What It’s like to Intern for a Political Candidate

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What It’s like to Intern for a Political Candidate

Sam Bisno, Editor-in-Chief

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I’ve always considered myself political. I keep up with current events; I attend the occasional rally; I’m a member of Youth and Government—the whole nine yards. And perhaps no tradition is more time-honored when it comes to being politically engaged than anxiously watching election night results roll in.

Usually, you’re with a crowd of like-minded individuals: there’s the designated FiveThirtyEight monitor; the self-proclaimed expert on “the persuasion universe” and “the disillusionment of the working class;” the vacillating seer, declaring righteous triumph and abject defeat with each tick in the percentages. You’re all biting your collective nails, pacing with more vigor as the night drags on—given its implications, it’s hard not to romanticize this fateful Tuesday in November, to construe it as the defining hour of a candidacy, more than the culmination of months of hard-fought campaigning but rather the only moment of true consequence in a seemingly endless election season.

But is this an accurate characterization, or is election night over-hyped? Is the story, perhaps, slightly deeper? It’s probably evident from the rhetorical nature of that last question that my answer is a resounding “yes.”

Maybe I’m the only one for whom this is a revelation. Maybe this is old news by now. It goes without saying that the vast majority of election night gatherings are pre-scripted—the incessant modeling and analyzing leaves little up to chance by the time voters are allowed to check any boxes. Sure, there’s an upset every now and then, but for the most part, the invested onlooker’s impending rejoice or despair has long since been cemented when they sit down to watch the counting commence, and they’re usually well aware of it, assuming they’re not entirely delusional.

And yet, for all of the projecting and forecasting and estimating, national pundits usually stop short of explaining why their numbers are pointing the way they are, why one candidate is so heavily favored, instead opting to offer a brief overview before swiping away to the next race.

But there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes during a political race than incumbency advantage or turnout predictions or even straight-up policy clashes. It wasn’t until this past fall that my eyes were opened to this reality.

It all began with a seemingly innocuous phone call. I had interviewed Lindsey Williams, along with her competitors Stephanie Walsh and Michelle Boyle (later, Boyle would drop out of contention), during the run-up to the State Senate District 38 primary in May. Williams told me of her staunch pro-union, pro-affordable healthcare, pro-education agenda, and I was impressed by her candor in answering my questions—there was none of the prevaricating that I’ve become accustomed to having listened to politicians throughout the years. Williams won the primary comfortably, so when I met her again at a Youth and Government fundraiser over the summer, I mentioned that I’d be interested in volunteering for her campaign ahead of the general. That brings us to the phone call—it wasn’t long after that encounter that her campaign manager, Rajah Sandor, reached out to talk logistics. Sandor told me that he was looking for interns, and, perhaps somewhat overzealously, I agreed to work a schedule of eight to ten hours per week up until November.

I began in August, long before the midterms had even crossed most voters’ minds. My conversations reflected that: a lot of slammed doors, a lot of “I’ve never heard of her.” My only other experience canvassing (excluding tagging along with my parents when I was little) had been for a few hours during the 2016 presidential election, so I wasn’t fully prepared for this level of apathy. It was hard not to get discouraged.

But I stuck with it. Every Saturday and Sunday, I reported to the Lindsey Williams campaign headquarters in Ross for my assignment and then hit the streets: Shaler, Etna, Millvale, and everything in between. And I wasn’t the only one. As the weather began to shift from blistering heat to autumn chill, more and more volunteers appeared alongside me. Suddenly, we were reaching hundreds of voters every week. I got better at it, too. I no longer had to look down at my script before every door; I wasn’t petrified by the possibility of being turned away. I was able to have real conversations about real issues. I was, in my own small way, making an impact.

Another thing that was evident from the beginning was that the District 38 race wasn’t going to be one of those pre-written election night tales. As a sub-five-and-a-half-foot progressive woman, Williams was in every way the antithesis of the imposing presence of incumbent Republican, Randy Vulakovich.

But she wasn’t even up against Vulakovich; rather, Jeremy Shaffer, the Vice President of a major international software company, had handily disposed of Vulakovich in the primary by a 17-point margin. And he intended on winning the general, too—by whatever means necessary.

Throughout the campaign season, Shaffer ran ad after ad falsely asserting that Williams was a socialist, a claim most likely based on the fact that she had at one point sought the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America (an endorsement which DSA members overwhelmingly voted down). Time and time again, I was forced to explain to skeptical District 38 residents that no, in fact, Lindsey is not a socialist. But not everyone was easily convinced. As often as not, I was lectured on the dangers of “giving handouts” before being told “we won’t be supporting her.”

It became clear that no amount of internal polling was going to produce a crystal ball capable of foreseeing what November had in store. Senate District 38 came to represent two clashing ideals and narratives —a state that in 2016 had turned red for the first time in 30 years, bracing itself for the so-called “blue wave.” Governor Wolf visited our humble little office on Babcock Boulevard. Barack Obama endorsed Lindsey Williams. A group of reporters from Denmark came to study the race because they saw it as a microcosm of the political climate of the country at large.

When it was all said and done, volunteers for the Williams campaign, through rain and snow, deceitful mailings and citywide tragedy, knocked more than 30,000 doors (I was responsible for about 2,000 of those).

And it paid off. As we gathered for our own election night party, each one of us nursing numb fingers and sore feet, we watched as Lindsey Williams, state senate candidate for a district numbering over 200,000, won by just 500 votes —a few tenths of a percentage point.

Now, it wasn’t like I was lamenting dedicating so much time to the campaign before, but let me tell you, winning made it a whole lot sweeter. That’s why I was appalled when I learned that Republicans in the Senate would be challenging Williams’s victory on the basis that she did not technically live in Pennsylvania four years ago, as the law stipulates one must in order to run for office, despite the fact that she had already secured a job in Pittsburgh and was in the process of moving—as if the voters’ decision meant nothing.

Even if Williams is somehow denied her rightful spot in the Senate, this experience shed light on the volatile nature of politics, the issues that people care about, and the lengths to which some people will go to have their way. I have no regrets.

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What It’s like to Intern for a Political Candidate