U-M students reflect on canvassing trips to Iowa ahead of Monday's caucus

Sunday, February 2, 2020 - 7:52pm

Jean Simpson, a canvass captain for the Warren campaign in Davenport, IA, explains the canvassing procedures to four students in the U-M chapters of Students for Warren.

Jean Simpson, a canvass captain for the Warren campaign in Davenport, IA, explains the canvassing procedures to four students in the U-M chapters of Students for Warren. Buy this photo
Annie Klusendorf/Daily
 

DAVENPORT, IOWA — Public Policy junior Camille Mancuso and LSA junior Jordyn Houle stood over a kitchen table covered in campaign fliers of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., at a house serving as one of the campaign’s canvassing headquarters in Davenport, Iowa on Friday. 

Houle and Mancuso, two leaders of the University of Michigan’s Students for Warren chapter, arrived in Iowa late Thursday night with two other Students for Warren members to spend the weekend canvassing for Warren, Democratic presidential candidate, ahead of Monday’s Iowa caucus

They had been planning the weekend for a while, along with LSA junior Maya Chamra and Engineering sophomore Ashvin Kumar. Mancuso told The Daily ahead of the trip that they’ve been canvassing for Warren in Michigan, but they’ve wanted to come knock doors in Iowa since the end of last semester. 

“We knew it was going to be all hands on deck,” Mancuso said. “All of the presidential campaigns have sort of been cycling with who’s at the top of the polls, who’s near the bottom of the polls — it sort of changes pretty often. So we knew that last weekend before the caucus was going to be super important to ensure that Elizabeth Warren is successful in Iowa.”

In the kitchen, the students listened to Jean Simpson, Davenport resident and a canvass captain for the Warren campaign as she explained door-knocking routes and how to report responses from residents. 

“What we’re going to do is I’m going to give you a script,” Simpson told the group. “You’re each going to get a clipboard, and that will have your script and everything you need, and I’m going to go through that now.” 

“I guess I’m skipping class on Monday.”

Students from several other University of Michigan groups also planned canvassing trips in Iowa this weekend to participate in the lead-up to the caucus. 

LSA senior Jessica Kosticak was inspired to start Students for Pete at the University after a November trip to Iowa for Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and the youngest candidate in the race. When she heard the friends she’d made on that trip were going back to the state for the caucus, she knew she wanted in too. 

“I’m like, guess I’m skipping class on Monday,” Kosticak said. 

She drove nine hours to Des Moines by herself, in her self-proclaimed “clown car” — a hybrid with great gas mileage. Kosticak wasn’t nervous for the long drive, she said, but her parents were. 

“I almost didn't tell them, but then I’m like, I feel like they would want to know something like this,” Kosticak said. “Like, ‘oh, I'm just going to go to Iowa for four days!’” 

Once there, Kosticak said her job was to knock on doors and do whatever the campaign needed at the moment. 

“That weekend before, I’m told, is crucial for reaching out to folks,” she said. “So just showing that we care about having people’s voices heard no matter where they come from or what their political beliefs are.” 

LSA sophomore Alexander Zittleman, a member of the University’s chapter of Students for Bernie, travelled to Clinton, Iowa, to canvass for Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., with Spartans for Sanders, a student group from Michigan State University. 

“I decided to go to Iowa for the chance to get out of my comfort zone and talk to people about the issues that matter and to encourage people to vote,” Zittleman told The Daily in an email interview. “Being the first caucus, Iowa sets the tone for the rest of the primary season and Iowa has the potential to build even more momentum for Bernie.” 

“It was just fun getting involved because it was the first time for most of us.”

Seven members of the Ann Arbor Yang Gang also traveled to Davenport to canvass for Andrew Yang, entrepreneur and Democratic presidential candidate. This wasn’t their first trip for the candidate — members of the group went to Westerville, Ohio, to support Yang during the fourth Democratic debate this past October. 

“That trip was a lot of fun,” Engineering senior Justin Zhao, event coordinator for the group, said. “People were super receptive to our candidate. It was just fun getting involved because it was the first time for most of us.” 

When they had the opportunity to travel for Yang again, they jumped at the chance. 

“Andrew is still kind of a fringe candidate, I would say,” Zhao told The Daily. “So he needs to perform well in the early states for his campaign … to succeed.” 

Zhao said they may look into planning a canvassing trip to New Hampshire, the next state to hold a primary, as well. South Carolina, another early state, is “too far of a drive.” 

The group has been working to drum up support for Yang on campus through tabling in Mason Hall and postering around Ann Arbor, but Zhao said they’re putting most of their energy into making sure Yang can stay in the race long enough to get to the Michigan primary. 

“We’re probably going to be most energized if he’s doing well in the early states. If he’s doing well in the early states and he has a viable chance to win then we’re going to do more work for sure,” he said. 

“Even if we’re not in Iowa, we’re still going to make our presence felt.

Some students who couldn’t physically be in Iowa this weekend still chose to help out their chosen candidates from afar. Kosticak said her fellow Students for Pete members who couldn’t travel this weekend were planning a phone banking event to reach Iowa voters remotely. 

Similarly, LSA freshman Andrew Schaeffler, co-founder of the University’s Students for Biden chapter, had hoped to organize a trip to Iowa for some Students for Biden members. They weren’t able to coordinate a ride, but Schaeffler said they planned to make calls to Iowa residents in support of the former vice president. 

Students for Biden has held regular phone banks for the campaign this fall — “every weekend or every other weekend,” Schaeffler said. They used the campaign’s website to call into Iowa and talk to caucus voters about why they support Biden and to make sure voters have information about their caucus locations. 

Schaeffler said the group has placed an emphasis on phone banking into Iowa because it’s a crucial point in the campaign. 

“I was definitely more so expecting to do things that were on a more local basis,” he said. "But we’ve put such an emphasis on our phone banking calling into Iowa because we know … that’s a priority that we want to commit to. And then once Iowa passes, we'll be much more focused on Michigan.” 

Schaeffler was also asked to serve as a precinct captain, a person who serves as a liaison between a political party and voters, for Biden at the first-ever satellite caucus in Ann Arbor on Monday. The caucus is one of 99 events that will allow registered Iowa Democrats who can’t be at their allocated caucus location to cast their vote on Monday. 

“Even if we’re not in Iowa, we’re still going to make our presence felt in Iowa, and do everything we can to reach out,” he said. 

Back in Davenport

After receiving their instructions, the Students for Warren group left canvassing HQ and drove to a quiet Davenport street a few miles away. 

Chamra and Kumar walked up the driveway and through the fence of the first house on their canvassing list. Kumar knocked on the door, and they waited a moment until a man opened the door a crack, his young daughter peeking out next to him. 

“Hi, my name’s Ashvin, I'm a volunteer with Elizabeth Warren's campaign, and this is Maya,” Kumar said, following the script on his clipboard. 

They talked to the man for a moment, but he said he already supported Warren and already knew his caucus day plan, so Chamra and Kumar thanked him and said goodbye. 

As they walked back down the driveway, Chamra said she thought it had gone pretty well. 

“A lot of people kind of don’t like to be disturbed at their house,” she said. “But he opened the door and said he supported Warren and that he has a caucus plan, so that’s good!” 

The pair huddled over Kumar’s phone, trying to figure out where to go next. With a direction decided, they started off down the street, feeling warmed up and ready for a day of knocking on doors.

Benjamin Rosenfeld contributed reporting to this article. 

Reporter Maya Goldman can be reached at mayagold@umich.edu