Thirteen SUNY Oneonta political science students got an inside look at the presidential election process during a five-day trip to New Hampshire that culminated Feb. 11 with the first-in-the-nation primary.
The trip was part of a semester-long course, POLS 216: Presidential Election Campaigns, taught by Associate Professor of Political Science Gina Keel. While in New Hampshire, students attended candidate rallies, town hall meetings and other events, witnessing firsthand the campaigning and media frenzy in the last days before the primary. This is Keel’s fourth time teaching the course and leading the trip, which was supported, in part, by the Jay Jacobs ’77 Fund for Experiential Learning.
“Our students might be interested in actually running for office someday. They might. So this helps empower them,” said Keel. “You don't have these candidates up on some grand stage—they're real people you get to meet, so students can see themselves in that role. They see what it's like to be a candidate, be a staffer for a candidate, the kind of work that it takes on the ground, organizing, setting up events, trying to drum up interest, canvassing, and also how the media operates. Several students have gone on to work on campaigns, run offices or even take the dive and run for local office here in Oneonta or beyond.”
The trip kicked off with the annual dinner for the New Hampshire Democratic Party at Southern New Hampshire University, where each candidate had seven minutes to make their pitch to the New Hampshire voters. The Oneonta students had each chosen a candidate to follow, and they found their way to the right section and joined in the fray of fans trying to cheer louder and harder than their rivals.
“New Hampshire smells like politics and coffee,” said Catherin Flores Granados of Fallsburg, NY.
"Once I got into the elevator on our first night there, I bumped into a man with an Elizabeth Warren shirt. He asked me if I was here for the primaries, and that's when I realized how big this week is for people in New Hampshire."
The next four days were a whirlwind of campaign events. Each morning at nine, the group gathered in a hotel conference room to discuss the day’s opportunities. With 11 active candidates holding two to five events per day — plus canvassers going door to door, phone banking and volunteers waving banners on street corners—there was a lot to see and experience.
“It's a very unique experience, which is why I'm taking this course,” said Karina Mendez, of Harlem, NY.
“You don't always get to go and see candidates like this, especially in such an important primary. I wanted to gain firsthand experience on campaigning because it's something that I've always been interested in.”
Each day, the students divided into two vans to attend town halls, rallies and campaign kickoffs held in middle school cafeterias, high school gyms, community colleges and even movie theaters.
“As a political science major, it really helps to understand which candidate you like better in those close, little tight environments where they're really speaking to the people,” said Raven Foote, of Cohocton, NY.
“I went in knowing exactly who I wanted, and by the end of the week, my loyalties were split a little bit. Some of the candidates really came and showed me their absolute best. And I was very impressed.”
Over the course of the trip, the students collectively met or saw seven Democratic candidates and current Republican President Donald Trump. They also toured the New Hampshire Statehouse and New Hampshire Public Radio to learn about media coverage of the primary race, met with campaign officials for Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, and volunteered for the campaigns of Andrew Yang and Elizabeth Warren.
“Going to New Hampshire was the best experience in my life,” said Mary Brown of Utica, NY.
“Meeting Andrew Yang was really interesting because I got to see him up close and hear his ideas and I really like a lot of what he had to say.”
Most events had three types of people mixing together: voters, volunteers and media, and the journalists were everywhere. The Oneonta students were recorded by everyone from C-Span to a Danish radio show.
Several students said seeing the passion of the New Hampshire voters was inspiring. “Just to be there was so invigorating, feeding off that political energy everyone was giving off was very exciting,” said Catherin Flores Granados of Fallsburg, NY.
“I just wish we were this involved and not shy to be so political in our state. Here, everyone tends to be like, ‘I have my views and I'm just gonna keep them to myself.’ New Hampshire doesn't care. They're out there and all about it and they're not afraid to speak up!”
The students kept journals and engaged in lively group discussions that have continued in Keel’s seminar-style class once they returned to Oneonta. Over the course of the semester, each student will prepare a final project analyzing one campaign.
“We're constantly bouncing ideas off each other, and I feel like that’s the way I’ve learned the most, listening to other people's views,” said Tyler Rivers, of Ravena, NY.
“And we're doing it in such a collaborative, respectful, informed way. It’s been great to be able to analyze these other ideas and aspects from students my age who care about the same end goal."