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Another thing the pandemic election turned upside down: the rites of passage of the first campaign

When Alejandra Escobar signed up for her first campaign job as a field organizer with the Nebraska Democratic Party, she imagined herself knocking on doors and talking to voters one-on-one.

“I didn’t expect to be in a dark basement where my Wi-Fi would be very spotty,” she said. Sometimes when the internet gets too unpredictable, Ms. Escobar will move to her childhood bedroom or to the kitchen table to work instead.

Ms. Escobar, 22, is a recent graduate of the University of Nebraska Omaha and works on behalf of Kara Eastman, the Democratic candidate for the Nebraska Second Congressional District.

She makes the most of it: she helped coordinate a social ‘walk and welcome’ event, where people were invited to meet Ms. Eastman and discuss what to expect and how to prepare for the vote. The team also hosted a social distancing party in a parking lot, where people were able to collect garden signs and other campaign giveaways. And because everything is remote and online, she said, the campaign was able to recruit volunteers from across the country.

“But there are still a lot of communities, like the Latin American communities in southern Omaha, which is a predominantly Latino area of ​​the city, where I would like us to knock on doors because then we could have this one-on-one opportunity to meet them, ”she said. .

And something is also missing: the rites of passage associated with a first campaign work.

This year, young and politically ambitious people must rely on digital platforms as organizing sites due to the coronavirus crisis. Traditions that have long defined country road work – door knocking, town halls, sleepless training camps in battlefield states – are now being replaced by mass Zoom calls and prospecting efforts. Virtual.

Ben Wessel, 31, is now the executive director of NextGen America – a nonprofit focused on engaging young voters and funded by former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer – but before he runs things, Mr. Wessel was a junior campaign staff member on President Barack Obama’s 2012 Campaign.

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At this moment, Analogue methods of reaching voters have reigned supreme, but just as the political landscape has changed over the past eight years, so has the technology and the way people communicate. Mr. Wessel sees an advantage.

Ten years ago, he said, the instructions for young campaign agents were something like this: “Here are all the strangers, go knock on their doors,” Wessel said. “And so we see a lot of young people working on campaigns now being said, ‘hey post this on your social media, make sure you text everyone on your phone, find a way to create your own organized community, “rather than just sitting in a chair and making phone calls.”

This is the good part. He also knows the drawbacks. The hands-on training offered by early career campaign jobs is invaluable to young professionals looking to start their political careers. Normally, young staff members are trained to tackle the difficult terrain of the election campaign in political boot camps, which hold workshops, guest speakers and mock exercises to prepare organizers for the work ahead. These programs – some affiliated with specific parties, others non-partisan – often provide accommodation and function much like a professional overnight camp for like-minded wrestlers.

Jalen Johnson, 21, is an alumnus of the College to Congress program, a non-partisan group that provides financial support and mentorship to congressional interns.

Mr Johnson, who is from Georgia, said he had never been to Washington before landing a spot in the training program. An internship with Georgia Republican Senator David Perdue in the summer of 2019 set him on the path to his first presidential campaign post: being part of the Trump campaign communications team. Much of his work – monitoring media coverage, writing tweets, editing videos – can be done digitally and, he said, a safe distance from others at the campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

“We certainly haven’t been, you know, shaking hands and hugging people,” he said of how the campaign – and his experience in particular – turned out. adapted to the pandemic, adding that it’s not “like it’s 2019”.

And in the middle of the sprint until the end of the 2020 campaign, Mr Johnson stressed that he is taking no risks. “With the way the coronavirus is affecting my community, i.e. black people, at a disproportionate rate, it’s personal to me – so I don’t care where I’m going or who I think I’ll ever be , I will never put the health and safety of myself, and the people I care about and love, at this risk.

Early career campaign jobs are not just about experience and training – they are also about relationships, both professional and personal. (Republican Senator Ted Cruz from Texas and his wife Heidi Cruz met while working on George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000.)

Some of Mr. Wessel’s 2012 campaign colleagues, he said, are people he’s “texting every day right now, like, ‘Oh my god, what’s going on. he? And he also tells them about strategies to organize themselves right now. “There is a lot of peer learning,” he added.

While country jobs during the pandemic era were decidedly not what they were, some ambitious students still choose to focus on the track. Nora Salitan, 22, took a semester of her senior year at Columbia to work as a field organizer with NextGen America in New Hampshire, where she focused on motivating young people to register to vote.

She said it was an important decision to suspend school – “I love being in class, I love reading, I’m a huge nerd” – but thought that given how the pandemic had upset the university and the countryside, she would give her work in politics a try.

Chie Xu, 21, who also took a semester off and works with Ms Salitan, said she felt a strong moral obligation to actively participate in this election – and knew she would be distracted by online classes when ‘she would be in quarantine.

“I mean, it just feels like the world is ending,” said Ms. Xu, who would have been a senior at Yale this fall. “So if there was a year to be involved, this would be it.

She also said that seeing more fellow Asian-Americans active in politics – as elected leaders and working on campaigns – motivated her to get involved. “I think people of color, Asian Americans in particular, aren’t really often the kind of people who engage in campaigns in this more traditional way – like telephone banking, like knocking, ”Ms. Xu said. “I felt more and more people of color represented in politics, and that really gave me the confidence to be able to do it on my own.

Ms. Xu and Ms. Salitan ended up moving to New Hampshire to set up what Ms. Xu called a “replacement field office” where the organizers lived and worked remotely, together.

They don’t go out into the field, but it’s better than the alternative they imagined. “I think we all really wanted this community and felt like it was going to isolate us to be on Zoom for 11 hours a day in your childhood bedroom just to make calls,” Ms. Salitan said. .

Perhaps, in keeping with the optimism that politically engaged youth might have, some early-career officers are able to see the organization’s bright side in a pandemic.

Claire Goldberg, 23, was a Hillary Clinton Campaign Fellow in her sophomore year in college, learning data entry, phone banking and door-to-door sales in Philadelphia.

The loss of Ms. Clinton in November motivated Ms. Goldberg to become even more involved in the 2020 election. She worked as an organizer in Iowa for Senator Kamala Harris’ Democratic primary campaign, knocking on doors to make the groundwork.

“I think the best way to organize is to talk to people face to face,” she says.

The call is more delicate. “You never know if someone is in the middle of something,” Ms. Goldberg said. Not being able to knock on doors – which Democratic volunteers had avoided almost entirely until very recently – “makes it 10 times more difficult, and I really sympathize with the people who are full-time organizers right now. .

Currently, Ms. Goldberg works in digital communications for the DC Democratic Party, creating content for social media and hosting virtual panels and other events. There is an advantage in achieving critical mass.

“I think because people are already home and they don’t feel like, ‘Oh, this meeting is an hour away from me’ or ‘I don’t want to leave my house to go to this meeting. “With that excuse gone, she said,” there’s a lot more participation. “