When Aditi Rao was a high school senior making post-graduation plans, she had no idea that, the following year, she would be involved with two of the most significant and high-profile United States elections of that year. She knew that she was politically inclined—she began knocking doors for Hillary Clinton’s campaign almost immediately after Clinton announced her candidacy—but it was only after Rao applied to colleges that she realized that she wanted to work long-term for a candidate who she believed in. She decided to take a gap year, postponing her enrollment to Barnard College and throwing herself completely into the world of political campaigning.
“As an organizer, I worked with people in the community,” Rao explained about her role in Clinton’s campaign. “I communicated a lot with volunteers and other campaign members. Direct voter contact was also a huge component of my job. It was important that I tried to convince people to vote, even if I knew they would never volunteer or continuously work with the campaign.”
Rao took her job seriously, committing herself to voter outreach up until the final minutes of Clinton’s race. On Election Day, she and a group of volunteers were sent to Cedar Rapids to “just have fun and knock on some doors” on the day that her hard work would come to a conclusion. When the polls closed on November 8, 2016, Rao was still outside, giving every last second of effort to the campaign. The optimism and excitement of that day was tangible, so the events of the night came as a devastating surprise to her. “We came back for a watch party when votes were being counted, but after a while, I couldn’t take it. I went to my car and turned on NPR. The next day, I showed up early to the office to clean up and tear down posters. It was really difficult,” Rao said.
Though the results of the election hit her hard, Rao did not stay down for long. A coworker of Rao’s, another organizer for the Clinton campaign, began to work on Jon Ossoff’s congressional campaign in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. She encouraged Rao to join her, and Rao spontaneously packed up and moved to Georgia for the summer. “What motivated me to work on Ossoff’s campaign after Hillary lost was that I wanted to see that there were still good people out there who I could make a connection with...people who believe in human decency and the common good,” Rao said, adding: “I got that in Georgia. I found my people.”
Once again, Rao worked as an organizer for Jon Ossoff’s campaign. Though her daily duties were familiar, she found that campaigning for Ossoff was new in many ways. Primarily, she felt that, when campaigning for Clinton, a narrative had already been shaped before she reached voters. Ossoff, however, was a newer political figure, and spreading his message became Rao’s mission—a mission that became more and more important as the Sixth District congressional election became the center of attention on major news networks. People around the country began to interpret the impending outcome of the race as a measure of both Donald Trump’s popularity and the likelihood of Democrats gaining a majority in the House in 2018.
Though Karen Handel won the House seat in the end, some optimistic Democrats see the unusually narrow gap between votes for Ossoff and Handel as an indication that Democratic candidates could earn seats in traditionally conservative areas during the midterm elections. When asked if she shares these hopes, Rao replied, “To be honest, I’m kind of done with the Democratic Party as an institution. Campaigning has taught me that politics should be based on actual people and the real impact that we can have on their lives. I’m not a straight-party voter like I used to be.”
Jon Ossoff’s loss was disappointing for Rao, but she explains that it was much easier on her than Clinton’s loss had been. She knew that a win for Ossoff would be difficult to pull off; Georgia’s Sixth District has elected Republican representatives for congress for nearly forty years, and pre-election polls predicted that it would be an incredibly close race. Mostly, Rao feels grateful for being able to work with her fellow volunteers, and she hopes that they will be able to heal and work for another cause that she is passionate about in the future.
She especially encourages other college students to find a way to become directly politically involved. “Posters and social media can definitely help shape narratives, but direct voter contact is what really changes things. Go make phone calls. Knock on doors,” Rao said.
Even after elections, there are ways for students to influence legislation, by speaking at town hall meetings and calling their representatives. Though she stresses that working in politics is not always fun and glamorous, Rao promises that—regardless of the direct results of an effort—it is worth it to know that you gave your time to a cause you believe in and helped push the world a few steps in the right direction.
Lead Image Credit: Tom Jacobs