It’s hard to imagine a Ted Cruz fan and a Bernie Sanders supporter sitting at the same table without getting into a heated debate about the two U.S. Senators-turned-presidential hopefuls’ two extremely disparate worldviews.
But there they were.
Sanders supporter Emily Thatcher, a senior and political science major at University of South Florida, and her classmate, Nick Encinas, a junior of the same major, talking about why they like their guy.
“What I like about him is that he’s got such a long political career, and he hasn’t really flip-flopped on a lot of issues,” Thatcher said of Sanders. “He’s kind of just stayed the same with his own points of view. And he just seems very personable, an approachable kind of guy, not someone that is scary, if that makes sense.”
Encinas, meanwhile, said his support for Cruz stems from years of listening to conservative talk radio with his father.
“Most of his political views align with mine,” he said. “He has a consistent track record of leadership and conservative values. That’s something that really appeals to me.”
The two are part of a USF course called Road to the White House, an intensive, hands-on political science class that focuses on the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, namely the early-state primaries. On Sunday, they head to New Hampshire to observe—and take part in—the state’s Feb. 9 primary.
“I’m really excited, but also kind of nervous. I’m originally from up north,” Thatcher said. “I guess the thing I’m most nervous about is how cold it’s going to be. I haven’t been in a New England in a really long time.”
The class is the brainchild of Dr. Judithanne Scourfield-McLauchlan, a veteran politico whose resume consists of everything from a Clinton White House staff position to an unsuccessful bid for State Senate on the Democratic ticket against incumbent Jeff Brandes (R—St. Petersburg) in 2014.
The class runs every four years, of course, to correspond with presidential years. For those that take it, the experience is a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
“This class happens once in four years,” said Victor Sims, a senior psychology major who will be helping out on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “And if we really think about it, we only have four years in college if we take the traditional route and get it done in four years. So it’s a once-in-a-college career opportunity. So it’s really exciting. I decided to end this year with a last hurrah.”
It’s the fourth class of its kind, though in 2012 Florida early position on the primary calendar led the class to stay in town rather than head north.
The nearly two-week stint in the Granite State entails a rigorous schedule for the students.
“We have a very ambitious itinerary,” Scourfield-McLauchlan said. “We’ll be up there the last ten days before the primary. Generally speaking, in the mornings, we meet as a seminar at the hotel. We have guest speakers, we go on field trips. So, for example, we’ll be visiting the Republican Party headquarters, the Democratic Party headquarters, we’ll go to the State House, we’ll be meeting with elected officials from New Hampshire to learn about the political scene there. We’ll be meeting with reporters and journalists covering the primary, and with pollsters; all the latest information, et cetera. So we meet every morning at the hotel, and then from lunchtime on they’re basically with their campaigns.”
McLauchlan and her students will also be blogging on their experience while they're up there.
“The New Hampshire First in the Nation primary is such an electrifying experience,” she said. “It’s hard to think of the right adjective to describe, really, what it will be like for them up there. But it’s very grassroots, retail politics, so they’re going to get to see candidates, presidential candidates, who are talking to guests at diners, who are in townhall meetings answering tough questions. So it’s a very different animal once (candidates) come down here to Florida.”
She said she chose New Hampshire for a number of reasons. Even though it’s actually the second state to pick its presidential candidates—Iowa decides Feb. 1—it’s the first to have a primary election rather than a caucus, which Iowa has, and to her, elections tend to be more exciting.
“Personally I’m a little biased toward primaries rather than caucuses. Caucuses are such a strange animal and not as reflective of voters, I don’t think, just because it’s a small, small percentage of people that come out to caucus. Whereas, in the New Hampshire primary, turnout is extraordinarily high. So people are engaged in the process. It’s very different. So I’m kind of partial to the New Hampshire primary.”
Plus, she said, students can watch the Iowa caucuses from New Hampshire and observe the “sea change” that can often take place between the two, the rise of some candidates as others see their candidacy fall apart.
The students’ campaign work will likely consist of what she calls get-out-the-vote efforts, such as phone-banking and sign-waving at a Republican debate that will take place while the students are there.
This year the group is not only bigger than classes past, it also consists of a nearly even split between Democrats and Republicans—13 to 10, about as close as you get in a room full of young people, who tend to be liberal.
The students got to choose the campaigns on which they worked. Seven are helping out on the Sanders campaign, five are working for Clinton, one for former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley,
two for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, five for U.S. Senator from Florida Marco Rubio, two for Cruz and one for Donald Trump.
“So it’s a nice, diverse group,” Scourfield-McLauchlan said. “Usually we have all the campaigns covered and I pride myself on that. I knew that with 15 campaigns, given the number of seats in our vans, we couldn’t cover every campaign. It’ll still be a nice, diverse group of campaigns, though.”
While not everybody in class has an idea of what path they’ll take after graduation, most say the experience in New Hampshire will help their careers.
“I’m not sure what I want to do post graduation yet, but I think it would be a great steppingstone if I want to get involved down here or just get involved more in the Democratic party,” said sophomore Jack Zygadlo, an economics major. “I think this is a great place to start.”
USF St. Petersburg Regional Chancellor Sophia T. Wisniewska said hands-on experiences like this are often a more effective means of learning about a given subject than listening to a lecture in a classroom.
“I think this is an extraordinary opportunity for students for many reasons,” she said. “They’ll (observe) the political process. They’ll get to meet the candidates. But most of all, I think these kinds of learning opportunities, the internships, the practica, those are the ways that students learn best. That will have more impact, probably, than many of the theoretical classroom experiences that you have. That’s what I think what really makes it exciting.”