Over the years, college-age voters have been accused by some of being apathetic when it comes to politics. Two groups of University of South Florida students are trying to flip that narrative.
Ahead of the kick-off to the primary season, a team of six student researchers from Tampa flew to Iowa to survey the nation’s earliest voters. At the same time, nearly 30 students from USF St. Petersburg went to New Hampshire to spend the ten days leading up to the first primary campaigning for a candidate of their choice.
Both groups left feeling they knew what they were in for - 20-hour days and frozen boots included - despite the warning from USF Tampa communications professor Josh Scacco:
“Expect the unexpected. You never know what you’re going to see when you get there.”
The students who went to Iowa expected to see a robust system of caucusing - something one student called “the Super Bowl of politics.”
Instead, they had a front row seat to witness the chaos of the process when the Iowa Democratic Party's voting app failed.
Camila Cernawsky, a senior studying political science and mass communication, called the experience both eye-opening and disappointing.
“I was expecting the party to predict and test the software that they used prior to the caucuses,” said Cernasky. “You know, technical problems happen every day, but (they) had four years to work on that."
The students were part of a research initiative headed by Scacco aimed at measuring the ways in which candidates communicated with voters.
“We're really trying to engage in a lot of ways the dynamics related to presidential and political communication and understanding how these might be operating in the 2020 campaign,” said Scacco.
Using a series of questionnaires, the students were tasked with talking to locals about how they viewed the likeability and authenticity of the primary candidates.
Scacco said that though the point of the program is to help students gain concrete research skills through hands-on learning experiences, he hoped the trip would also help them gain a greater appreciation for the U.S. political process.
“It's messy, and parts of it illustrate the promise of what we are as kind of a representative democracy,” said Scacco. “When you're there in Iowa and you're seeing these campaign events, it really is inspiring, and I hope that it gives them hope, about the political process and about the promise of what it can be.”
Judithanne McLauchlan, a USFSP political science professor, warned the students in her Road to the White House class that the days spent campaigning would be long and cold. She also promised that they would be some of the most exciting.
By the end of the ten-day trip, front runners fell, and new candidates surged. Students met nearly every candidate, spent hours outside polling centers cheering on voters, and one student came back with bruised knuckles from days of door knocking
Most importantly, the students encountered an energy around the election process they hadn’t seen in Florida.
Jadzia Duarte, a senior environmental policy major and USF St. Petersburg Student Body President, found that energy in the team of volunteers she worked with on Amy Klobuchar’s campaign.
“You can see in the community of all of the employees and volunteers that it was just so tight knit,” said Duarte. “And then just in how they advocate for Amy to win the candidacy and the nomination. It was really awesome.”
For Noah Miller, a senior psychology major working on Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, knowledge came from going door-to-door and talking to voters.
“I was not expecting it to be this serious, and I wasn't expecting the events to be as popular as they were - almost everyone is going to see two or three candidates per day talk,” said Miller.
READ MORE about the students' experiences in New Hampshire
The groups had different purposes, but students from both programs encountered a political environment that they hadn't expected and brought home a new appreciation for political engagement.
Some students, like Miller and Duarte, want to bring the lessons learned and some of the energy they encountered back to Florida however they can - canvassing, phone banking, talking to friends, or starting political dialogue on campus.
"I realized how many voters are misinformed and how many voters are easily persuaded by either the media or just listening to one candidate and not all the others,” said Miller.
“So I think my views changed and the fact that I need to stay involved, and I need to spread the message to a bunch of voters and really help them educate themselves on every candidate.”
After seeing how close both contests were, Duarte wants students to know their voices matter.
“We just want to be sure that voters know that they are significant in these situations and that they should get out there and vote,” said Duarte.
Their message: you don't have to go out and campaign in order to be politically active - all you need to do is pay attention.