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(Bull)Dog Days on the Campaign Trail

BY Sarah Bahr

PUBLISHED ON Oct 31 2018

What awaited Butler University sophomore Jon Gray-Smith inside the small, ramshackle house on a Saturday in Grant County in northeast Indiana this summer was less than inviting.

Maybe I should just skip this one, the Indiana Republican Party field intern mused before walking up the front porch steps.

But Gray-Smith knocked on the door, took a step back (no one wants to be accosted by a stranger, he says), and was greeted by. . .

A nearly nude older white man. Toting a shotgun. And wearing only a pair of white underpants.

While that’s his horror story, Gray-Smith says it’s not out of the ordinary for canvassers to work in less-than-ideal conditions.

Jon and Luke Messer
Jon Gray-Smith with Luke Messer

“People don’t always have a lot of clothes on when they answer the door,” he says. “And, in my experience, a ‘Beware of Dog’ sign is typically correct.”

The life of a political intern is hardly glamorous.They get chased by dogs. Confronted by half-dressed old men packing heat. Screamed at like they’re the second coming of Cruella de Vil. And most of the time, they do it for free.

But Butler students also intern with political campaigns in increasingly large numbers. At a time when the political stakes are at an all-time high, Butler students are dotting the state, serving in a variety of  roles with political parties. From answering phones, to crafting press releases, to knocking on doors, Butler students say it is not just the skills garnered in their political science classes that have helped, but also the skills from their journalism, business, and history classes, for example, that have prepared them for when they are thrown into the real-world political fire. Or even faced with a semi-clothed man at the door.

 

“A Dream Come True”

Knocking on 527 doors for 12 hours in Indiana’s blistering July heat isn’t most people’s idea of a good time.

But Gray-Smith, the Vice President of the Butler University College Republicans, says each interaction motivates him to seek out the next one.

“I’m talking to voters who sometimes have never talked to someone about an election in their whole life,” he says.

Gray-Smith says people are often surprised by his age.

“I had a lot of people tell me, ‘It’s so good to see a young person out here doing this,’” he says. ‘That keeps me going.’”

And, unlike at many political events, he enjoyed bipartisan support.

“I had so many people offer me bottles of water, Gatorade, Powerade, anything to help me stay cool,” he says. “They told me ‘Please keep doing this; there are lots of voters out there.’”

He won a $30 Visa gift card for contacting the most voters from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM — an average of 48 per hour, with an hour for lunch.

But his margin of victory?

Just 13 people.

Passion fuels political interns from both major parties, who perform thankless tasks such as calling voters, knocking on strangers’ doors, editing video, and uploading press releases to campaign websites — most of the time for free.

Gray-Smith contacted just under 7,000 voters this summer soliciting support for Republican congressional candidates such as U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks, and Mike Braun. From mid-February to May during his internship with U.S. Rep. Luke Messer’s U.S. Senate campaign, he called 17,000 voters.

Cecil with Susan Brooks
James Cecil with Susan Brooks

Door-knocking and phonebanking are hardly sexy selling points for students seeking political internships, but Butler Assistant Professor of Political Science Greg Shufeldt says Butler has “countless” students volunteering and interning for campaigns and political parties this semester.

Junior Rachel Spodek has been a field intern for Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly’s re-election campaign since May.

“I’m running phone banks and trying to get as many voters registered as possible,” she says.

Senior James Cecil, who is named after President James Madison, landed a congressional internship on the Hill this summer in Washington, D.C., with Indiana congresswoman Susan Brooks.

The president of the Butler University College Republicans researched bills, attended hearings, answered phone calls, and gave tours of the U.S. Capitol building. She’d previously completed an internship with the Indiana GOP and is currently interning with the Mike Braun campaign for U.S. Senate.

“I’m a huge history buff, so being able to walk the halls of the Capitol was a dream come true,” she says.

 

Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunities

While most of their days are spent canvassing counties and calling constituents, some interns do enjoy the occasional once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Earlier this month, Cecil snapped a photo with George W. Bush, whom she got to meet at a fundraiser for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike Braun.

“He’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever listened to,” she says.

Gray-Smith was left speechless after he had the chance to meet Vice President Mike Pence as part of his Indiana GOP internship last summer.

“I was able to meet the second most powerful person in America,” he says. “I could’ve never imagined that would happen when I came to Butler.”

 

A Butler Assist

A common thread runs through Cecil, Gray-Smith, and Spodek’s experiences — Butler’s Political Science department helped them land their first internship.

“I always knew I wanted to pursue politics, but I was more laid back my freshman and sophomore years,” Cecil says. “Then [Shufeldt] urged me to get involved in the Todd Young Senate campaign during the 2016 election cycle, which sparked my interest and led to my internship with the Republican Party.”

Shufeldt emphasizes campaign internships because they lead to future political internships and career opportunities.

“Interning on a campaign is a great opportunity to open professional doors,” he says. “It  is one of the most impactful ways we, as citizens, can shape the direction of our government.”

Shufeldt regularly invites Democratic and Republican Party and campaign representatives to speak to his students.

“Studying politics in a major metropolitan area and a state capital is a huge advantage for our students,” Shufeldt says. “I encourage them to take advantage of this as much as possible.”

And Gray-Smith says Butler’s Political Science students are well prepared when opportunities arise.

“The two journalism classes I took forced me to reach out to people and made me more comfortable interviewing strangers,” he says. “They really opened my eyes that I can’t turn to my friends for help every time.”

“The U.S. Politics class I took helped inform my basic knowledge of voting,” Spodek says.

Cecil says being a conservative among more liberal classmates has made her more comfortable defending her beliefs.

“I’m an outspoken conservative in a liberal environment,” she says. “But my beliefs are challenged, not changed.”

 

A Political Future

Cecil wants to pursue a career in political fundraising. Gray-Smith wants to one day run for state or national office. Spodek wants to go into public policy and is looking at law school.

They know that, whatever path they end up pursuing, their internships will have helped them get there.

“The connections I’ve made will propel me to the career I want,” Cecil says. “I definitely look forward to getting up in the morning and doing something I’m really passionate about.”

But, in the meantime, all three stress that one vote can turn the tide.

“This election is going to be really tight, not just for Donnelly, but for a lot of candidates,” Spodek says. “I know every bit of effort I put in will make a difference.”

(Bull)Dog Days on the Campaign Trail

Butler students also intern with political campaigns in increasingly large numbers.