Campus Politics At Odds With Outside World

This story was written by Mimi Wang of The Yale Herald at Yale University.

"Avenues that extend to the farthest corners of Manhattan meet in Washington Square Park's massive plaza. The place is enormous, but for all the concrete, there are also huge stretches of New York City grass - not quite Central Park, but it still feels like you're standing in unofficial quad of NYU. At the moment, there's another reason for that. The place is overflowing with thousands of young people - many of them college students - who have packed the park this humid Thursday to hear Illinois Senator Barack Obama speak.

The crowd, which has waited hours in the hot afternoon glare, slowly inches through metal detector lines. It includes seven members of the Yale for Obama campus organization, led by its campaign coordinator Ben Lazarus; the group left class early to hop a 3:30 p.m. Metro-North train earlier in the afternoon. Just when impatience is beginning to build, an electric excitement abruptly begins moving in waves through the crowd. "Where is he? Where is he!" yells a nearby supporter. It's so jumbled and crowded, nobody can really see where exactly Obama is emerging onstage, but everyone knows that he is. Finally he's before us. The security guards finally give up and let the remaining people waiting in metal detector lines run straight through. This isn't a political speech - it's a rock concert.

Obama fever has swept through college campuses since he announced his candidacy last winter, and his speeches are drawing outrageously large crowds. Yet for all the youth excitement, Obama is slowly lagging farther and farther behind the Democratic presidential frontrunner, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. According to the most recent national polls, Clinton is easily outdistancing Obama. In a CBS News poll from Sun., Sept. 16, she led him by 21 points (43 percent to 22 percent), and in a Gallup poll the same day, by 22 (47 percent to 25 percent). In head-to-head match-ups with Obama or Clinton facing the top Republican candidate, Rudy Guliani, Clinton does far better - beating Guliani by 5 to 10 percent - while Obama is about even, almost uniformly across demographic groups. There is one extreme exception: college students.

In a June survey of over a thousand current university students, Democracy Corps/Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research projected that Obama would beat Guliani by a staggering margin of 27 points, whereas Clinton would lose by 8 - a colossal 35 point swing. Polls on the Daily Kos website and Democrats.com - sites much more frequently visited by young voters than the general population - show a clear preference for Obama over Hillary (25 percent to 3 percent in the Daily Kos poll and 18 percent to 9 percent in the Democrats.com poll). Obama fever (and stale Clinton apathy) on liberal college campuses is not just a feeling; it is a reality, and Yale is no different.

Yale for Obama, founded last spring, has emerged as the largest campus student group in support of a presidential candidate by far. Brendan Gants, the communications director for Yale for Obama, estimates their e-mail panlist contains about 250 students, with more than 500 students in the Facebook group. Yale Students for Hillary - also formed last spring - has, by contrast, about 40 students on its panlist. Yale for Edwards, Students for Giuliani, and Yale for Ron Paul are new political groups that have formed this fall.

While Facebook may not be the most reliable gauge of student support, it is clear that Obama enjoys greater support among Yale students (and other college students) than any of the rest of the presidential candidates. What is it about Obama that appeals so much to the collegiate soul? In talking to students across the political spectrum about the appeal of Obama, words like "change," "fresh perspective," and "new hope" come up again and again. Lazarus said that "college kids look at politics right now and they're turned off by the fact that it has very little substance." According to Gants, "a lot of young voters are coming to the conclusion that in 2008 it's not just enough to change parties, we need a more fundamental change."

Yet so far, Obama can't seem to cash in on youth enthusiasm, and whether he can turn hype to primary votes when it matters most this winter is questionable at best, and historically doomed at worst.

Obama is not the first charismatic primary candidate to garner more support among college students than the general population. Newsweek Chief Political Correspondent Howard Fineman reflected that in the past, the hip, fashionably youth-friendly candidate has traditionally been thrown into the wastebasket of Democratic presidential politics. "Obama is the latest iteration of a litany of unsuccessful Democratic candidates who all exuded a kind of cool, stylish image," Fineman said. "The trend goes back to Gary Hart (the 'western cowboy'), Bill Bradley (the athlete and permanently cast college student), and Howard Dean (the one "from the land of Ben and Jerry's" and the first to use the Internet to mobilize support). Obama is the ultimate combination of all these things: the Internet-dominant rock star, handsome, and multi-cultural. But whatever this 'it' factor is, they all had it, and they all lost."

Stuart Allen recalls organizing Students for Gore during the 2000 primary, and "facing a campus more focused on the 'hipper' candidate, then in the form of Senator Bill Bradley."

Among Obama supporters, Lazarus recognizes that Howard Dean, like Bradley, generated the same kind of support in 2004 and failed to win the primary; the key for Lazarus is "to figure out how to turn student support into votes in the primaries in order to realize Obama's vision."

Simply put, student fervor doesn't seem to be quite enough to win your party's nomination. What is it ,then, that creates such a gulf between student and majority public opinion? Adam Simon, a Yale political science professor who teaches a popular undergraduate class on public opinion, cites "anti-establishmentarianism, seeking novelty, and being more open to less familiar political figures" as the reasons for Obama's popularity among college students, and adds that "young people sometimes forget that Hillary Clinton was once new."

Interestingly, none of these reasons have to do with Obama's policy positions, which are lined up almost perfectly with those of Clinton. When asked why Obama appeals to young people, Gants replied with abstract terms: "I think young people especially college students gravitate towards authenticity."

Fineman is skeptical of such claims and cites basic adult needs and practicalities as the most likely reason for the tragic archetype of the hip and popular Democratic candidate. "The young person's favorite candidate simply doesn't hinge on substance; it's about style and flash," said Fineman. "All of these words like freshness, change, and a new way of politics outside the system - the young population is entitled to think big like that; grand designs and conceptual theorizing is a privilege when you're a college student. Meanwhile," Fineman continues, "your parents need to pay the bills, worry about Social Security, and choose medical insurance. They're not quite so eager to see the whole system be put on blocks and retooled." For Fineman, the current Baby Boomer adults are like the students in a residential college needing renovation. Even if the system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, they'd like to not suffer through the construction on their watch.

The gaping chasm dividing national success from youth preference is perhaps one of many possible reasons for growing student apathy and disillusionment with politics. For America's youth, watching its chosen candidates fall in the nomination process four elections in a row is deflating. One can't help but suspect that many originally active political students feel the burden of apparent futility. Certainly when compared with our parents' adolescence, - which included Vietnam, the draft, and the general 1960's baby boomer activism - ours is an age of cooled student political activity, and begs the question: Can we still have an effect?

Perhaps another possible reason for the general decline of young activism is the nature of the modern grass-roots campaign itself, and the student's place in it. Greg Geusic, policy director of the Yale chapter of the Roosevelt Institution, has mixed feelings about presidential campaigning by students. Having spent part of the 2004 election canvassing and phone banking for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, Geusic embodies that feeling of apathetic weariness of student political volunteering. "It's really easy to get discouraged because it's tedious and boring. You can be replaced by any other person…because you're just a body," Geusic said. "I think that students are potentially very passionate and can bring a lot to politics, but campaigns don't really take advantage of that. I think that's why students have grown sort of disillusioned."

Peter Johnston, a Republican, agrees, preferring discussion to canvassing. According to Johnston, most conservatives' political activity at Yale is "primarily intellectual and not activist. Doing volunteer work for a candidate is just not as interesting or exciting as debating the various issues." For Geusic, the cultural upheaval and generational rebellion of our parents' time gave students an outlet for their ideas, unlike now. "Vietnam and the draft clearly was a different situation, but the rallies and protests gave students a vehicle and medium for expressing real and thoughtful ideas. That old-fashioned activism is about saying 'these are my ideas' and using your body to fight for your beliefs," Geusic said. "Whereas when you're working for a campaign now, it's the ideas of the least bad candidate that you pick."

Adam Goodrum, founder of Yale for Edwards, disagrees with Geusic's assessment, suggesting that true supporters should be willing to do what he acknowledges "aren't the most glamorous aspects of the campaign. If Edwards supporters at Yale want to put their money where their mouth is, it's really important that they get involved any way they can."

Yale for Obama is also not too discouraged with their role. The group has tried to capitalize on its wide support by organizing its first canvassing trip to New Hampshire, an early primary state, on Sept. 29, and sees it as an opportunity to have a concrete impact on the primaries.

There is, however, arguably a vacuum of substance at both ends of the student-candidate relationship. Both in the mechanical chores that have come to characterize students' sole activities campaigning, and the displacement of candidates' policy for style and flash, the substantive exchange of ideas is absent. Geusic is critical of what he sees "as both Obama's and Hillary's campaigns, running much more on image than on policy", with Clinton being actively portrayed by her campaign as the inheritor of the presidency and "sort of inevitable" primary winner and Obama as the "new hope to disillusioned voters."

There's no doubt, said Fineman, that youth is consistently attracted to "sizzle, appearance, and marketed image, over real material matter. Looking at Hillary next to Obama," Fineman muses, "is like checking out an old clunky cell phone from fifteen years ago next to a nifty looking miniature one. You're not too interested in how well the phone actually works; it's whether it looks cool."

Finding a way to make up ground on Clinton has at times proved especially challenging for the Obama campaign, when you consider that the two candidates have virtually the same policy talking points. Clinton's campaign has encountered a similar difficulty in defining her own presidential identity; rather than butting heads on policy, each has argued for more generalized character traits, with Obama being shaped as the unifying savior outside Washington politics, and Clinton, the experienced warrior. Gants insists that Obama is the "answer to reshaping government," and that Clinton is "too divisive."

It is precisely this "divisive" image that Yale Students for Hillary is seeking to change; its members say their goal is to reverse the flash-over-flavor phenomenon, and turn the normal college student approach on its head. Co-president Ben Stango identifies the group's primary focus as educating Yale students about who Clinton is and what her policies are. Stango refers to "these people who don't like her and when asked why, can't come up with a real answer besides her manner." He notes that "negative opinions of her don't come from votes that she's made or policy positions." Yale Students for Hillary will focus primarily on the Yale community in the coming weeks, canvassing first in dorms and then hopefully expanding to the greater New Haven area and then move to the early primary states.

The youth vote paradox is not only manifest in the early Democratic race, but is rearing its head in Republican student interest as well. The strangest and most unusual symptom of the gulf between national preference and the youth movement? Fringe Republican candidate Ron Paul.

Paul is a tenth-term Congressman from Texas and ran as the Libertarian Party's candidate for president in 1988. Despite being 72 years old, Paul is the most "friended" Republican candidate on MySpace and has surpassed even Barack Obama in YouTube subscribers. He is polling nationally at less than 5 percent according to the most recent data, but still has somehow commanded young individuals' interests, amidst greater national Republican preference for Guliani, former Tenessee Senator Fred Thompson, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and Arizona Senator John McCain.

"I think it's kind of a fetish," said Giuliani supporter Sudipta Bandyopadhyay on the popularity of Ron Paul among college students.

Unlike Obama - certainly a credible threat to Clinton's large lead - Paul's candidacy is likely futile, but still enjoys greater popularity among college students than the general population. There are still certain similarities, in that both Obama and Paul are "outsider" candidates in their respective parties - Obama as the anti-establishment foil to Clinton and Paul by virtue of his libertarian ideas. Paul's agenda "appeals to lots of people on the left and on the right," according to Johnston, finding support outside of the mainstream Republican Party just as Obama has found support among independents. Paul is the only Republican presidential candidate to have actively opposed the war in Iraq from the start, mirroring Obama's 2002 stance.

Like Obama's ability to, according to Gants, "change the way we do politics in America," Paul's radical policy proposals similarly promise a fundamental change in the way government works (they include abolishing the Department of Education in order to reduce the size of government). When Lazarus said that the reason Paul "resonates with college students is that he promises real change," it takes a moment to realize which candidate he's describing.

But that is where their similarities end. The irony of Paul's popularity among the Facebooking generation is that he may not even know what YouTube or MySpace is. Unlike Obama, nobody is claiming that Paul is cool or hip; the closest Ron Paul comes to that realm is being mistaken for rapper Sean Paul.

Despite the national Ron Paul craze, Yale's Republicans still tend to gravitate toward the mainstream favorites. Johnston spent the summer working at Mitt Romney's campaign headquarters but decided against forming a Yale for Romney group, since there are comparatively few people on campus who are Republicans, and even those few disagree about the candidates.

That hasn't stopped the formation of a Yale chapter of Students for Giuliani (a national organization). The group kicked off by participating in Giuliani's National House Party night, where a group of Giuliani supporters watched him speak via live webcam. Matt Klein, a Giuliani supporter, is not dissuaded by the relatively small percentage of Republicans on campus, since "a little over 10 percent of students self-identify as conservative…there's a lot of potential for a significant amount of support, although maybe not the size of Yale for Obama or the Democrats." None of the members of Students for Giuliani would speak on the record as affiliated with the campaign.

During the course of Obama's speech in Washington Square Park, the sun set over the low apartment buildings and trees. The Obama campaign's official graphic decorating signs and bumper stickers is a rising sun within the O of his name. And the darkening light during the speech cast an ironic and ominous metaphorical shade onto Obama's hope-heavy rhetoric. But the senator from Illinois kept pumping his fist and the crowd of students kept shouting excitedly.

The youth fever is real, extending beyond Washington Square Park trees. Obama has cast a spell over college students, but in the end, it may not be enough.

Gants acknowleges that the Obama campaign faces an uphill battle since "it's tougher to convince older voters that real change is possible because they've seen politicians come and go, but that's why we need young voters to…show everyone that a real transformation of American politics is possible." Still, Fineman warns, "This is the baby boomer generation, and it doesn't give up power easily or willingly. You're gonna have to rip it from our cold lifeless fingers."
© The Yale Herald via UWIRE