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In the age of Trump, political internships surge

Misha Carlson is an intern in the office of US Representative Katherine Clark. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Misha Carlson spent much of her young life overseas, the child of parents engaged in international development. Though she was interested in politics, she didn't plan to become directly involved — not, at least, until Donald Trump was elected.

"My freshman year of college, everything I thought I knew kind of came tumbling down," said the rising Tufts University junior.

So she applied for a summer internship in the Cambridge office of US Representative Katherine Clark. She had plenty of competition.

Most members of the state's solidly Democratic congressional delegation have seen a surge in the number of prospective interns as the Trump administration moves through its second year of governance.


Clark's office, for instance, received eight applications for eight spots last year. This year, staffers saw an "exponential uptick" — 50 students applied. Carlson was one of the lucky ones and secured a spot.

Likewise, the offices of Representatives Joe Kennedy III, Seth Moulton, Jim McGovern, and Bill Keating all reported more applications, as did Senator Elizabeth Warren's staff. A spokeswoman for Senator Ed Markey said his office has fielded "double if not triple" the typical number of applications each semester since the 2016 election.

Lauren Amendolara McDermott, a spokeswoman for Keating, said the students cited school shootings, the United States pulling out of the Paris climate accord, and "the changing foreign perspective of the United States" as some of the issues that drove them to apply.

Giselle Barry, Markey's communications director, told the Globe that "in many of the interviews with prospective interns, they often cite frustration with the Trump administration as the reason for wanting to intern, giving them a chance to 'do something.' "

It's no surprise. A March survey by the Pew Research Center found that the president's approval rating is lower among millennials than Generation X'ers or baby boomers. About two-thirds of millennials, 65 percent, gave Trump a thumbs-down, compared with 57 percent of Gen X'ers and 51 percent of boomers. In fact, one intern for Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire was suspended for a week after registering her displeasure with Trump by yelling an expletive at him as he walked through the Capitol last month.


These young people, part of a generation formerly considered largely unengaged politically, appear primed for action.

The Harvard Public Opinion Project, which has been analyzing the political tendencies and civic engagement of young Americans since 2000, reported in April that youth participation in the political process is on target for a dramatic rise: 51 percent of people ages 18 to 29 who identify as Democrats said they will "definitely" vote in the upcoming midterm elections. That was up from 28 percent during the run-up to the 2014 midterm elections.

According to the poll, 64 percent in the age group were "fearful" for the future of American democracy, while 34 percent said they were "hopeful."

Another Tufts student, rising senior Robert Toscano, is studying international relations with a focus on Middle Eastern studies. But after a semester abroad in Jordan, he decided he needed to get involved in domestic politics.

"A lot of people in international relations had a wake-up call," said Toscano, who just completed an internship with the state Democratic Party. "Recent decisions by this administration have made me realize they're going to have long-lasting effects on America's place in the world. I want to help elect the people who have a similar worldview as I do."


While more students are seeking direct involvement with elective politics, some are pursuing other ways to get involved. Carlson has a friend who's doing a summer internship in economic research, and another who's working for an environmental agency.

As a pollster in training, Harvard student Teddy Landis is taught to be "100 percent nonpartisan." Under polling director John Della Volpe, Landis served as chair of the latest HPOP poll, a project of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Landis will spend the summer in Washington, on an internship at Civic Nation, a nonprofit that oversees a cluster of public awareness campaigns "to address some of our nation's most pressing challenges," according to its website, including immigration, sexual misconduct, and racism.

"I'm looking right now to explore politics from as many angles as I possibly can," said Landis, who will be working with the organization's #VoteTogether campaign. "I'm going to be graduating in an election year, in 2020. One cool possibility would be the opportunity to work on a presidential campaign."

Though the New York native is committed to weighing both sides, many of his peers seem inclined to lean left. (According to the HPOP poll, 69 percent of voting-age young people would prefer Democratic control of Congress, a number that has been on the rise.) Landis said he has been inspired by young people's involvement in movements such as gun control and the Women's March.


Such responses to the policies of the current administration are good news for those working to increase voter turnout.

At Boston Calling in May, Kim Selig worked with a team of volunteers at a booth for HeadCount, a grass-roots voter-registration effort that partners with musicians to connect with young people. The 2017 Temple University graduate said the group's registration drives have been more successful than ever.

"We're blowing our numbers out of the water," Selig said. HeadCount registered 5,000 new voters at March for Our Lives events in March around the country. At the Hangout Festival on the beach in Gulf Shores, Ala., in May, the group registered 400, doubling its total from the last midterm cycle.

Selig began volunteering for HeadCount as a college freshman — mostly, she said with a laugh, so she could go to concerts for free. Now she works as one of the organization's field directors. She has a theory about the apparent surge in political involvement among her age group.

"Politics seems more accessible to people now," she said.

Selig's group is likely to get a lift from a group of Parkland, Fla., school-shooting survivors who have embarked on a two-month tour to 50 cities in 20 states, calling for action on gun control and staging voter-registration drives with HeadCount.

Clark, the congresswoman who organized the gun control "sit-in" on the floor of the House two years ago after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, said she is particularly motivated to work on issues of importance to young voters. In a recent interview, she mentioned the opioid crisis, equal pay, access to child care, online safety, and student debt.


For young voters, however, it's not necessarily about one party versus the other, Clark said.

"Many of them haven't been particularly partisan, but they're looking for people they believe are acting on issues they care about. It's always the highest compliment when students say they appreciate my work and would love to work in my office."

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.