When Alejandra Escobar signed up to work her first campaign job as a field organizer with the Nebraska Democratic Party, she pictured knocking on doors and talking to voters one-on-one.
“I was not expecting to be in a dark basement where my Wi-Fi would be very spotty,” she said. Sometimes, when the internet gets too unpredictable, Ms. Escobar moves to her childhood bedroom or the kitchen table to work instead.
Ms. Escobar, 22, is a recent graduate of the University of Nebraska Omaha and is working on behalf of Kara Eastman, the Democratic candidate in Nebraska’s Second Congressional District.
She is making the most of it: She helped coordinate a socially distanced “walk and greet” event, where people were invited to meet Ms. Eastman and to have conversations on what to expect and how to prepare for voting. The team also held a socially distanced party in a parking lot, where people were able to pick up yard signs and other campaign swag. And because everything is remote and online, she said, the campaign has been able to recruit volunteers from all over the country.
“But there’s still a lot of communities, like Latino communities in South Omaha which is a predominantly Latino area in town, where I wish we knocked on doors because then we could have that one-to-one opportunity to meet them,” she said.
And there’s something else missing too: The rites of passage associated with a first campaign job.
This year, the young and politically ambitious have to rely on digital platforms as sites of organizing because of the coronavirus crisis. Traditions that have long defined working on the campaign trail — door knocking, town halls, sleepless boot camps in battleground states — are now being replaced by mass Zoom calls and virtual canvassing efforts.
Ben Wessel, 31, is now the executive director of NextGen America — a nonprofit focused on youth voter engagement and funded by the billionaire former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer — but before he was running things, Mr. Wessel was a junior campaign staff member on President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign.
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At that time, analog methods of reaching voters reigned supreme, but much like the political landscape has changed in the past eight years, so too has technology and the way people communicate. Mr. Wessel does see an upside.
A decade ago, he said, instructions for young campaign workers went something like this: “‘Here’s all the strangers, go knock on their doors,’” Mr. Wessel said. “And so we see a lot of the young people who are working on campaigns now being told, ‘Hey, post all this on your social media, make sure you’re texting everyone in your phone, find a way to get your own community organized,’ rather than just sitting in the chair and making phone calls.”
That’s the good part. He knows the downside too. The hands-on training that early career campaign jobs provide is invaluable for young professionals looking to begin their political careers. Normally, young staff members are trained to tackle the challenging terrain of the campaign trail in political boot camps, which curate workshops, guest speakers and simulated exercises to prepare organizers for the job ahead. These programs — some affiliated with specific parties, some nonpartisan — often provide housing and function sort of like a young professional sleepaway camp for like-minded strivers.
Jalen Johnson, 21, is an alum of the College to Congress program, a nonpartisan group that provides financial support and mentorship to congressional interns.
Mr. Johnson, a Georgia native, said he had never been to D.C. before landing a spot in the training program. An internship with Senator David Perdue, Republican of Georgia, in the summer of 2019 set him on a path to his first presidential campaign job: serving on the Trump campaign’s communications team. The bulk of his work — monitoring media coverage, drafting tweets, editing videos — can be done digitally and, he said, from a safe distance from others while at the campaign’s headquarters in Arlington, Va.
“We definitely have not been, you know, going around shaking hands and hugging people,” he said of how the campaign — and his experience specifically — has adapted to the pandemic, adding, It’s not “like it’s 2019.”
And amid the sprint to the finish of the 2020 campaign, Mr. Johnson stressed that he was not taking any chances. “With how the coronavirus affects my community, meaning Black people, at a disproportionate rate, it’s personal to me — so I don’t care where I go or who I think I’ll ever be, I will never put the health and safety of myself, as well as people who I care about and love, at that risk.”
Early career campaign jobs aren’t just about experience and training — they’re about connections too, both professional and personal. (Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, and his wife, Heidi Cruz, met while working on George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000.)
Some of Mr. Wessel’s 2012 campaign colleagues, he said, are people he is “texting with every day right now, being like ‘Oh my god, what is going on?’” And he is also talking to them about strategies for organizing in this moment. “There’s a lot of peer learning,” he added.
Though pandemic-era campaign jobs are decidedly not what they used to be, some ambitious college students still opt to focus on the trail. Nora Salitan, 22, took a semester off from her senior year at Columbia to work as a field organizer with NextGen America in New Hampshire, where she focused on motivating young people to register to vote.
She said it was a big decision to pause school — “I love being in class, I love doing readings, I’m a huge nerd” — but figured that given the way the pandemic had upended college and campaigning, she would give working in politics a try.
Chie Xu, 21, who also took a semester off and is working with Ms. Salitan, said she felt a strong moral obligation to actively participate in this election — and knew that she would be distracted doing online coursework while quarantined.
“I mean it just sort of feels like the world is ending,” said Ms. Xu, who would have been a senior at Yale this fall. “So if there was a year to be involved, it’d be this one.”
She also said that seeing more fellow Asian-Americans who are active in politics — as elected leaders and working on campaigns — motivated her to get involved. “I think people of color, Asian-Americans especially, are not really often the kind of people who are involved in campaigns in this more traditional way — in the phone banking way, in the door knocking way,” Ms. Xu said. “I felt more and more people of color being represented in politics, and it really gave me the confidence to be able to do it myself.”
Ms. Xu and Ms. Salitan wound up moving to New Hampshire to set up what Ms. Xu called a “substitute field office” where the organizers lived and worked remotely, together.
They’re not going into the field, but it is better than the alternative that they were imagining. “I think we were all really craving that community and were feeling like it was going to be isolating to be on Zoom for 11 hours a day in your childhood bedroom just making calls,” Ms. Salitan said.
Perhaps, befitting the optimism that young politically engaged people might have, some early career operatives are able to see the silver lining of organizing in a pandemic.
Claire Goldberg, 23, served as a fellow for Hillary Clinton’s campaign when she was a sophomore in college, learning data entry, phone banking and canvassing in Philadelphia.
Mrs. Clinton’s loss that November motivated Ms. Goldberg to become even more involved in the 2020 election. She worked as an organizer in Iowa for Senator Kamala Harris’s Democratic primary campaign, knocking on doors to make the pitch.
“I think the best way to organize is talking to people face-to-face,” she said.
Calling is trickier. “You never know if someone’s in the middle of something,” Ms. Goldberg said. Not being able to knock on doors — which Democratic volunteers had been avoiding almost entirely until very recently — “makes everything 10 times harder, and I really empathize with the people who are full-time organizers right now.”
Currently, Ms. Goldberg works in digital communications for the DC Democratic Party, creating content for social media and curating virtual panels and other events. There is an advantage in terms of getting critical mass.
“I think because people are already at home and they don’t feel like, ‘Oh this meeting is an hour away from me’ or ‘I don’t want to leave my house to go to this meeting.’” With that excuse gone, she said, “there’s a lot more participation.”