Mahima Varanasi has always been a fan of politics. For her 17th birthday, her high school friends bought her a shirt with a photo of former Vice President Joe Biden eating an ice cream cone — a gag gift she has come to cherish.
So, when Varanasi, a sophomore majoring in computer science, was given the chance to spend her summer in Des Moines, Iowa as a field intern for Biden’s presidential bid, the Pennsylvania native jumped at the opportunity.
“I didn’t realize how much more there was to a campaign that I didn’t see,” Varanasi said. “My job is to talk to people [and] my role, whether it be through phone calls or door-knocking or meeting people, is to have honest conversations about what they think … and what they care about the most.”
Varanasi is taking part in the Unruh Institute of Politics’ Inside Iowa Project, a new initiative that gave a cohort of 10 students the chance to work in Iowa for the summer to see the states’ impact on the 2020 presidential election. The program started at USC after co-director Mike Murphy piloted the program at the University of Chicago in 2015.
“Especially if you’re in a place like California, we don’t have the same relationship [with elections] as states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — all these early primary states,” said Meghan Ginley, program director of the Unruh Institute. “The access these students get to the candidates is unparalleled to anything they would get to what they would get in California.”
In February, Iowa will host the 2020 Democratic Caucus, the first nominating contest of the Democratic presidential primaries for the upcoming election.
“Iowa represents the rest of the country, [and] I believe the people here are really genuine about being informed,” Varanasi said. “If you want to know what this extremely populated country is thinking about politics, you go to Iowa. It has that metropolitan city, and it has so many farm towns … it makes sense as to why it is representative.”
Students had the opportunity to gain campaign and communication experience, while living and learning in the state’s capital. Of the 10 USC students involved in the project, three students are interning for Biden, two for South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, two for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, one for California Sen. Kamala Harris, one for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and one for the Republican Party in Iowa.
Before their time in Iowa, the cohort participated in various sessions where the students got to speak with campaign professionals and political operatives to gain more insight into their work as field interns.
According to the USC Center for the Political Future website, students attended various workshops about how to run and operate a presidential campaign to learn more about the political culture of Iowa.
“They would give us advice and have us ask them questions to prepare us for [Iowa],” said project fellow Lan Duong, a sophomore majoring in international relations.
Duong said that though there are typical tasks she has to complete as a field intern, every day on the job is different.
“In a week, we have to take some phone calls, we have to canvas and we also have to set up meetings with people [that are] one on one,” Duong said. “That’s part of the relationship building.”
Similar to Duong, Varanasi’s schedule always differed — from calling voters and campaigning at events, to canvassing door-to-door and meeting voters from all over the state. On more than one occasion, Varanasi even got the chance to meet Biden.
“I kid you not, I started crying,” Varanasi said. “I feel like I was really cynical in terms of politics … and felt that everything anyone said wasn’t coming from a place of authenticity, but he was so authentic.”
As the only student in the program with a STEM major, Varanasi said her experience has given her a new perspective on the emerging importance of scientific and technological literacy in politics.
“After this whole talk about election security in 2016, it felt like the two fields [of computer science and political science] needed each other more than ever,” Varansi said. “With Obama’s campaign, I think that was the first time we ever saw someone take the digital space seriously in an election.”
For Varanasi and the rest of her cohort, the program will extend past its 10-week internship. During the caucus in February, the students will travel back to Iowa to observe the kick-off of the 2020 presidential election.
For Duong, however, the program has inspired her to postpone her sophomore year at USC to work in Iowa for Harris’ campaign until the caucus. Duong said the greatest lesson she learned on the campaign so far has been the importance of making authentic connections with others.
“The value of interpersonal relationships, even in other careers and genuinely caring about [others] as opposed to empty networking … is what wins elections,” Duong said. “And in general, that is what will help you.”