For Michael Knowles ’12, who served as former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s national youth co-chair, the presidential candidate was not always his first choice.
Instead Knowles, along with fellow Yalie Max Eden ’11, had decided to support Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. In fall 2010, the pair started the Student Initiative to Draft Daniels Political Action Committee, which raised money and produced commercials — such as Knowles’ widely viewed “The Deficit Is Too Damn High” video — to encourage Daniels to join the GOP primary race.
But Knowles and Eden could not convince Daniels to run. Even after the duo met with Daniels in both Washington, D.C. and Indiana, the governor announced on May 21 that he would not join the presidential race.
The following day, the Yalies received a call from John Weaver, Huntsman’s chief strategist, who had seen the work Knowles and Eden had done in trying to draft Daniels. He invited the duo to join the Huntsman campaign.
Although Knowles served as the leader of college supporters in Huntsman’s organization, most college-aged students who work on campaigns spend most of their time in entry-level positions, calling voters or inputting data.
The work of any student volunteer on a campaign can be frustrating, though, and Knowles is just one of a handful Yalies who have worked on one of the GOP challengers’ political campaigns this past year. Knowles said he felt the experience was worthwhile even after Hunstman decided to leave the race on Jan. 16. Tyler Carlisle ’15, whose candidate of choice is former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, said that his time spent working for the Santorum campaign, too, has been rewarding.
“Whenever you work on something for a very long time it’s great to see it come to fruition, just like any other project or undertaking that you do,” he said.
JOINING THE CAMPAIGN
Knowles said that soon after receiving Weaver’s call, he and Eden were flown to a Huntsman fundraiser to meet the governor.
“He just walked up, he looked at me and said ‘You, you’re great, I’m glad we have you,” Knowles said. “It was just such a striking way to meet the governor, who was at that point a very serious contender for president.”
Knowles said he spent his summer working for Huntsman on the Hertog Political Studies Fellowship in Washington, D.C., where he built the campaign’s organization of young voters and young professionals. Along with co-chair Jeb Bush Jr., the son of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and Mike Ventre, the chair of the New York College Republican State Committee, Knowles contacted other college Republicans in an effort to convince them to join Huntsman’s network.
Knowles travelled around New Hampshire with Huntsman to convince voters to support the former U.S. ambassador to China. Once in a while, Knowles said, working for the campaign could be “surreal.” In one story Knowles described, he was riding in a car with Eden, Huntsman and Huntsman’s wife when the candidate asked the Yalies if they wanted to go into politics. Knowles said they responded in the affirmative — they were working with the governor for a reason — and he said Huntsman then gave them some advice: don’t run for Congress.
“It’s difficult to get anything accomplished [in Congress],” Knowles recalled Huntsman telling them. “You can do a lot more as an executive.”
Huntsman then abruptly stopped speaking, Knowles said, directed his gaze out the window and pointed: “Hold on guys, check out that moose.”
Although Huntsman poured the majority of his time and resources into New Hampshire, betting the survival of his campaign on success in the Granite State, the former ambassador placed a distant third in New Hampshire behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Sen. Ron Paul. Still, Knowles said he felt Huntsman “did quite well” in the state given the candidate’s media coverage and low poll numbers in weeks leading up to the election.
Carlisle, from New Hampshire, said he began volunteering for Santorum’s presidential campaign about a year ago after he first met the candidate.
The decision to volunteer for Santorum, Carlisle said, hinged not only on his support of the candidate’s political stance but also on Carlisle’s own ability to be a part of the campaign.
“It’s always a mix of things,” Carlisle said. “It’s certainly a combination of the candidate’s positions that you support and the opportunity to be involved with the campaign stuff.”
In comparison, suitemates Owen Barrett ’15 and Hillary Ryan ’15 said they spent part of their fall term debating political philosophy before they stumbled upon their candidate: Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
“I’d always liked the libertarian philosophy, and I agreed with his approach to politics,” Ryan said of his candidate.
The two then realized they wanted to commit to Paul’s libertarian ideals and founded Yale’s Youth for Ron Paul chapter — joining nearly 500 other chapters at high schools, colleges and universities across the nation.
Barrett and Ryan sought to use the group to find like-minded Paul supporters on campus in order to spread the candidate’s core message and help Paul win the Republican nomination. Their involvement soon brought them to Iowa, which hosts the first contest of the primary, over winter break.
Though they joked about “spending Christmas with Paul” after receiving an invitation to do so from Edward King, the head of Youth for Ron Paul, Barrett said that the two realized that they wanted to “contribute meaningfully” to the campaign while it was in its early stages in Iowa.
“I’d never been on the ground in an election,” Ryan said. “I wanted to see how that worked.”
Although he said his work in New Hampshire primarily consisted of “not sleeping” — and he missed the first three days of the semester because of it — Carlisle said he did it because Santorum’s mix of working-class populism and social conservatism resonated with him.
“Really, campaign staff don’t do it because they’re getting paid,” Carlisle said. “[Campaign staff are] a lot of dedicated people who took significant financial losses [to volunteer], who truly believed in the message.”
The high point for Knowles, he said, was when he went with Huntsman to Dixville Notch, a 12-person village in New Hampshire that is traditionally the first to vote in the state’s primary.
“That was probably my favorite moment, stumping in New Hampshire — he tied for first [in Dixville Notch],” Knowles said. “Just being a part of something that is bigger than yourself is great.”
RETURNING TO CAMPUS
In a race with as many candidates as were in the GOP primary — 11 candidates were officially declared at one point during the primary season — there are bound to be some frustrations. But as candidates like Huntsman dropped out of the race, Knowles, currently chairman of the Yale College Republicans, said he took solace in the fact that more and more conservatives have emerged on campus over the past year.
At this weekend’s Partisan Pong, which set the Yale Democratss against the Yale Republicans in a competition of beer pong, Knowles said he thought the Yale Republicans would be outnumbered 300 to four.
Instead, he said he was surprised to find that both sides had roughly the same number of people, with Knowles estimating roughly 30 to 40 people showing up to support the GOP — which he said wouldn’t have been possible two or three years ago.
“These national races helped the Yale community,” Knowles said. “They helped the conversation and helped getting people more involved.”
While he was still in the race, Knowles said, Huntsman had the support of nearly every college conservative, including the various chairmen of state College Republican chapters. At the campaign’s high point, the campaign counted amongst its supporters 180 college chapters, he said.
While Santorum is generally considered among the most conservative GOP candidates, Carlisle said he has not seen any backlash at Yale — “where the majority of the population is liberal” — for his involvement in the campaign. He added that, through organizations such as the William F. Buckley Program and the Yale Political Union, he has made a number of friends who are also conservative.
“I would say that the campus is more conservative than people would think,” Carlisle said. “People will disagree with ideas, that’s fine, that’s a natural part of the process.”
Knowles, who acknowledges that Romney ultimately “clobbered” Huntsman in New Hampshire, said he found out about Huntsman’s withdrawal from the race by reading the news, and had it confirmed by other Huntsman staffers over Facebook. Still, he said it didn’t come as a surprise, as the campaign “knew it was a matter of time” after a disappointing third-place finish in New Hampshire.
After Daniels decided not to run and Huntsman left the race, Knowles said he is calling it quits for now.
“I’m done,” Knowles said. “I’m clearly terrible at picking presidents, so I’m done.”
While he wrote a Romney endorsement for the Daily Caller and said he’s happy to help out the Romney campaign, Knowles is heading to New York to work as an actor and as the executive directory of a charitable foundation, and said he does not plan to be working in the White House next year. Eden left Huntsman’s campaign last year to work on a business venture, Knowles added.
Still, Knowles does not think his efforts have been in vain. Now, he said, the Yale Republicans have at least 20 members in regular attendance, with many more who come to events like partisan pong.
“After we had the national exposure last year, the College Republican Committee at Yale grew leaps and bounds,” Knowles said. “Our membership originally was like two people.”
At the same time, Ryan and Barrett said they are hopeful that, whether or not Paul eventually wins the nomination, the chapter can continue to grow at Yale.
Barrett said he thinks many Yalies would find that Paul is the candidate who actually aligns closest with their views, despite what he described as “a certain blue-washing” of students at Yale who do not necessarily think about government but subscribe to popular beliefs.
Nominating Paul, he said, would be good for the Republican Party, not only because he would be the best choice, but because it would bring in new voting demographics that the party desperately needs.
Barrett added that if Paul does not win the nomination, his choice in November would be incredibly difficult given how similar the candidates are.
Still, Barrett felt he had made at least a small difference: “There was one awesome moment where we walked up to a door, a woman answered and we gave her our little sale,” he said. “We were able to really turn her around; we were able to give her a yard sign in her yard.”
Ryan chimed in, “It’s totally depressing that you can totally change someone’s political philosophy in five minutes.”
So far at Yale, Youth for Ron Paul has garnered nearly 50 supporters.