As the "Super Tuesday" 2008 presidential primaries approach in 22 states, campaigns have been courting young voters after their record turnout in early primaries. But even as college groups across the country rally around the candidates with unprecedented fervor, several student organizers at Stanford said they are surprised by the relative absence of political activity taking place on the Farm.
"I don't feel like I've seen a huge increase in awareness and involvement," said Mishan Araujo '08, the northern California chair of Women for Hillary, a branch of Sen. Hillary Clinton's (D-N.Y.) national presidential campaign. "I still think there's a lot of apathy given the size of this campus."
Politically-minded students have often decried the overwhelming indifference cultivated among students by the Stanford "bubble," which they say insulates their peers from the realities of the political world existing just beyond Palm Drive.
But Debashish Bakshi '08 -- who has been involved in nearly every state and national election on campus since campaigning for 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in the fall of his freshman year -- said he has never witnessed as much enthusiasm for a single candidate at Stanford as the kind generated for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
"It's really unprecedented," said Bakshi, the Stanford chapter coordinator of Students for Barack Obama. "I've really seen the scope of what campus activism is on campus. For a campus that is notoriously apathetic, I think the jump we've made is remarkable."
Obama supporters have been building momentum on campus since the beginning of winter quarter, said Charlie Davis '08, a volunteer with Obama's Silicon Valley campaign office. In addition to registering over 650 California voters in a single day, Davis said they have been circulating pledge cards to collect basic contact information from students for a database of supporters that can be tapped to find volunteers and voters on Election Day.
The campaign also organized campus-wide events, including a presentation last week from faculty supporting Obama's candidacy and a Friday rally in White Plaza attended by several hundred participants. Davis said the official Facebook group for Stanford Obama supporters has over 900 members.
"We have an incredible group of people on campus who are sacrificing a lot to get this campus fired up," Davis said. "But I don't see any kind of motivation for any of the other candidates."
Clinton supporters don't have as much of an active presence on campus because they are volunteering directly as associates to the state and national campaign offices, Araujo said.
"We don't have a built-in infrastructure," she said. "The people who are really dedicated to the campaign are really engaged at the state level in the San Francisco office and in the national campaign."
Araujo said the campaign has been hosting a few events, including a conference call with former president Bill Clinton and phone banking at the Clinton campaign's Palo Alto office. But she said the campaign's more subtle strategy at Stanford does not necessarily reflect how much individual student support Clinton has on campus.
"We haven't been tabling in White Plaza," Araujo said. "That's why the perception exists that there are so many more Obama supporters."
Stanford alumna Chelsea Clinton '01, daughter of Hillary and Bill Clinton, appeared on campus last month and fielded questions about her mother's candidacy before audiences at Old Union and Pi Beta Phi. The visit sparked controversy when some students charged the sorority event was available only for a select group of supporters.
Araujo said Chelsea Clinton had been in the area ampaigning for her mother when she decided to stop by Stanford for personal reasons. Because of strict rules regarding partisan political activities on campus, Araujo said student organizers worked with administrators to keep the gathering small.
"It's hard to have the daughter of a presidential candidate on campus and not be political," Araujo said. "We did the best that we could."
Two-thirds of the audience present at the Old Union roundtable with the former first daughter were undecided, Araujo said. She pointed to the sizeable number of voters still choosing between Clinton and Obama as a possible explanation as to why students at Stanford have not been as active as other campuses.
"It's a hard decision," Araujo said. "And if you don't have the inner motivation to make the decision early, you're less likely to be more active."
Supporters of Republican candidates are facing similar dilemmas. Despite the individual activities of small groups of students behind Arizona Sen. John McCain, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campus support for these candidates has not been as visible as it has for some of the Democratic contenders.
"I think the lack of campus mobilization on the Republican side is a product of the same factors that have hurt the party on the national level," said Carl Kelm '09, president of the Stanford College Republicans, in an email to The Daily. "Namely, for months now, polls have consistently shown that Democrats are far happier with their slate of candidates than the Republicans are. Republicans at Stanford are not immune to that same discontent."
Grant Everett Starrett '10, president of the Stanford Conservative Society, has worked as national chairman of Students for Mitt, which organizes student volunteers and fundraising efforts for Romney's candidacy. Starrett said that while he was in Iowa, campuses were plastered with signs and more students were actively vouching for candidates. He said the overwhelming presence of liberal discourse on campus may make it more difficult for conservative students to rally in large numbers.
"If you're young and conservative, you're already going against the grain," Starrett said.
Still, Starrett said, apathy extends beyond party line.
"People get stuck in the Stanford bubble," he said.
Obama's candidacy no doubt benefits from its visibly unchallenged position on campus, Bakshi said. But he said it comes at a cost.
"I'm actually a little disappointed, to be honest, with the other organizations that are on campus because they are just somewhat lacking," Bakshi said. "The larger context of this is that there is very little actual discourse on campus. If there aren't representatives willing to engage in that, it's really a loss for the process as a whole."
© 2008 The Stanford Daily via U-WIRE