College 2012

While University of New Hampshire junior Nick Mignanelli’s co-workers hit the pool after a day of work at the college’s Survey Center, Mignanelli spends any time off from his summer job in talks with the 2012 GOP presidential candidates.

Mignanelli, the communications director of UNH’s College Republicans, is coordinating candidates’ visits to his campus for the fall as part of the group’s efforts to mobilize the school for primary season.

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College campuses have historically been hotbeds of political activity, and with a presidential race around the corner, student groups across the country are laying the groundwork for the upcoming campaign.

The 2008 presidential election saw an unprecedented swell of student activism, as college voters flooded President Obama’s campaign with support. Yet much of the preliminary buzz for 2012 is taking place in meetings of the College Republicans — who have an early edge with the GOP’s hotly anticipated primaries — while the College Democrats have simply begun to look ahead to a campaign they can envision pretty clearly.

Republicans already prepping for primaries

Due to the regulations of College Republicans’ national organization, chapters on campuses across the country will not endorse or support any particular GOP candidate prior to the nomination process, explained Shawn Lewis, president of the Berkeley College Republicans and a junior at the University of California, Berkeley.

For now, like the UNH College Republicans, many students are focused on raising awareness about the primaries rather than actively campaigning. Many campuses are reaching out to all potential candidates.

Penn State College Republicans Chairman and senior Josh Crawford, for example, said he wrote letters to all of the declared and potential 2012 candidates.

Without an official candidate to support yet, the Penn State College Republicans are also planning efforts to increase voter registration, he said.

At schools in caucus states in particular, “voter registration is huge, especially because there are so many independents out there unhappy with Obama who want a say in the political process in 2012,” said University of Nevada, Las Vegas College Republicans President Mark Ciavola, a senior.

In Nevada, “If you want a voice on who your presidential candidate is, you have to be at the party; you must be a registered Republican,” Ciavola said.

Democrats revving up for 2012 race early

Without a comparable fight for the Democratic nomination, many College Democrats have begun focusing on campaigning for Obama.

The University of Iowa Democrats, for example, are working closely with Obama for America, the official campaign to reelect the president.

“Obama is in Iowa right now,” said the University of Iowa Democrats president, senior Nate Fiala, when speaking with The Hill in a recent phone interview. “He’s campaigning, so we’re campaigning.” 

The group has taken on “a lot of legwork at the grassroots level” by meeting with local organizations over the summer, he said.

Similarly, at the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Democrats are working both on their own and in partnership with Obama for America, explained Penn Democrats legislative director Emma Ellman-Golan, a senior. They are planning canvasses, phone banks, voter registration drives and educational programming for students in the fall, she said.

Yet, at some schools, College Democrats have avoided specifically endorsing the president for the moment. Rather than coordinating campaign events, the Georgetown University College Democrats, for instance, work to “promote Democratic ideals and discussion on campus,” said Georgetown senior Vail Kohnert-Yount, the group’s president.

According to some student leaders, it is still too early to even make official plans for the race.

“We won’t work for Barack until the spring of this year and the fall of 2012,” said George Washington University College Democrats President Phil Gardner, a senior. The GW College Democrats seek to elect Democratic candidates up and down the ticket, and are focused on more immediate races for now, he said.

All in the timing

The difference in timing — and, consequently, in focus — between the GOP and the Democrats poses benefits and drawbacks for both sides.

Contending with a hard-fought primary is a “double-edged sword” for College Republicans, Penn State Republicans’s Crawford said. “It means that Obama and Obama for America is going to be on college campuses a lot sooner than any specific Republican is, because [Republicans] have to hash it out and decide who is the candidate first … [but] if people get excited about a tough-fought primary, a lot of times that can carry out to higher voter turnout.”

According to Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, the GOP primary might not be too helpful to the Republican Party, as primaries typically draw low youth turnout.

“To the extent that the primaries are dominated by strong conservative candidates and issues, the Republicans will tend to alienate independent young voters who are following the news,” Levine wrote in an email. “It will be hard to recover with them in the general election.”

On the other hand, the GW College Democrats’ Gardner noted that because some Democratic groups won’t actively campaign until the spring, the GOP could enjoy something of a head start because of its primaries. Yet while the Democrats might lack the publicity the GOP has now, according to Georgetown University College Democrats’ Kohnert-Yount, “there is nothing more enthusiasm-raising for the Democratic cause than listening to Republican candidates” during primary season.

Changing campus dynamics

Regardless of each campaign’s timing, students agreed that any high-profile race enlivens political activity at their schools.

“The whole campus is abuzz” during an election year, UNH College Republicans’s Mignanelli said. “When the primary rolls around, students get really excited and motivated,” he added, “[because] what’s the point of going to school in New Hampshire if you don’t participate in the primary?”

This energy on campus also causes a “spike in membership and interest” in political clubs, Gardner explained.

With a majority of student votes historically going to the Democrats, an election year also changes the inter-party dynamics of many campuses.

“The Democratic Party and the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] and [Obama] for America descend on college campuses with so much money and manpower that the Republicans simply don’t [have],” UNLV College Republicans’ Ciavola said.  

“It’s really us against the world at that point,” he said, adding that the Democrats’ activity inspires the College Republicans to ramp up their efforts.

On the other hand, George Washington University political science Professor John Sides predicted young voters might not support Obama as strongly as they did in 2008, “if only because [Obama] has become less popular overall, due largely to the weak economy.”

Levine agreed that in 2008, college voters were particularly important because they overwhelmingly favored Obama. Yet this year, Levine wrote, the magnitude of their impact “depends on whether the president is able to mobilize his ‘base’ again, and also whether Republicans are able to make some inroads with young voters. In 2008, Republicans performed extraordinarily badly with the college vote, but they have plenty of room to improve.”

Much of college students’ roles in the 2012 election will depend on the Republican nominee, Levine said.

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“Since 2004, young people have become heavily Democratic,” he wrote. “The question now is whether they will be a lasting part of the Democratic coalition, or whether the Republicans will put them back into play somehow.”

Regardless of their affiliation, students felt excited about the prospect of making their marks in the race — especially in high-profile states.

“Definitely, college kids make a huge impact,” Mignanelli said, “especially in New Hampshire, which is such an important but small state. As far as activism [in general], young kids are the ones with the energy, with the ideas, who are genuinely excited about candidates.”

The GW College Democrats’ Gardner agreed, citing college students’ engagement as interns in congressional offices and volunteers in political campaigns.

“The dirty little secret about the political process,” he said, “is that without 20-somethings, it couldn’t function.”