Making a difference: Iowa State students get involved in national campaigns


Grant Tetmeyer/Iowa State Daily

Nick Leidahl works out of a classroom in Carver Hall making cold calls for the Bernie Sanders Campaign. 

Emily Berch

On a warm summer night, students can often be found relaxing in hammocks, playing games outside or just generally enjoying the summer evenings. 

Nick Leidahl, a junior in history, however, is standing at the front of Carver 109, leading a small group of volunteers. He isn’t required to be there for a class or a job, and if you had asked him during the last presidential election if this is where he thought he would be now, he would’ve given you a resounding “no.”

He’s there because he’s been swept up in the swarm of Democratic presidential candidates overtaking Iowa — and one in particular has inspired him to begin leading phone banking sessions: Sen. Bernie Sanders.

As Leidahl takes his seat at the front of the room, the phone calls begin:

“I’m calling with the Bernie Sanders campaign.”

“Do you plan on caucusing for Bernie?”

“Can I put you down as a ‘strong supporter’?”

Within three minutes, the group finds its first supporter. The others silently cheer as Liedahl makes the first tally mark of the night on the chalkboard and quickly returns to his work.

While some of the people they call are uninterested in learning more about the 2020 primary, its outcome will still affect them, and Liedahl said he’s committed to spreading such a message.

“Politics is important,” Liedahl said. “Life is politics; politics is life.”

This election cycle’s field of Democratic presidential candidates has been noted as being historically diverse and expansive, but along with the list of candidates comes a flood of opportunities for the young people of Iowa to get involved in national politics.

Cody Woodruff, a senior in political science, recently decided to pause his studies at Iowa State to serve as the Story County field organizer for Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. 

Unlike Leidahl, Woodruff approached the 2020 field looking for someone to support. After applying and interviewing with several other campaigns, however, he realized how determined he was to work with the Buttigieg team.

Initially he applied for a paid internship, and Woodruff said he was surprised when he was offered a full-time job.

“I had never considered [taking time off school] before, and I just always thought I would be back in the fall like everybody else,” Woodruff said. “I sat down and talked with a lot of close friends and family, my academic adviser and others I trust, and basically everybody said, ‘You have to do this. This is what you’re meant for.’”

Jennie Norris, who graduated with a degree in event management from Iowa State in May, has found a home with Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign, as well as Iowa’s political climate.

Norris said before she moved to Iowa, she was very quiet about her political beliefs but finding like-minded voters in Ames felt like a “breath of fresh air.”

She knew she wanted to help organize political events, and she said she sees her fellowship with the Harris campaign as a step toward reaching that goal. Her fellowship ends at the end of July, and she plans to become a full-time organizer with the campaign.

Mack Shelley, chair of the political science department, said this experience isn’t uncommon for Iowa State students during election season. The department regularly gets e-mails asking faculty to share information about campaign job and volunteer opportunities with students.

“This happens every election cycle, and right now — because there’s so darn many candidates — there are tons of opportunities,” Shelley said.

Shelley said the department also offers an internship class, as well the Gateway Program, which seeks to help students whose internships take them to Washington D.C. connect with Iowa State alumni and other young professionals.

Norris said she feels like being in Iowa is what really helped her find her job with the Harris campaign.

“Having the caucus and Iowa being the very first state — I would never have this experience in Georgia,” Norris said. “I would never have this experience anywhere else in the country this early on.”

Leidahl’s interest in politics was catalyzed by one specific event at Iowa State. In March, a white nationalist speaker came to campus, and Leidahl attended to protest. There, he met another Ames organizer who helped him learn more about progressive politics and getting involved with the Sanders campaign.

Sanders is also the only candidate for whom students have formed an on-campus organization.

Ashton Ayers, a junior in political science and student leader in Students for Bernie, said the core group in the organization consists of about 20 students, but they had 200 people sign up in a few weeks of tabling on campus. 

Ayers said the organization plans to host volunteer events, political activism trainings, policy and issue education sessions and protests, as well as engaging in more policy-specific advocacy.

“We want to create working groups to advocate for specific areas, like Green New Deal, single payer [health care], immigrant rights and college for all,” Ayers said.

Regardless of who student activists are supporting, they often agree that it furthers their ties to the community and a sense of purpose.

“It’s not about Mayor Pete — just like with any candidate — this is a community-first campaign,” Woodruff said. “I get to focus on the place and people I love, which is amazing.”

Even if a student works on their own, Norris said it can lead to something great.

“This experience has been … so amazing to me — knowing that when you work together, when you push together, you can really make a difference in this world,” Norris said. “Even if you are just one person, there’s so much you can do. From door knocking, to making phone calls, to canvassing people, there’s a lot that you can do to really make this world a better place.”