Open Semester Program Affords Trinity Junior an “Awesome” Experience

Rose Lichtenfels worked in Battleground State for Obama Campaign

HARTFORD, CT, December 7, 2012 – “Awesome” and “pretty amazing” were among the words that Rose Lichtenfels ’14, used Thursday in describing her work as a precinct coordinator for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in the battleground state of Iowa. 

A political science major, Lichtenfels discussed her “pretty amazing” real-life experience – made possible by Trinity’s innovative Open Semester Program – with students in the American National Government course taught by Stefanie Chambers, associate professor of political science who also served as Lichtenfels’ faculty adviser.

Of all the states where Lichtenfels could have been sent, Iowa was among the most interesting and important because it was considered up for grabs by both Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. It was also where Obama began his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 with the Iowa caucuses, and the state where he made his final campaign appearance prior to this Election Day. 

Altogether, in the four months leading up to Nov. 6, there were 67 visits to Iowa by Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, said Lichtenfels. Romney and his surrogates also were frequent visitors.

A year ago, Lichtenfels, of McLean, VA, had no idea that she would be spending most of fall 2012 playing a key role in the Obama campaign. “This time last year I was sitting in class thinking about what I was going to wear to a Christmas party,” she told her audience.

But after hearing about Trinity’s Open Semester Program, which provides students with the opportunity to undertake a full-time independent study or internship, Lichtenfels met with Chambers, contacted the Obama campaign, had a series of interviews and – virtually before she knew what was happening – landed in Iowa, earning four credits or the equivalent of a semester’s course load for her dawn-to-dusk politicking.

Under the Open Semester Program, a student can apply for permission to engage in some type of academically acceptable independent research or study, or can serve as a full-time intern with a government agency or private organization. A faculty member must agree to be the student’s sponsor.

Both Chambers and Lichtenfels agreed that the Open Semester affords students a wonderful opportunity to design and participate in something that is not only unique but that they are passionate about.

“Rose was able to connect much of what she learned in the classroom and from the political science literature to a major political campaign,” said Chambers, adding that she is “incredibly proud of Rose’s work and the way she connected her political science training to real-world events.” 

Recent Open Semester projects have included stints at the United Nations and Congress, in theater administration, at a school for the deaf, in public television and with programs in the United States and abroad to combat malnutrition and infant mortality.

Lichtenfels spoke like a veteran of political wars in addressing Chambers’ class, describing the incredibly sophisticated field operation that the Obama campaign created, one in which Iowa was divided into 12 regions with trained personnel working from the ground up in targeting, registering, and motivating Obama supporters to vote. She noted that Romney outspent Obama on TV ads, $480 million to $404 million, and that the Obama operatives knew they needed a strong grass-roots effort to overcome Romney’s broadcast blitz.

For most of the time she was in Iowa, Lichtenfels was stationed in Cedar Rapids in the eastern part of the state. Although many people associate Iowa with corn and think of it as a rural state, Lichtenfels said that, in fact, it is highly urbanized and progressive and has a strong organized labor and manufacturing presence.

“There are a lot of cool things about Iowa,” she said, noting that the wind energy industry is responsible for about 7,000 jobs, and that the people “couldn’t be more genuine.”

She called Obama’s field organization “very dynamic and impressive,” adding that it functioned like “a well-oiled machine.” There were micro-targets in every precinct, and precise data that the workers used to target likely Obama supporters, including subgroups such as women, African Americans and Latinos. During the early part of the fall campaign, a huge amount of time and energy was spent on door knocking, phone calling and data entry so that the last four days of the campaign could be devoted to GOTV or Get Out The Vote efforts.

Meanwhile, throughout her stay in Iowa, Lichtenfels was in constant communication with Chambers, designing a curriculum as she went along, and deciding the kind of presentation she would make and the paper that she would write once the campaign was over and Lichtenfels returned to campus.

In Iowa, Lichtenfels was largely responsible for organizing neighborhood teams and campus events. Starting on September 27, when Iowans could begin casting ballots, campaign workers intensified their efforts, knowing that if they were going to defeat Romney, it was going to be a result of large numbers of people voting early. Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, the cast of Glee and Natalie Portman were among the pro-Obama celebrities who showed up to get out the vote.

As it turned out, Obama supporters cast many more early votes than Romney’s, allowing Obama to overcome Romney’s turnout edge on Election Day. “We completely nailed the early vote effort,” said Lichtenfels. She proudly noted that Iowa was one of only two states where voter participation improved from 2008 to 2012.

And where was she on Election Night when National Public Radio put Iowa in the Obama win column? Sitting in her Acura and not the least bit surprised. “I was very confident that we were going to win. I knew it was going to happen. It was an awesome, awesome experience.”