Campus Battlegrounds for the Fall

With presidential candidates solidified, campus Democrats and Republicans begin to plot their campaigns to reach the student vote -- with Obama and McCain both facing challenges.
June 25, 2008

With the presidential election officially down to two major party candidates, supporters of Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama are turning their attention to strategies for winning over key constituencies. When it comes to one target group -- students on college campuses -- both campaigns see significant opportunities, but challenging barriers, too.

McCain would seem to have the bigger hill to climb, given Obama's ability to entice and excite young voters, and aides to the Arizona Republican acknowledge that hurdle. But Obama has his own campus problem: keeping disaffected supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton from bolting to McCain after their bruising primary campaign.

In the weeks Clinton's concession this month, rumors have been buzzing that disappointed supporters of the vanquished Democrat may cross party lines to support McCain -- and in a few instances they have.

In a letter last week to members Students for Hillary at the University of Iowa, the group's co-chairs, Cody Eliff and Nicole Dziuban, expressed their support for the Republican senator from Arizona. The letter cites reasons such as the unfair treatment of Clinton by the media and by the Obama campaign, as well as Obama being "unqualified" to be president. Also in the letter, Eliff says that Obama did not win the nomination, but was handed it by the Democratic National Committee, citing how it handled the results from the Michigan primary.

The letter also suggests that those who don't want to support McCain consider backing Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. representative from Georgia and the Green Party candidate for president.

The decision was a hard one for Eliff, who says he has always been a Democrat. Eliff said he had considered for a few months what he would do if Clinton were to not get the nomination. "I don't plan to ever change my party affiliation," he said.

Eliff, who acknowledges that he agrees more on the issues with Obama than with McCain, said he has received mixed responses. Staffers for the campus's Obama campaign asked him to rethink his decision -- and "hate mail" has poured in from Obama supporters, he said -- but the leader of the Clinton student group at Grinnell College have offered their support, according to Eliff.

The Iowa situation may be more the exception than the rule. At another Big Ten institution, the University of Michigan, Democrats on campus are coming together; the College Democrats and student groups for Obama and Clinton have merged to form a unified front in support for Obama.

Although the nomination lasted much longer than the Republican process, and at times became contentious, Nathaniel Styer, chair of the College Democrats at Michigan, says he is not worried about the groups coming together. “The students who led the groups came from College Democrats and we're all very close friends,” he said. Tom Duvall, member of the executive board of the College Democrats and chair of Students for Barack Obama at the University of Michigan agreed. He said Clinton and Obama had similar platforms, while McCain's is very different. At the core, he says, they're all Democrats.

Sam Hodge, national political director for the College Democrats of America, says the long nomination process forced the Democrats to campaign and compete in all the caucus and primary contests, giving the party a presence in every state. This will help when it comes to organizing students for the general election, he says.

Jason Evans, public relations director for the College Republicans at the University of Georgia, says he believes that the long and bitter nomination process in his rival party has been divisive, and that some Clinton supporters would get behind McCain because they both have similar moderate agendas.

McCain's Campus Challenges

But he admits that the long race also has made Obama more of a household name because of all the media coverage from the competition. “I think it's kind of a double edged sword,” he says.

More fundamentally, Evans says, Obama has resonated across the country among young people, posing a challenge for Republicans like him trying to get out the youth vote for McCain.

“It's going to be a very difficult fight” in competing with Obama and his appeal to college students, Evans says. He did say he thought McCain had made an effort to mobilize youth and his chapter will do all it can to get students behind McCain. “We're just going to do the best we can with the resources we get from his campaign,” he says.

Patchwork Nation, a project by the Christian Science Monitor, has broken the nation into 11 voting demographics and tracked the ways in which Obama and McCain have gone after them. According to the project, since February 1, Obama made 27 visits to locations that fall under the "Campus and Careers" category, or 11 percent of his visits. McCain has made only two such visits, or 1 percent of his campaign stops, according to the project.

Just as Obama faces potential defectors to Clinton, McCain has his own set of issues about holding onto the conservative voters who should be his. Within the College Republicans at Georgia, Evans says, not all are sold on McCain. Although the group will campaign for the senator because because its policy mandates supporting the party nominee, Evans himself does not plan to vote for the Arizonan, he says. His personal view: McCain is a “complete compromiser,” which blurs the party lines.

Strategies for Winning Over Students

The presidential campaigns plan a mix of traditional and other techniques to reach student voters.

Ethan Eilon, executive director of the College Republican National Committee, says his organization will be sending 60 paid field staff to campuses across the country to recruit and mobilize students for the Republican cause. “It's not too high tech, but it gets the job done,” he says.

The group is also utilizing the Internet to help organize students and Republican student groups across the country. In February of 2008, Eilon says, the committee launched STORM, an online network for students to organize chapters, talk to each other and plan events. So far, STORM has 95,000 users, he says.

The group will be hosting an event in Minneapolis in conjunction with the Republican National Convention and holding a contest that will give away hotel stays for students wanting to attend the convention.

The College Democrats of America will be taking a similar approach. Hodge says his organization will be sending people to targeted precincts in battleground states as well as reaching out to federation and student chapter leaders to get Democrats involved. Phone banking, knocking on doors, and registering voters will all be strategies used to recruit supporters for the Democratic cause. “Wherever college Democrats are at, we're going to have an effort,” he says.

Styer, of the Michigan Democratic group, says that much of his organization's efforts on campus will be dedicated to voter registration until the deadline. “The more students we have registered, the more Democrats we have registered,” especially in a university-dominated town like Ann Arbor.

The group also plans to bring speakers to campus. On Thursdays, “Dems on the Diag” -- the central meeting place on the Michigan campus -- will register voters and pass out literature on the Democratic party. The group also plans to do the same at football games, the center of campus life at the Big Ten university.

Even though two campaigns will battle each other intensely on campuses around the country, they will also cooperate. At Georgia, says Evans, the College Republicans plans to have biweekly voter registration events -- in conjunction with the Democratic student group. Joint registration efforts took place at the end of the last term, Evans says, and were very successful.


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