In Episode 16, President Bob Iuliano is joined by two Gettysburg College alumnae: Johanna Persing ’11, deputy communications director for the Republican National Committee, and Kat Atwater ’07, deputy chief technology officer for the Democratic National Committee. They discuss the nature of their work, the upcoming 2020 election, and how their Gettysburg education prepared them for their careers in politics.
In Episode 16, President Bob Iuliano is joined by two Gettysburg College alumnae: Johanna Persing ’11, deputy communications director for the Republican National Committee (RNC), and Kat Atwater ’07, deputy chief technology officer for the Democratic National Committee (DNC). They discuss the nature of their work, the upcoming 2020 election, and how their Gettysburg education prepared them for their careers in politics.
The episode begins with Persing and Atwater sharing an overview of the RNC and the DNC’s objectives, and their respective roles within the committees, particularly in the context of a presidential election. Though there are inevitable differences, fundamentally they agree that the RNC and DNC are both committed to providing their candidates with the resources, infrastructure and data needed to win. For Persing, that means getting as many republican surrogates she can on TV and radio. On the other hand, Atwater says she helps implement the digital strategy of the DNC—a growing demand during this year’s election due to COVID-19. The conversion continues as they further discuss COVID-19’s effects on the election. Persing shares that their pivot to a virtual campaign has opened up new avenues for the RNC to communicate with people, such as Zoom interviews, the rollout of an app, and their utilization of social media.
Later in the episode, Persing and Atwater reflect on how Gettysburg College shaped their aspirations and well equipped them for the work they do today. They share everything from the lasting community they found in the Gettysburg Network, to the Eisenhower Institute, and the extracurricular experiences that fostered their work ethic.
The episode concludes with an anecdotal “Slice of Life” told from the president’s perspective. This month is the one year anniversary of the Conversations Beneath the Cupola podcast, and Iuliano reflects on the last 15 episodes, which have provided listeners with texture and nuance on issues that matter—from the global pandemic, to the the state of higher education, and the topic of racial injustice. Furthermore, he thanks listeners for joining him on this journey of exploration and discovery, and expresses his excitement for all that year two of the podcast has to offer.
Guests featured in this episode
- Johanna Persing ’11, deputy communications director for the Republican National Committee
- Kat Atwater ’07, deputy chief technology officer for the Democratic National Committee
Kat Atwater ’07: Every vote in every state and every town really matters. And I just believe that so fundamentally in my soul, I go out and register voters on the weekends. This is the most important election maybe of our lifetime. And I can’t say enough about how it matters at the White House, but more importantly at your local mayor’s office and your County clerk just as much.
President Bob Iuliano: Hi, and welcome to Conversations Beneath the Cupola a Gettysburg College Podcast. I’m Bob Luliano, president of the college and your host. As we record this episode, the 2020 presidential election is already underway as registered voters across the country begin to mail in absentee and early voting ballots. November 3rd is just a few days away, in today’s episode I am joined by two Gettysburg College alumni, Johanna Persing, and Kat Atwater, both Kat and Johanna are as Teddy Roosevelt famously said actually in the arena.
President Bob Iuliano: Johanna graduated from the college in 2011 and now serves as the deputy communications director for the Republican National Committee. Kat, a 2007 grad went on to earn a master of science in democratization and voting systems from the London School of Economics. She now works for the Democratic National Committee as deputy chief technology officer. Together, we will discuss their work, the election, and how Gettysburg College prepared them for their role in politics.
President Bob Iuliano: Johanna and Kat again, thank you so much for joining me today and to talk about what I think is a really interesting set of topics that we’ll discuss. I’m going to start with a really basic question, one I suspect you all hear from others as well. We all have heard of the RNC and the DNC, but I suspect we’re a little less familiar, at least I am, and really understanding their roles in contemporary politics. And I know it’s changed over time. Kat, maybe we’ll start with you. What does the DNC do briefly at least?
Kat Atwater ’07: Sure. I get that question a lot. The DNC is very much an infrastructure organization and a service provider to democratic campaigns across the country and up and down the ballot. Our role as the national party is really to facilitate our candidates, local parties, state parties, and all of our grassroots supporters to engage with the small D, democratic process and to provide resources, support, and avenues for the deep connection they feel with our values and how they affect everyday Americans. But the DNC is really meant to be a platform for candidates to spring off from and providing strong support from tech to digital, organizing, to fundraising and communications is where we add our unique value to our candidates and our voters.
President Bob Iuliano: And just to be clear, Kat, based upon what you said, if there is a primary and there are competing Democrats, you provide services to all, if they want it?
Kat Atwater ’07: Absolutely right. We want to be that neutral foundation for any Democrat and especially in the presidential primary, all of the candidates who come forward, who are bonafide Democrats to really have a chance to speak to voters and let the voters decide.
President Bob Iuliano: So Johanna, what about the RNC? Is it different fundamentally?
Johanna Persing ’11: Much of what Kat said I’ll agree with and it’s very similar to what we do here at the RNC. Obviously we are a big fundraising operation here to help, not only the president get reelected, but other senate and congressional candidates, we help build a grassroots operation. We’ve spent the past couple of years building up 2.5 million volunteers, staffers all across this battleground States. We’ve been in the field since about 2013 and have maintained that operation. We don’t get involved in any primary, so we let the primary process play out. We let the voters pick the candidate and then we go from there. So we support any candidate with an R next to their name and make sure they have the resources, infrastructure, data to win.
President Bob Iuliano: That’s helpful to know. So the next thing I’d like to understand better is actually what you both do. You do different things within your two organizations, at least by title. Johanna, starting with you, deputy communications director. I think I know what that means, but why do you say a word or two about what that actually means. And again, particularly in the context of a presidential election where the president has a White House communication staff and campaign communication staff, what’s the nature of your role given all of that?
Johanna Persing ’11: Yes. So deputy communications director more we have, I’m guessing much like the DNC, we have a press shop here that we have folks who handle national press, who deal with reporters. My area is dealing with surrogates and media affairs. So I help get Republicans on TV and radio. I have a team of about eight and we’ve done thousands and thousands of bookings this year, probably over 15-20,000 bookings.
Johanna Persing ’11: We make sure that our surrogates, who are out there are armed with the right messaging to support the president and other Republican values. We help engage with outside surrogates. Take for instance, the Judge Barrett confirmation hearing, my team has helped book some of her fellow law professors, former students, character witnesses of hers on TV and radio. I always come into work thinking my goal today is to get as many folks out there to share what the president’s working on and how his agenda has helped all Americans.
President Bob Iuliano: That’s helpful. Kat, you’re not directly in the communication side, but I suspect that you are quite actively involved in it, just given what I understand to be your role. So why do you say a word or two about what it means to be the deputy chief technology officer for the DNC?
Kat Atwater ’07: Sure. So as you might expect, I help lead the technology team and it covers a wide variety of verticals. Our team manages tools that, like I said, almost 10,000 campaigns use across the country and the data that they use to power their campaigns. We manage the general IT infrastructure, cybersecurity and counter dis and misinformation programs of the party. And in tech, I’m so lucky I get to work with the brightest minds in the tech industry, coming out of Google, Amazon, Uber, and the progressive space who have come together with a shared goal of saving democracy and to help rebuild the DNC’s tech infrastructure from the ground up this cycle.
Kat Atwater ’07: I’m an organizer and a student of political systems at my core. And I come to the work through that lens, so my work is really to help facilitate the teams, technological strategy and building. And work closely with our partners at our sister committees, like the DCCC and state parties and the campaign itself, the Biden campaign to provide them the tools and the resources they need to be fantastic technologists and strategists. It’s super rewarding to work with these brilliant, brilliant humans every day.
President Bob Iuliano: I was going to get to this later, but you’ve invited me there in a sense Kat in that is help chart the course from a Gettysburg political science major to a deputy chief technology officer. The path doesn’t necessarily seem linear from my perspective.
Kat Atwater ’07: Sure. And anyone at Gettysburg who’s ever met me know I’m the least linear person on the planet. But at Gettysburg, I studied political science and I left school thinking I would be a journalist and actually was for several months after I graduated. I’d had the opportunity to do a semester in D.C. and I interned at CNN and here I was with these great ideals of what journalism could be. And I got in there and I was writing stories and I realized that I wanted to be doing instead of writing about it.
Kat Atwater ’07: And so I got my car and I drove to Iowa and I worked on Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign, which was eyeopening and extraordinary and kicked off my career as an organizer. I worked for several years in labor. I went to get my grad school degree in something completely different democratization and developing countries. And then as I came back, I wanted to really make a change in the progressive space.
Kat Atwater ’07: And I wanted to use my organizing skills and a good friend took me off that data and technology were really becoming the tip of the sphere for how strategy was formulating and changing politics. And I jumped in at a tech startup and the rest is history. I’ve spent a lot of time around technologists who are so much better with code and cybersecurity and those niche skills that’s I don’t have, but I have learned to speak their language and be able to think through what resources and political maneuvers and things that they need to be able to be great at their jobs, so that’s-
President Bob Iuliano: You mentioned data, I’ll simply note this Kat that the... Since you have graduated, the college has now established a data science minor with the understanding that it’s hard to be effective today without really understanding how to use effectively and ethically big data sets. So Johanna, same question back to you. So you were, I think political science and religion, if I’m not mistaken, what got you into this path and how did Gettysburg help prepare you for what you’re doing now?
Johanna Persing ’11: Sure. I knew that I wanted to be down here in D.C. So after I graduated from Gettysburg, I moved down here and as probably many students at Gettysburg now would know many of the internships here in D.C. are unpaid. So budgeted out the finances I had and gave myself 60 days and passed my resume around to as many people who would listen, talked to a bunch of Gettysburg alumni who were very helpful. And at pretty much day 59 or 60, I landed a job here at the RNC in the press shop as a press assistant for then communications director, Sean Spicer, and worked here in 2012 and did a couple... I’ve been here on a couple of stints, worked on a congressional race in Northern Virginia as a communications director for Barbara Comstock, who was a former Congressman, worked on the Hill for about a year for Ryan Costello.
Johanna Persing ’11: Who’s a former Congressman from Philadelphia area. And then in about 2016, moved up to New Hampshire and worked in the field for the RNC during the primary, which was very exciting first in the nation primary. And then once the president won moved back down here to D.C. and took over the TV and radio operation and built it from scratch. When I first started, it was just me and one other staffer, and we’d be up at odd hours of the night, trying to get folks on TV, but have since built a fairly good size team, which is the largest in RNC party history. For sure.
President Bob Iuliano: Was this a path that you thought you were going to pursue when you were a first year wandering through the campus trying to find Servo?
Johanna Persing ’11: It was not, but I’m sure as many students in alumni can attest, you just take a path and it works and things pop up that you never would’ve thought, never thought I would have lived in New Hampshire, but I did. And very grateful for it. And lucky to be a witness to history here.
President Bob Iuliano: Both of you are underscoring something I say to our students all the time, which is just be open to serendipity, that is, you don’t know where life is going to take you. And as long as you’d keep those blinders off so that you’re willing to see and explore, you don’t know where things will lead. And I think both of you, your life experiences seem to speak to that. So turning back to your day jobs, obviously one of the defining moments of this moment in time is the pandemic and the way it has disrupted the way in which we live in, we work. And by the way, I should know how we study as well. So Kat, how has it affected not the way you do your job, but the way the DNC is seeking to engage the work that you’ve described?
Kat Atwater ’07: The DNC and the Biden campaign have taken this unprecedented health crisis extremely seriously since the outset. And I think we’ve been really agile and adjusting to the new reality, quizing our teams, our families, our voters health above everything else. I think it’s fair to say we pivoted really well and I’m proud of the way we’ve scaled up our ability to reach voters digitally in a way that we may not have expected to scale so quickly, but we wouldn’t have reached certain odorous and we wouldn’t have met them otherwise. One of the pieces of my team’s work that I’m so proud of is iwillvote.com, which is the foremost tool for voters to access and check if they are registered to vote, to find information on different voting options, to look up where to drop off their ballots, where to vote on early, where to vote in person.
Kat Atwater ’07: And that’s exactly the tech that I came to the DNC to help build, which is in franchising, accessible strategic tech. And I think the flip side of this is my team has always been remote. We’re extremely large team we’re spread across the country. We want it to be able to tap into tech talent across the country. And one of the pool facets of that is that we have been a Zoom and Slack first team for years now. And we were able to coach our colleagues and friends on how to pivot into this new environment. And so that’s been rewarding, but also not that different for us as a remote work team.
President Bob Iuliano: Kat, I can’t help, but wonder whether there is a generational implication though, to the use of technology.
Kat Atwater ’07: I think older citizens generally are discounted in their use of technologies. And actually there have been many government studies on the ability for seniors to use technology, to get information about social programs they really care about. And then it’s a super effective way to share information by trying to reach voters on many, many channels with simple tools that have easy information to access. That is from trusted sources. We start to spread the word and people grow more and more used to looking for information, requesting ballots online. One benefit of this pandemic is a nerve only in few, is that people are really taking accessibility of voting really seriously right now. And that’s young people and older people. And the barriers to enfranchisement are being lowered because we have to do it at this point. And that is a benefit to all of us.
President Bob Iuliano: So Johanna, what about on your side? COVID-19 has changed the way we work. Has it made it more difficult, less difficult, or had no real impact on your ability to get your surrogates out there to get the message that you’re trying to get out, out?
Johanna Persing ’11: Well, at first, when everybody realized that they were going to be stuck at home in the middle of March, we quickly assembled some Skype kits and managed to find ways that we could get folks on TV that way, which was interesting. And then a quick lesson in being nimble on these types of things, but in terms of what the RNC has done, we switched to a virtual campaign back around the 13th of March and continued that through the middle of June. And we still managed to recruit about 300,000 volunteers during that time, just based on phone calls, Zooms. And we were able to utilize this tool we have called Trump Talk, which is an app, and you can make phone calls right from your home. And we sell numbers like that greatly increased during that time. And we also were able to better engage with some of our volunteers. So that’s... Obviously opened up different avenues to communicate with people and just become closer with some of our most grassroots activists.
President Bob Iuliano: This is probably one of those questions where the answer is both, but has it made you more effective in getting the message out, less effective or just playing different than it’s too hard to tell yet whether it’s worked or not worked as effectively as you would have liked?
Johanna Persing ’11: I think a combination of both, I’ll be interested to see just in terms of using studios, like I’m sure everybody that watches TV realize that many of our major news anchors were broadcasting from their homes. I think that a lot of that may change moving forward, or you may not need to go to a studio. You can just do a TV interview Sunday morning from your house. So in that regard, I think it’s definitely easier.
President Bob Iuliano: We have seen more pets than we ever expected to see in the last several months. As you probably know, I came from Massachusetts. And one of the things about being in Massachusetts is that national presidential elections don’t really take place because the state is very likely to vote in a certain direction. And so you tend not to get much in the way of political advertisements. Having moved to Pennsylvania, I’ve experienced a very, very different environment in which the volume of advertisements have changed. And it’s still TV advertisements. Has social media changed the way in which we reach voters? And again, related back to the pandemic, has that become all the more important given the pandemic? Johanna, starting with you.
Johanna Persing ’11: Yeah, I think for sure social media has helped. Obviously the president utilizes social media on a daily basis to directly reach the voters. The Trump campaign was able to quickly produce evening programs that started at about seven that had top surrogates on discussing news of the day. And they had a couple of million viewers on Facebook and Twitter, which is pretty remarkable. So they were able to take... Instead of doing traditional rallies, which the president would have been doing, they moved those to online with surrogates. So I think we’ve been able to utilize social media during this time. Absolutely.
President Bob Iuliano: Kat, you’re creating an infrastructure, you’re involved as well in things like social media communication, I’m sure there’s a communication shop, but help me understand the way the DNC has thought about that and your engagement with it.
Kat Atwater ’07: Sure. I think we’re always thinking about how we can reach voters where they are, and TV is still part of that, but social media more and more becomes a way that we can... Its unique strength is sharing content with small groups, some sets of people about things that you really care about. And I would say, we think broadly about using data and technology tools, like our text message programs or our dialer tools, similar to what Johanna talking about with their tool. To make sure we are having conversations with voters on the medium that is the best and easiest for them.
Kat Atwater ’07: I think the issue we face with social media platforms, these days, they’re giving amplification to actors who are not interested in our democratic process and who are seeking to disenfranchise voters and undermine confidence in our elections. I think that’s really serious and really scary and something everyone should be paying extremely close attention to, pushing our elected officials to take action on. It’s something that I think about daily and our counter disinformation team thinks about a lot. Facebook alone, for example, something like 52% of Americans often get their news from Facebook. And the top news sites on Facebook are largely propaganda and tabloids. And that is alarming for every voter, we should be extremely vigilant about this before the election, and then in the immediate aftermath.
President Bob Iuliano: How did your four years on this campus, how has that helped you do your jobs well or shape your aspirations for... How did it land you where you landed and how has it helped you do what you’re doing? So Kat, we’ll start with you.
Kat Atwater ’07: Well, that’s an easy one to start with. And I would say, the people Gettysburg surrounded me with and that I left with, my family, not just my friends who let’s be clear are the best in the world, but the mentors that I gained along the way like Shirley Anne Warshaw and Janet Rags, and our broader network from Joel, our alumni champion to the Eisenhower Institute. These people have really been my rock and my connectors and then Johanna said the same thing about networking after graduation. The people I met at Gettysburg, my best friends in life. So many of whom I see still year over year they are the people my connection to them and their values have drive my work every single day. Everything I do is for the people that I love so much and Gettysburg has connected me with just the best in the world.
Kat Atwater ’07: I can’t say enough good things about what I left with from campus, but just to switch gears to the other side of the coin, the opportunities that Gettysburg provided, whether it was from first-year experience where I was put in my dorm room and my first classrooms with people who... I was in the Supreme court track of the political science department. We just talked about gun safety and reproductive rates at dinner table and in the classroom. And that really helped me explore my values, really understand them better, spar a little bit, and refine where I stood. And that’s been everything to me along the way.
President Bob Iuliano: Thank you. Now this is an audio only, but I happened to be able to see Johanna and I can see behind her that she has a big G on her wall, which I very much appreciate. And so Johanna that tells me something, but help me understand your perspective on how Gettysburg College help shape who you are in, how you do what you do, and why you do what you do.
Johanna Persing ’11: Of course. I just can’t say enough good things about my time at Gettysburg while I was there as a member of the swim team. And that along with other values that are taught at Gettysburg just taught me to be a good teammate. And I think I always like in political campaigns to just a... It’s a competition, and I like being on a team, I like supporting my teammates. And I think that, that is something for sure was instilled in me more at Gettysburg when I was captain of swim team. Won the conference championship three times while I was there.
President Bob Iuliano: Wow. Congratulations.
Johanna Persing ’11: Which was great. Yeah. Yes, for sure. I think being at Gettysburg taught me to be a more engaged member of my community and gave me the confidence to come down here and work in the political field and thankful to mentors in the political science department, professor Steven Stern was a good mentor of mine. It also encouraged me to get outside of my bubble and see how other people in the world live. I studied abroad when I was there in Cairo. So it’s certainly unique experience for someone from the middle of Pennsylvania to go to a country that is far different than how we live here. And just give me a different appreciation for things outside of my normal world.
President Bob Iuliano: Well, that’s a statement about what college is about, right? It is designed to expose you to different ways of thinking, different ways of being and cause you to reflect on what matters to you. That is fundamentally what we’re about. So let’s wrap up with one last set of questions and that is, we believe as a college and what you guys do, right? Which is getting engaged, finding something that matters to you and applying yourself to it. This has a particular relevance right now, as we undertake an election, which regardless of what one’s views about the candidates, it’s an important election. There are very different views that the candidates have going forward. So how would you articulate to people listening and particularly to our students, whether they should vote, why they should vote? How do you inspire them to get out and to have their voice heard? Kat, I’ll start with you.
Kat Atwater ’07: Sure. I am a broken record on this. Every single vote matters in this election cycle especially, and that’s the presidency, the Senate, your local house, your town, your municipality. I think about this all the time in 2019 in Virginia, the State House election was decided by pulling a name out of a hat because after massive recounts it was dead even. And-
President Bob Iuliano: I didn’t know that.
Kat Atwater ’07: Yep. And the Kentucky governor’s race last year was won by flat 5,000 votes. We Democrats lost Michigan and the White House in 2016 because of 10,000 votes in Michigan. These numbers seem kind of big, but they’re small and they add up and in Virginia, let me just say the winning of the State House is the difference between increasing the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, tearing down monuments to slavery, every vote in every state and every town really matters. And I just believe that so fundamentally in my soul. I go out and register voters on the weekends. This is the most important election maybe of our lifetime. And I can’t say enough about how it matters at the White House, but more importantly at your local mayor’s office and your county clerk, just as much.
President Bob Iuliano: You’re in the business of getting the vote out.
Johanna Persing ’11: Yeah. Pennsylvania, where I’m from, obviously where Gettysburg is, it was decided by 40,000 votes in 2016, which is pretty small, all things considered. And I think that Pennsylvania could very well be the state that determines who is elected in 2020, but it’s important for everybody to remain engaged up and down the ballot, local races, everybody makes a difference. And I think that if you think your vote doesn’t matter you’re just incorrect, because we’ve seen countless examples of folks who races that are decided by a handful of votes and could determine control of that Senate, can control the White House, or as Kat said, even State Houses. So no matter what side of the aisle you’re on, I think everybody should take this opportunity to vote.
President Bob Iuliano: We are a participatory democracy. One needs to get out there. One needs to get one’s voice heard, voting is an essential aspect of it. But as you all have done, too, you can do more than that. That is causes matter to you find your voice. Find your voice, find a way to get engaged. And so I will end by thanking you all. Again, I’m very much about the belief that this college graduates people who want to go on and do things that matter to them in ways that amplify their reach and their scope.
President Bob Iuliano: And you both have committed yourself to things that matter to you. And that speaks very well, what we try to do here. So I appreciate you spending time with us today. I know that both of you are dedicated to the Eisenhower Institute and you are involved with that. Thank you for remaining involved with the Eisenhower Institute and helping to shape the paths of Gettysburg College students today and what is in front of them prospectively for the future. So to both of you, good luck. I hope to see you on campus when circumstances permit that to happen. So thank you all.
Kat Atwater ’07: Thank you, Bob.
Johanna Persing ’11: Thank you, Bob.
President Bob Iuliano: It is the one-year anniversary since the launch of Conversations Beneath the Cupola. We started this podcast with the goal of shining a spotlight on different facets of this dynamic college and to offer our listeners texture and nuance on issues that matter. Over the course of the year, we’ve explored a wide range of topics, from Confederate monuments to the global pandemic, from our first year of seminar program to issues of racial justice. From the state of higher education, to the legacy of a person with close ties to this community, Dwight Eisenhower.
President Bob Iuliano: It’s been a privilege to serve as the host of these conversations and to have the opportunity to learn from the rich experiences and the wisdom of our guests. To you, our listeners, thank you for joining us on this journey of exploration and discovery. I am looking forward to all the year two of the podcast has in store for us. As always, we welcome your feedback and suggestions for other topics that warrant digging into under Cupola of panel.
President Bob Iuliano: Thanks for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this conversation and want to be notified of future episodes, please subscribe to Conversations Beneath the Cupola by visiting gettysburg.edu or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have a topic or suggestion for a future podcast, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you. And until next time.