Campaigns draw Elis from four-year path

This fall semester, Josh Rubin ’14 will study political science at its finest. He will not, however, be enrolled in Approaches to International Security, a core class for all Global Affairs majors like himself. In fact, he will not be enrolled at Yale at all. He will be an intern at the Chicago headquarters of Obama for America.

After serving as elections coordinator for the Yale College Democrats — and organizing the national “Change Is” photo campaign for President Barack Obama — Rubin signed up as a national security policy intern for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign this summer. The decision to take a semester off for politics was not easy, he said, but in July he decided to follow suit with generations of Yalies.

“Ultimately, I decided that this was an opportunity I could not pass up,” Rubin said, “and I felt that this election is too important to sit on the sidelines.”

BRIGHT COLLEGE YEARS

Rubin is one of seven currently enrolled Yale students choosing to work on the Democratic presidential campaign in the fall: Evan Walker-Wells ’13, JD Sagastume ’14, Millie Cripe ’15, Zac Krislov ’15, Noah Remnick ’15 and Vinay Nayak ’14 are also dedicating their semesters to the Obama campaign. The News was unable to find any current students taking time off to support GOP candidates.

Those seven represent only a fraction of students who weighed the decision throughout all class years and on both sides of the political spectrum. Many others concluded that a traditional four-year experience better suited their needs academically, socially and politically — and even gave them a better opportunity to contribute to local and national campaigns.

Cody Pomeranz ’15 joined Obama’s Pennsylvania headquarters at the beginning of the summer looking to get experience working on a campaign, pursue an interest in speechwriting and support Obama’s reelection efforts. There were long hours and the work was often exhausting, he said, while adding that the sense of mission and camaraderie he felt with other members of the campaign made the experience worthwhile.

He said he did consider taking the fall semester off to continue his work, consulting with family, friends and coworkers. But ultimately, he decided to “stay on track” at Yale.

“In the end, as much as I would have loved to stay on the campaign trail, I felt like there was still a lot for me to explore at Yale,” Pomeranz said. “I want to try and get a more solid foothold on my place in New Haven in both academics and extracurriculars. I’ve got a lot of time ahead of me for more campaigns.”

Like Pomeranz, Alex Crutchfield ’15 considered spending the semester outside of the Elm City for the presidential race. In high school, Crutchfield worked for the California Republican party and his supervisor passed his name along to the campaign of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. In April, Crutchfield said he received an offer to help the Romney campaign in Colorado in a paid job — a rarity for an undergraduate political operative.

Crutchfield kept the offer to himself at the beginning, saying the decision was very personal for him. He said he worried about losing momentum at Yale. Transitioning to a new graduating class and abandoning his commitments for the year — including floor leader of the Right for the Yale Political Union and member of the Model United Nations Team — would be challenging, especially after just finishing his freshman year, he said.

“Missing out on these things would be tragic, and I would let down a lot of people,” Crutchfield said.

By the middle of May, Crutchfield had made up his mind. He turned down the offer, saying he did not feel he would be missed at the well-staffed Colorado office.

“I’m very interested in politics, and I don’t think it’s ever going to go away; it’s something I’m very passionate about,” Crutchfield said. “Sometimes you realize that what’s important in life and what you have to do take priority over your passions.”

At least two other current students are taking off this semester for the campaign season. Josh Kalla ’14 is working at Analyst Institute, a Democratic consulting firm, and Sam Hamer ’14 is interning at the White House.

Even outside of election years, there are always Yale students considering politics outside of the classroom. Michael Knowles ’12 said he has little regret for turning down offers for a more hands-on political education no fewer than three times while at Yale.

In the 2010 midterm congressional elections, Knowles served as special projects coordinator to U.S. Rep. Nan Hayworth, a Republican of New York’s 19th congressional district. Knowles chose to treat the campaign as an extracurricular activity. His work did not affect his school life save for “a little more stress and a little lower GPA.”

Over the next two years, he co-founded the Student Initiative to Draft Daniels PAC to convince Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to run for president in 2012 and later joined the Jon Huntsman campaign, but he was never willing to leave Yale for these causes.

“Politics is completely unpredictable and probably the least stable career you could get into,” Knowles said. “I loved the idea of having my Yale career remain a stabilizing force.”

Knowles said he felt he could accomplish more politically from Yale’s campus than in the field. Yale’s proximity to New York City — and the fundraising and political activity there — makes it a prime location to work on a campaign, he said. Knowles used Yale’s film resources, student leaders and name reputation to make political ads too. He even produced a web series with Jimmy McMillan of “the rent is too damn high” fame.

“We ended up being able to do a whole lot more from campus,” Knowles said. “College is supposed to be the best four years of your life — bright college years and all that — and I think it would have been a pretty bad decision to leave. Maybe I have a few more bags under my eyes, but I certainly don’t regret staying at Yale.”

But many Yale students who took a semester off for political campaigns in the past said they look back on their experience without a hint of regret. Brian Bills ’12 called his time working on the 2008 congressional campaign of Tom Perriello ’96 LAW ’01 “the most formative experience of my life.”

Sam Schoenburg ’12, who took time off to work on the Obama campaign in 2008, said it was the best thing he has ever done. Both he and Bills said the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of working on a campaign as a student was well worth the sacrifice of a four-year university path.

“I knew Yale had been around 300 or so years. It would probably be there when I got back in the spring,” Bills said. “I had roommates, I had a full plan, but [working on the campaign] was such a great opportunity that it was an obvious choice for me.”

YES WE CAN?

The day Obama won the Iowa caucus, Schoenburg said, was so exciting that he immediately knew he would take the semester off to work on his election campaign. Another Obama volunteer, Audrey Huntington ’12, said she was startled and upset by the state of the Obama campaign after spending her summer in Shanghai. Once on campus, she learned Sarah Palin was the vice-presidential nominee, and the announcement seemed to her to be a game changer.

“One weekend during shopping period, I realized I couldn’t do what I wanted on campus,” Huntington said. “So I left. It was the most compulsive decision I made in my life.”

Despite similar numbers of Yale students working on this year’s Obama campaign and 2008’s, the president is not expected to retain the same level of youth support on a national level, according to a spring Harvard Institute of Politics poll. While he won the youth vote by a larger margin than any president since World War II, Obama’s once 35 point lead among those aged 18 to 29 has slipped down to the teens, according to the HIP survey. Sean Smith, Yale’s Global Affairs director of undergraduate studies, said that with an incumbent president, much of the “mystery” is gone.

“It is always more exciting for someone running for the first time and representing a new direction for the country than someone who has been president for four years and who has to own the state of the country and economy,” Smith said.

The particularly negative tenor of the current presidential race has also decreased student enthusiasm, Crutchfield suggested.

Despite her great support of Obama in the 2008 election, Huntington said she would “definitely not” leave Yale if she were in the same situation this year.

“All reelection campaigns are less exciting,” she said. “While I really support President Obama and I am so happy he’s in office now and reelection is very necessary for this country, I don’t think it’s as testing or exciting as 2008.”

“Also,” she added, “We already elected our first African American president. We can’t do that again.”

CAMPAIGN PERKS

Students describe their work on campaigns as overwhelming, time-intensive and fulfilling. Many discuss being thrown into situations with little training, and hours are often long by even the harshest internships’ standards; Schoenburg said he had two days off from June to November 2008 — including weekends — and Bills said he was working seven days a week, 10 to 18 hours a day, on his congressional campaign.

“It made consulting jobs look easy,” Bills said.

But the job has its perks.

Smith, who now heads the Global Affairs capstone projects, said he began working on campaigns at age 17 and was “bit by the political bug.” He took time from college to work on Bill Clinton’s 1992 election, a decision he said he would make every time.

His experience working on campaigns brought him better jobs once the campaigns ended, Smith said — just out of college, for example, he got a paid job as campaign manager for a state representative because of his time with the Clinton camp. By 2008, Smith was working on Obama’s general election campaign as Pennsylvania communications director, and he landed a job in the Department of Homeland Security after the election.

“One of the great things about politics is it is a profession where young people can excel,” Smith said. “There is no age limit to how fast you can climb the ladder and gain more responsibility. No one cares if you’re 22 or 42. If you are getting the job done, you will be rewarded and promoted.”

Students say their experience on campaigns has been helpful outside the world of politics as well. Of the former political interns interviewed, only Knowles has continued working with elected officials, serving currently as a spokesperson for Hayworth. Others are working at Teach For America, non-profit Progressives United and at Yale.

Campaign work presents a number of academic opportunities as well. Eitan Hersh, political science assistant professor, said working on a campaign affords students the chance to get an inside view of how campaign operatives and other political actors behave. He advised students to remain at least partly objective to better analyze the situation around them.

“As a political scientist, the campaigns are the rats in the maze that we’re studying,” Hersh said.

Smith said the real-world experience campaign interns acquire can inform and complement the history, political theory and recent political races discussed and evaluated in class.

“There is no real education that prepares you for working on campaigns,” Smith said. “That’s not to say that the education available at Yale can’t be valuable. But the insight [gained from campaign work] will make them better students and inform their peers as well.”

Students said transitioning back to Yale can be challenging socially. Most Yalies taking time off for campaign work graduate a semester after their peers, and Huntington said she remembered her friends were “upset and hurt” by her decision to leave them and work on a campaign — Rubin, meanwhile, received 226 “likes” on his Facebook status announcing his decision to stay with the Obama team for the fall.

But students say the academic transition is smooth and painless.

“I think I learned more about how politics works in six months on a campaign than four year as a political science major,” Schoenburg said. “Our government is decided by elections. Elections are decided by campaigns. There is no better way to learn it than do it.”

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