the Star Tribune titled Did Amy Klobuchar’s legislative prowess hurt her?

“Before she ended her candidacy, Amy Klobuchar touted her legislative record of passing more than 100 bills in Congress. A Vanderbilt study called her the most effective senator in terms of getting legislation passed,” Hofrenning writes about Minnesota’s senior senator. “Does her withdrawal suggest that her legislative success may have been more of an albatross than a legitimate bragging point? With some exceptions, Americans generally have not valued legislative prowess in their presidential candidates.”

Dana Pflughoeft ’21, one of the students in the class, captured many of the moments that she and her fellow Oles experienced in the album below.

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Students from the course reflect on their experiences on the campaign trail below, noting the ups and downs of canvassing and the things they learned in the process. 

“The constructive conversations I have engaged in on the front porches of voters’ homes have allowed me to invest in my passion for politics and discuss the hopes and fears of American voters. My time knocking the doors of New Hampshire has caused me to reflect on the ability of politics to function as a catalyst for both connection and division. The choice of homeowners to engage with or ignore my canvassing efforts has challenged me to consider the question: Would I open the door?” — Devon Nielsen ’20

“While my partner and I were out canvassing in Pembroke, New Hampshire, a man called out to us from his driveway. He asked who we were canvassing for, and, after hearing we were with Elizabeth Warren, raised a question critical of her. We answered politely and then listened to and discussed with him about his issues with the democratic candidates and what he sees in need of fixing in the United States. Although we did not agree with much of what he said, it was a very positive interaction that gave me a better understanding of the issues Republicans and the working class find most important. I also hoped that our conversation left a positive impression on him.” — Julia Himmelberger ’22

“This course has already been so inspiring to me, but it really has nothing to do with the senators and governors I have watched speak. I’m inspired by the staffers from various campaigns, who are never hostile to each other because we all know we have the same goals in mind. I’m inspired by the New Hampshire voters, many of whom, 25 days out from the primary, still have not made up their minds, because they take so seriously the responsibility their state has in shaping the course of the primary election. And I’m inspired by my classmates, who skipped the opportunity of going to some tropical location to come to New Hampshire and play some small role in getting our democracy back on track (and yeah, maybe getting a selfie with Bernie along the way). All of these people give me hope for what our country’s politics can be at its best, and I am so excited for that hope to continue to grow.” — Bobby Isbell ’21

“The New Hampshire primary is of course massively important, but its importance leads to some overzealous campaigning. Our algorithmic overlords sent us to houses that had been successfully canvased only a day or two prior. The question thus becomes not ‘How can I convince these people that my candidate is the best?’ but rather ‘How can I convince these people that the process itself is worth a hearing?'” — Max Bradley ’22

“Canvassing with so many undecided voters puts more pressure on my ability to plug for my candidate and present her in the best possible light while adjusting for the issues the person I am canvassing cares about most. It’s allowed me to really dig into policy, as well as soul-search a little about why I really do think my candidate is the best on healthcare, the economy, climate change, and beating Trump. I’ve had many more insightful conversations with people who have a wide range of opinions on candidates and politics in the upcoming election than I ever imagined I would have as a volunteer, and that’s why for me, it’s been the best part of the trip so far — although getting a selfie with Mayor Pete is pretty high up there too.” — Sadie Druskin ’21