On Feb. 4, Yoko Rosenbaum woke up feeling accomplished. The candidate she had worked countless hours for had just won the Iowa caucuses. All the hours she spent dedicating herself to knocking on doors, calling people and sacrificing her summer to be in Iowa was finally paying off.
Less than a month later, her candidate dropped out of the presidential race, leaving Rosenbaum devastated and unable to fully process her emotions for at least another month.
This is the life of a field organizer — the backbone of any political campaign. These workers commit themselves to endless hours of understanding voters and communities all for a chance to elect the person they believe is best fit to be in office. The issue with campaigns, especially in a field of candidates so large, is there can only be one winner.
Lan Duong was so dedicated to her candidate, she took a semester off from school to fully dedicate herself to her candidate’s campaign only for that politician to drop out of the race before a single vote was ever cast.
The news left Duong in immediate shock. She had devoted herself completely to this campaign and now wouldn’t be able to see any results of her hard work.
Thomas Martin experienced a rollercoaster of emotions on the campaign he worked for. His candidate came in a close second in the Iowa caucuses, won the New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucus, and at one point was believed to be on a clear path to winning the party’s nomination. Martin believed his candidate had a shot at becoming the future president of the United States.
Less than two weeks later, after a few key drop-outs and huge endorsements backing someone else, Martin inevitably waited for the news that his candidate had dropped out of the race.
Working for a campaign isn’t glamorous, and can change at any time. One moment a field organizer’s campaign could be first in the polls, delegates and donations — only for the candidate to announce a campaign suspension without warning just days later. That might leave political activists to wonder why anyone would ever sign up or agree to be a field organizer when the pay isn’t even that great.
But without field organizers, there is no successful campaign.
Rosenbaum, Duong and Martin were a part of USC’s Center for Political Future Inside Iowa Project. This was an opportunity for a small group of students to pursue a 10-week internship with a political campaign of their choosing.
Rosenbaum picked the Pete Buttigieg campaign because he represented something that most of the other candidates didn’t— a new generation of leadership.
“He’s young enough to be around for the long haul,” she said. “He would enact policies for climate, the economy, foreign relations, etc. knowing that they affect his future too.”
Duong, a California native from San Jose, was compelled by the experience and empathy of Sen. Kamala Harris. Duong wanted someone she could trust and was knowledgeable which is why she put her support behind California’s U.S. senator.
Before Martin was even eligible to vote, he knew which campaign he wanted to join. At the age of 17, he was introduced to Sen. Bernie Sanders because of his 2016 presidential run. Over time, Martin believed in Sanders’ progressive agenda which supported Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and abolishing student debt.
“He's really the central figure who brought me into politics in the first place back in high school,” Martin said.
So, when he got to pick a campaign, Sanders was a simple choice. He was finally going to be on the ground working for the candidate who had been inspiring him for the last five years.
Beginning in early 2019 the cohort of students chosen, ranging from sophomores and seniors, attended a series of expert-led workshops to educate them on the basics of working for a presidential campaign.
Once they got to Iowa everything they thought they knew about field organizing for a presidential campaign changed. The stakes were higher than they anticipated. The work that they would be doing had the potential to greatly shake up the Democratic presidential race. Since 1980, the results of the Iowa caucus have impacted the voters in other states, donors and activists, the media, and most of all the candidates.
Rosenbaum, Duong and Martin were on the frontlines of their campaigns. They knocked on hundreds of doors, called hundreds of Iowans and attended innumerable community events. Rosenbaum explained the real hands-on experience you get when organizing in Iowa.
“People expect face-to-face contact not only with the candidates themselves but also with their staff and they expect candidates to be as accessible as possible,” she said.
Before the summer was over, Duong was offered a paid position with the Harris campaign. If she took it, she would have to take a leave of absence from studying international relations during her sophomore year of college and stay in Iowa. Her decision wasn’t difficult.
“When my boss asked me, I immediately knew I was gonna say yes,” she said. “I knew it would be an experience of a lifetime, if I had gone back to school it would have blended in with all the other years.”
Duong was confident that her work in Iowa wasn’t finished and she felt the need to continue on and further Harris’ chances at winning the caucus.
Rosenbaum went back to school after her internship ended, but that didn’t stop her from continuing to work for the Buttigieg campaign. She became the campus coordinator at USC for Students for Pete and eventually was promoted to the Pacific and Mountain West regional student lead. She became involved with more than just the USC campus and was in charge of coordinating student trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
These students-turned-field-organizers were dedicating all their time to these campaigns and making a difference in the 2020 election.
But the field remained too large, money was drying up and support was falling short; candidates started dropping out.
Harris was one of the first. Duong received the news in early December on a staff call while she was still on the ground in Iowa. All that hard work she had put in for the last six months was thrown out. Iowans would not be caucusing for Harris.
“I didn't fully process it when it was happening,” she said. “Especially because it was so soon to the Iowa caucuses. Initially, I was feeling disappointment, frustration, all these things.”
This wasn’t the end to Duong’s work in Iowa though, she spent the last weekend for the caucuses working for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. Since she was coming back to Iowa with the entire USC Inside Iowa cohort in February, she still felt compelled to help out with the caucuses.
So Duong reached out to some of the friends she made on the Harris campaign, who moved on to Warren’s campaign after Harris dropped, to see if she could help.
Once the Democratic primary kicked off, the results showed Buttigieg and Sanders in a close race. The numbers suggested that either one could secure the Democratic nomination.
But on the eve of Super Tuesday, Buttigieg made the surprising choice to suspend his campaign. Rosenbaum was blindsided and stunned.
“It was completely out of the blue,” she said. “I think it was absolutely the right choice but it took me a while to get to that spot.”
At the time Buttigieg was second in delegates, the only candidate to place in the top four for all the first four contests, and was expected to be viable in many of the states voting on Super Tuesday.
Rosenbaum believes the former mayor made the choice that was best for the Democratic Party because it helped resurrect former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign.
“I credit that in large part to Pete getting behind him,” she said. “The slew of other candidates began endorsing Biden, but only after Pete did.”
Martin saw the end of Sanders’ campaign at the same time as Rosenbaum, except Sanders hadn’t officially dropped out.
“When Buttigieg and Senator Klobuchar backed out and then immediately supported Joe Biden, we all knew what was coming,” he said. “We knew eventually down the line Joe Biden would be the Democratic nominee.”
Finally in early April, Sanders suspended his campaign, leaving Martin sad. He kept in contact with many of the Sanders organizers he met in Iowa and together they shared his feelings of disappointment.
At the beginning of the year, the campaign staff really had believed Sanders was going to secure the nomination, and in a matter of 24 hours it was all ripped from them in a strange chain of events.
It would be easy to feel regret for all the time spent on working for a failed campaign, but these students are grateful for the opportunity they had.
Duong took a semester off, and was planning on taking the whole academic year off before Harris dropped out, but she doesn’t regret it. Even if she knew the end result, she would still do it again.
“I think in general, no campaigns like to regret,” she said. “Even if they didn't end up getting to be the nominee their work does make a difference in the communities that you invest time in.”
Martin was proud of the work the Sanders campaign did in raising awareness to his policies and how much of an impact it’s had on the primary election, despite the senator not securing the nomination.
“He's really brought the progressive movement back into the forefront of American politics, especially on the political left,” he said.
Looking to the November election, both Rosenbaum and Duong are taking their respective candidate’s endorsement of Biden into consideration. Rosenbaum has already made her decision in supporting Biden for president, and said Buttigieg’s endorsement helped because she respects his choices. She’s also considering joining the Biden campaign.
Duong isn’t completely decided yet, and respects what Harris has done, but she wants her support to be her own choice. She doesn’t plan on volunteering for Biden’s campaign.
Martin is in a more difficult place. Biden’s record and policies don’t really align with his personal views. The Sanders campaign was focused on two things: implementing progressive policy and defeating President Trump. He is weighing those two things when it comes to deciding who he wants to vote for next.
“Do I vote for Joe Biden in order to defeat Donald Trump?” Martin said. “Or in terms of progressive ideas does it not matter whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden wins?”
Ultimately Rosenbaum, Duong, and Martin feel proud of the work they were able to accomplish in their campaigns.
They may have not ended with their main goal, but they were able to make a difference in different communities and have some sort of impact on the 2020 presidential race. They all hope to continue to work in the political field in the future, beyond just field organizing.
“I definitely know that I’m going to be helping out in some regard. I don’t know if I would be a field organizer for another presidential campaign,” Duong said. “But I definitely see myself organizing for issues or local candidates.”
After this article was published, Duong said she is “100% going to support” Biden as the nominee. She said she also would make calls and door knock closer to the general election.
This article was updated on May 18 at 2:00 p.m. with additional statements from Lan Duong.