Poking A Presidential Candidate: Students Tuning In To 2008 Election

This story was written by Jeannie Nuss, The Daily Free Press
"Mitt Romney added you as a friend on Facebook."

Coming home from class and logging on to a friend request from a presidential candidate (or minion operating his or her profile) is probably unsurprising, to say the least.

As is browsing YouTube and seeing countless video clips of Hilary Clinton debating key political issues ... and clips slamming her on the same ones. And MySpace video interviews featuring Barack Obama.

The 2008 presidential election is less than a year away, and is already a presence on college campuses as politicians on the trail court the younger set more than ever.

Although the 2004 presidential election race helped push college students toward a more grassroots effort in supporting their respective candidates, 2008 is taking it to a new level.

Thanks the explosion of popular online networking sites during this term, reaching thousands has never been easier.

But reaching out to young voters will depend on more than just technological advancements: College students, including those at Boston University, are pushing their own agendas in the real world as much as the virtual one.


Though many have called out students for being more interested in rioting for the Red Sox than protesting for peace, statistics suggest this generation is actually on par with the generation before it in paying attention to politics.

According to a September 2007 Pew Research Center survey, 38 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds watch candidate debates, while 36 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds do so.

"People like to label this generation as apathetic a bit too much," said Boston University College Democrats president Rani Woods.

"College students are engaged," Woods, a College of Arts and Sciences senior, said. "We may not all be out at the war protest, but whether it be Darfur or the environment, we care."

In 2004, 49 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the presidential election -- a number that records from the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement show as on the way to re-emerging from the voting doldrums of the late '90s, when only about 40 percent voted, to overtake the 52 percent who voted in 1992.

Part of the reason for the renewed interest in politics could stem from widespread dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration, which has created a dialogue among everyone from baby boomers to high-school grads about the handling of the country.

"College students have gone through a similar revolution as the American people have," Woods said. "Do I think that Bush's presidency has created more activists? Absolutely."

BU is hosting "Race to 2008," a non-partisan college student conference scheduled for Nov. 10 and 11.

"A non-partisan conference is a rarity in itself," Woods said. "We're focusing on issues rather than the political parties to get people involved and aware. We want to start the conversation."


Both BU College Democrats and Republicans support party politics, but not specific candidates.

"We don't take an official stance on who to support in the primaries," BU College Republicans president Kasia Zabawa said in an email. "Our members are free to choose who they like and there is still plenty of time to make a personal decision about who to support."

"The Republican field is much stronger and more competent than the Democrat field so we are confident in our chances with whoever the Republican nominee turns out to be," the College of Communication senior continued.

But with 350 members, compared to the BU Democrats' roster of more than 2,000 students, Zabawa recognizes he strength of the left wing on campus.

"The majority of college students always have been and are liberal," she said.


One candidate who appears to have captured the hearts and minds of college students early on -- call him 2008's Howard Dean -- is Senate newbie Barack Obama.

"Obama is playing very well to college students," Woods said. "His campaign has definitely targeted [the younger] audience more than any other."

BU Democrats and BU Students For Barack both cited Obama's tendency to look to the future as central to his appeal.

"I think being a college favorite definitely helped his campaign because it's recruited a base to do grassroots campaigning," said Mike Jervis, a 2007 CAS graduate and member of BU for Barack Obama.

"Obama is aiming to bring about change," Woods said. "He's emerged as this kind of Washington outsider. College students share that kind of anti-establishment identity."

"Barack is anti-establishment in the sense that he could be the new establishment," Woods continued. "Obama winning this would in itself represent change. But the Clinton campaign -- it would be more difficult to bring about change."

But many do see in Clinton the potential for a return to policies similar to those of her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

"She's definitely taken the best of Bill," Woods said.

Though the BU College Republicans acknowledges Obama's appeal, Zabawa said it may be more students' emotions hanging up Obama '08 signs.

"Although I don't understand the reasoning behind it, I think that most college students are inclined to listen to the promises of Obama who proclaims these 'politics of hope,' when in reality he is overly idealistic and appeals to emotion rather than rationality," Zabawa said.


Both parties agree about the importance of being heard.

"I think every college student would want to make their voice heard -- who wouldn't?" Zabawa said. "Young people are involved in many volunteer and service opportunities, but for some reason don't vote. Young people need to realize that political activism, especially voting, is both the easiest way to effect national change and is crucial to ensure the issues that young people care about are addressed."

"College students need to really remember, to believe that America doesn't have to be Guantanamo Bay," Woods said.


The highly visible national presidential race may be getting students' attention, but less-exciting Congressional races still fail to engage -- younger voters are being hugely outdone by their parents' generation.

"The thing about politics in college is for a presidential election, we see a spike in interest," Woods said.

In 2002, only 22.5 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, compared to 52.4 percent of citizens 30 and older, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement.

"2000 and 2004 were really big years," Woods said. "In 2004, there were a lot of student groups for Kerry and Edwards. And now there are a lot of student groups for Clinton and Obama and Edwards."


Four years ago, few would have imagined poking a presidential candidate.

"The student population seems to be very supportive of Obama," Jervis said. "Part of that is because the campaign developed a Facebook application last spring and embraced the new technology."

Both the websites of candidates both republican and democratic resemble MySpace pages. Mitt Romney's site features "Friends" and "Profile" sections, not to mention links to Facebook and YouTube. Rudy Giuliani has inks to "Tell Your Friends" and "Rudy On Your Blog."

"YouTube debates have been a great way to tune into audiences," Jervis said. "It also means that candidates are being watched more closely."

But it's not just social networking sites: Change is in the airwaves.

"You can even see it in the music videos," Woods said. "There have always been things like System of a Down, but when bands like Matchbox 20 -- bands inside the establishment -- are producing things that are highlighting Obama and Clinton, it's a sign of change."

Spokesmen for Obama and Clinton did not return requests for comment.
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