Student Activists Atwitter

It's not just Barack Obama's campaign that's taking advantage of energetic young activists and social networking technologies. A peek at the Republican college movement.
September 5, 2008

Higher education is back in the presidential campaign -- sort of.

Responding to vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's speech -- brimming with scorn for "elites" and enthusiastically received at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul Wednesday -- both Barack Obama and Joe Biden, the Democratic nominees, have pointed out what she didn't say. Like "the word 'health care,' " Biden said the next day. "She didn’t mention the word 'education.' She didn’t mention college education...." Obama echoed the sentiment with a reference to rising tuition costs after taping a segment for The O'Reilly Factor.

The Republican National Convention, which concluded Thursday, echoed with anticipated attacks on Obama's qualifications, and a few implied criticisms of his pedigree, too: Rudy Giuliani, for one, called him "a gifted man with an Ivy League education."

Ivory tower or not, college has an important role to play in a presidential campaign in which many believe young voters could make a crucial difference. Of course, that's a prediction trotted out by experts every four years. What's different this time is the level of energy among college-aged voters, and the technology the campaigns are using to target that demographic, which grew up more accustomed to Internet organizing and mobile computing than the generations preceding them.

How social networking, text messaging and other approaches are changing the race is frequently commented upon, but often with a focus on Obama's tech-savvy campaign. Yet the McCain camp, along with assorted political groups and online activists, is making innovative use of the same tools to mobilize its own supporters. As the convention opened, participants were urged to "text GIVE 2 HELP" -- an easy way to donate to Hurricane Gustav relief directly through their cell phone bills. The Obama campaign, which first marshaled text messages to announce the pick of Biden as running mate last month, followed up with a mass e-mail urging recipients to donate in the same way.

For lots of young Republican activists and college students, one of the most useful tools more recently is Twitter. Joe Mansour, a blogger for, a site that covers "best practices on the application of technology to the political spectrum," pointed to the service as a particularly effective online tool during the campaign.

Last month, "#dontgo" became a mantra for supporters who Twittered their support to Congressional Republicans who remained on the House of Representatives floor for weeks to protest the Democratic leadership's decision not to hold a vote on whether to allow expanded offshore drilling for oil, now a potent political issue.

By associating their short (140 characters or less) messages -- blasted out from mobile phones or the Web to "followers" who share a connection or a mutual interest -- with tags like "#dontgo" or "#rnc08," anyone can follow a virtual thread on a topic of interest, from any kind of device.

In this case, supporters connected with each other to channel donations (through sites like Slatecard) and sent emotional support to politicians who were by then making speeches in the dark, without power or a C-SPAN feed, as other members of Congress left for the legislative recess.

Photo: Courtesy of Texas Christian U.

Kimberly Dena (left), a Texas delegate, at the RNC


"Our kids do 90 percent of their communication through texts and e-mail, so I think that it’s played a huge role," said Ethan Eilon, executive director of the College Republican National Committee. "They self-identify with what their interests are ... tagging themselves on Facebook and through our proprietary network, STORM."

Eilon ties that technology directly to increased youth involvement in politics, calling it "probably the single biggest reason why we’ve seen such a huge increase in youth voters over the last two cycles."

When it comes to how activists for both parties use technology, he said, "I think largely that the principles are the same, so the applications end up being pretty similar. I think our organization has done some unique things, but we’ve done considerably better than our Democratic counterparts."

Katie Naranjo, president of the College Democrats of America, begs to differ. "College Democrats are on the cutting edge of organizing and messaging online," she said in an e-mail. "Our Superdelegates endorsement video in April received over 200,000 views on YouTube and received national attention from CNN to The New York Times. College Democrats on every campus organize actively through Facebook.... Instead of trying to create second-rate systems where it is a struggle just to register users let alone mobilize large groups, College Democrats know exactly where the voters are and how to best reach them. That being said, they can pour as much corporate money as they want into fancy technology, and it's still not going to change the fact that young people are voting for Democrats over Republicans."

The CRNC's next online project, Life in the Field, fuses a traditional get-out-the-vote mobilization campaign with an ongoing journal of the field representatives' experiences as told through blogs, Twitter feeds and video.

Not surprisingly, the home page already features a real-time feed of Twitter posts tagged with "#litf08." Some of the latest tweets:

  • My boy. Bill frist. Oh yeah. #litf08
  • Watching convention with Meredith chapter all girls school #litf08
  • Glad the Giants are beating the to the returning members meeting at Miami of Ohio.#litf08
  • Call time! Victory here I come! #litf08
  • At TMCC, about to head to UNR... The Dems are invading their campus. #litf08
  • Let's see if the hippies can crash our party tonight #litf08

The College Republicans are currently raising funds to support the project. "I expect we’ll be there in about a week," Eilon said.

Some 500 CRs were expected to attend the convention this week. One, Texas Christian University sophomore Kimberly Dena, was also there as a delegate.

"One of the things that I’ve seen here is the value of grass roots participation," she said, and she plans to "work with renewed effort to make our College Republicans something a lot more significant."


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