Students learn about presidential campaigns during fellowships in Iowa

­For someone whose first name is Kennedy, interest in politics is almost a given.

Kennedy Green, a rising second-year in law, letters and society, developed that passion as a young girl, listening to her father tell stories of the Kennedy family’s devotion to public service. It helped inspire her to become co-founder of her middle school's environmental advocacy club at age 10. 

“That was my gateway to politics,” said Green. 

Her fascination with foreign cultures and languages—she studied Spanish, Chinese and Italian in high school—spawned her interest in U.S. foreign policy.

At UChicago, Green heard about an Institute of Politics’ hands-on program called the Iowa Project, which enables students to learn about the U.S. presidential election process and get involved in the 2016 Iowa Caucus.

“The program is almost tailor-made for me,” said Green. 

Rising second-year Max Freedman felt the same way. A political science major, Freedman was drawn to politics in eighth grade, when he was monitoring the 2008 presidential election for a class project. During high school, he led the school’s Republican club and student council, and helped with several local elections.  

In 2013, Freedman met with New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, who gave a talk at his school, encouraging young people to get involved in politics. Freedman took a year off before coming to UChicago and was an intern for two senators in Washington D.C. “I’ve learned a lot,” said Freedman, who had the opportunity to work on issues from the nation’s economic development to national security and military policies. 

This summer, as presidential hopefuls from both parties are stepping up their campaigning, and Republican candidates are gearing up for the Straw Poll in Iowa, a group of 18 student fellows are participating in summer internships. Green has secured one with Martin O’Malley, the former Democratic governor of Maryland; and Freedman is now part of Sen. Marco Rubio’s team. 

“We have such a crucial political state next door to us,” said Matt Jaffe, the Institute of Politics’ director of communications and staff liaison for the Iowa Project. “It just seemed like the perfect way to provide opportunities for UChicago students that they really wouldn’t get anywhere else.” 

While fellows like Green and Freedman will partake in the political process as campaign staffers, international studies major Cristina Ochoa is covering both sides of the Iowa Caucus as an intern reporter with ABC News in Des Moines. An Iowa native, Ochoa is excited to show the other fellows that “although there may be more corn than people in Iowa, the sweetness level of both is simply unparalleled anywhere else.”

A former reporter who covered 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns for ABC News, Jaffe said he really enjoyed covering Iowa because “it was such a unique and fascinating state.”

'first in the nation' state

The Iowa Project kicked off in February with a series of workshops to familiarize students with political campaign operations, such as field organization and coalition building, fundraising and media relations. In March, two IOP visiting fellows—veteran Republican strategist Karen Slifka and Democratic strategist Brad Anderson—briefed UChicago students on the structure of the Iowa Caucuses and the nuances of this unique “first in the nation” state.

In early May, IOP organized a two-day immersive trek to Iowa, where they met with veteran journalists, political consultants and campaign operatives to familiarize themselves with the caucus process in 2016 and experienced the geographical and political diversity of the state.

“Now I understand why Iowa is the start of the winnowing process,” said Green, who saw the trip in May as one of the highlights of the program. “I’m from California, and we don’t have candidates going from door to door. Iowans have a keen sense of the politician as a person and of who can win.”

For Freedman, who spent his formative years in New Hampshire—home to the nation’s first presidential primary, the trip made him understand the difference between a primary and a caucus. “The Iowa caucus showcases a different level of involvement and commitment,” he explained.

“Voters don’t simply cast their vote and leave. They gather at their churches or schools or wherever their caucuses are held for two to three hours to hear the positions of each candidate or canvass votes for their candidates before declaring their own votes in the room. Those who say Iowa doesn’t deserve to go first, name me another state which will do that.”

Jaffe said the Institute of Politics will lead at least one weekend trip to Iowa during the Fall and Winter quarters, open to all interested UChicago students. Iowa Project Fellows will act as helpful guides and facilitators of those trips.

“It’s an inspiring experience. It doesn’t matter what your political beliefs, you’re learning about the political process from both sides,” said Green.