UChicago students get ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ look at Iowa caucuses

In the 1989 film Field of Dreams, there is a famous scene in which the ghost of legendary baseball player "Shoeless" Joe Jackson asks an Iowa corn farmer who has built a baseball diamond outside his house: “Is this heaven?” The farmer replies, “No, it’s Iowa.”

For 18 UChicago students who spent the summer in Des Moines covering or working for the 2016 presidential campaigns, Iowa turned out to be their own type of political heaven, from explosive news conferences with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump to the election-year circus of the Iowa State Fair.

“If you really want to get involved in politics someday, whether it’s as a politician or as a campaigner or as a strategist, you’ve got to go to Iowa,” said second-year Kennedy Green, who spent the summer working for Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley.

The students, who worked for news outlets such as ABC News, CNN and FOX, and candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio, were in Des Moines as part of the Iowa Project, a yearlong effort by UChicago’s Institute of Politics to get students involved in the caucuses. The program launched in early 2015 with a series of campaign workshops featuring guests from past presidential campaigns. The IOP also hosted a series of sessions with two visiting fellows from Iowa, Democratic consultant Brad Anderson and Republican consultant Karen Slifka. As part of the IOP’s Speaker Series, students also heard from candidates such as Jim Webb and O’Malley, and attended the IOP’s 2016 Campaign Journalism Conference featuring RNC chair Reince Priebus, DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and reporters such as NBC’s Chuck Todd, CBS News’ John Dickerson and Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin.

In addition to the events and training, Iowa Project Fellows also received a stipend to support living expenses for the summer. While students who applied to the program’s journalism track were placed with specific news outlets, students on the field track were required to secure their own positions. A weekend visit to Des Moines helped students learn about the city that they would call home for 10 weeks. Once the academic year ended in June, the 18 students started making their way to Iowa, excited but unsure of how the summer would unfold.

“When we were in Chicago, we heard about what Iowa was like and what the caucuses were like, but coming here and actually being on the ground has been just amazing,” said second-year Asya Akca, who interned for Radio Iowa. “This Iowa Project has really been able to do exactly what it was supposed to do, which is get the true campaign experience from two sides.”

For the students on the field side, the chance to work on presidential campaigns at such a young age was eye-opening. Second-year Matthew Foldi, scrapped his initial summer plans for this “once-in-a lifetime” opportunity to intern in Iowa for Republican candidate Marco Rubio.

“It’s one thing to read about events as they happen from your room, but it’s another thing entirely to be there in person and see things as they unfold,” Foldi said.

“It’s taught me what campaigning is like at this level,” observed second-year Max Freedman, who also worked for Rubio. “I’ve developed a great respect for Iowa and the people of Iowa and what they do during this process.”

Second-year Adam Biesman spent the summer working for Republican candidate Jeb Bush and LS2group, a bipartisan public affairs firm headquartered in Des Moines.

“I never would’ve imagined that I would’ve had such a great experience,” Biesman said. “It’s been an incredible time, meeting certain people in Iowa and just really getting a better understanding of the presidential experience here.”

Impactful work

The type of campaign work, the students noted, was as substantive and challenging as they had hoped.

“We work really hard,” said fourth-year Brendan McGuire, who worked for O’Malley. “I’m driving all over the place, talking to Iowans, going to events. We’re not going out getting coffee. We’re not, you know, doing Excel spreadsheets. We’re actually making an impact.”

Employers, too, were pleased with their experiences with the UChicago students.

“We really enjoyed working with the Iowa Project Fellows this summer,” said Rachel Schneider, youth organizing and fellowship director for Hillary for Iowa. “They were a huge asset to our team.”

Such praise was echoed by other employers, like Slifka.

“Adam was a joy to work with over the summer, and we were lucky to have him at LS2group,” Slifka said. “I was constantly impressed with the level of professionalism and excellence he brought to each of his projects. The entire team valued his enthusiasm, skill set and passion to learn. Adam consistently went above and beyond to deliver high quality work.”

For a number of students on the journalism track, the summer shot them into the national spotlight. In late July, Republican frontrunner Trump, upset with coverage from The Des Moines Register, tried to ban the state’s largest newspaper from an event, but Iowa Project Fellow Henry Hahn—interning at the newspaper—made his way into the auditorium, a move that caught the attention of CNN, who mentioned it on air.

“If there’s one thing I’ve discovered this summer, it’s that the eye of the nation is almost exclusively on Iowa during this phase of the political process,” said Hahn, a second-year student. “If you’re willing to work hard, volunteer for anything and utilize whatever skills or resources you have to contribute, then you truly have the potential to do amazing work—assignments I would have thought completely unimaginable as a person under 20 working for a news outlet.”

Hahn wasn’t the only student whose work was picked up by other news outlets; Akca’s video of Univision anchor Jorge Ramos being escorted out of a Trump news conference was used by The Washington Post and others.

After her internship at Bloomberg, Meaghan Murphy, AB’15, now views a career in journalism as more likely than she did before the summer.

“I definitely saw an interesting opportunity to go somewhere new and do a different kind of journalism than I’ve ever really done before,” Murphy said. “I’m more prepared to see myself working at a national news organization.”

One student—Cristina Ochoa, AB’15—even saw her goal of securing a job at a news outlet become reality before the summer ended. As Ochoa’s internship with ABC News was winding down, the ABC-affiliated station in Des Moines hired her as a producer.

While the summer internships are over, the road to the Feb. 1 caucuses rolls on. Some students, such as Hahn and Akca, are planning to return to Iowa this winter, and the Institute of Politics is planning another student trek to Des Moines in the coming months.