Donald Trump is a historically controversial presidential candidate -- even within his own party.
That fact is being reflected in the endorsement decisions, or lack thereof, issued by campus GOP groups. A number of College Republican organizations have either refused to endorse Trump or have declared themselves on the fence.
Republican groups at campuses including Harvard, Penn State and Princeton Universities have decided not to endorse the candidate. And the College Republicans at the University of Virginia are deliberating whether they will do so.
That Trump is facing challenges among some younger Republicans his hardly surprising. Less than half of Republicans said they were satisfied with the party’s nominee in a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released in June. An Ipsos poll this month found Trump trailing Hillary Clinton by 36 percentage points among Americans ages 18 to 34. A separate McClatchy poll this month had Trump coming in fourth -- behind third party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein -- in support among Americans under 30.
College Republican endorsements are unlikely to win or lose Trump the election in November. But they’re illustrative of the hurdles he’s facing with younger voters, which are especially apparent on campuses.
The Harvard Republican Club has supported the party's nominee in every presidential election since 1888. But the group decided before the fall semester not to back Trump, said Vice President Cameron Khansarinia.
"This year we could not in good faith tell our members that of the two major national candidates the one from our party was the best one for whom to vote," he said.
Khansarinia said Trump doesn't have the right character, temperament, or even knowledge of government to lead. After publishing a Facebook post explaining the decision, the group was inundated with accusations that it had betrayed the party. But he said the group had no reason to believe Trump is a better option than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Chris Baker, the spokesman for Penn State We are for Trump, said opposition to Trump was sour grapes from a strain of the Republican Party that had dominated the party before the current election cycle. He said the rejection of Trump and his supporters also undermined the idea of the GOP as a “big tent” party.
He acknowledged that comments the nominee has made about groups including immigrants, Hispanics, African Americans, Muslims and women have turned off many people -- including younger voters. But Baker said he gets frustrated with Trump supporters being labeled as racist or misogynist because of who they support. He said he disagrees with many of the nominee’s statements himself but believes Trump is still the best candidate.
“You’re saying that just because who I support for president that I’m a racist. That is ludicrous to say that,” he said. “Instead of people attacking the positions we stand for, the attacks come on our personal members. You must be a racist you must be bigot.”
The Penn State College Republicans’ executive leadership decided not to endorse Trump after taking a non-binding poll of their members. Michael Straw, the group’s president, said he does not personally support Trump because the candidate does not match his positions on a variety of issues from international relations to fiscal policy. And he said recent polls showed he was struggling to attract votes from young people more widely.
The group's first meeting of the semester was preoccupied with the decision not to endorse Trump, which drew protests from members of the We Are for Trump group. Many of the group's members are also part of the College Republicans.
A proposal to hold a second vote failed to move forward, then Trump supporters moved to hold a reelection of the executive board members. While new members looked on bewildered, the meeting grew exceedingly antagonistic, according to both sides.
"It reached a level of chaos where everyone was just yelling," Baker said.
Certainly not all or even most campus Republican groups are rejecting their party’s nominee. Campus groups at Citadel, Liberty University and University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa have all backed the candidate.
The University of Notre Dame College Republicans, meanwhile, said the group would support but not endorse Trump -- a position that indicated disagreement with many of his views. Campus Republican leaders at places like American University have taken heat for deferring to their members on the candidate while declining to directly address his record. The Yale College Republicans' decision to endorse Trump despite opposition from a majority of executive board members led to the formation of a new group, Yale New Republicans, that says it puts "national interests above partisan ones."
Alexandra Smith, chair of the College Republican National Committee, said there is more than one way to be a Republican and the group leaves it up to its chapters to decide on issues like endorsements.
"Unlike the Democratic Party, we have not stifled different opinions," she said in a statement. "College Republicans are some of the best suited to handle this type of political discourse because they have already been on the forefront of debating generational issues that have come up in the party. We hope that College Republicans will support Republicans that they believe in up and down the ticket."
Organizations at some campuses have yet to take an official position although their leaders are expressing some trepidation over Trump as the nominee.
Ali Hiestand, the vice chair of events at the University of Virginia's College Republicans chapter, said the group will represent the views of its members when they vote on an endorsement in the coming weeks. She said some in the group worry an endorsement would hurt the group's credibility supporting state and local candidates on campus.
But Hiestand said the elite composition of many of the schools where Trump has received the loudest criticism in Republican circles may reflect his opposition within the party more widely.
"He attracts people who feel shut out by richer people and the government and wealthier people," she said. "They don't understand how Trump can appeal to anyone because they don’t understand those voters, which is why he's so successful."
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