Sunday, October 3, 2004

Campus politics revive

College students are talking about candidates at a level not seen since the '70s - but will they vote?

By Denise Smith Amos
Enquirer staff writer

Assia Johnson, a sophomore at College Conservatory of Music, attends a rally for John Kerry last Tuesday on McMicken Commons at the University of Cincinnati.
Xavier sophomore Kevin Brigger, of the Xavier University College Republicans, stands with a cutout of George W. Bush near the Gallagher Student Center in mid-September.
Craig Ruttle/The Enquirer
Soon after Tony Springer moved into his dorm at the University of Cincinnati, fellow students started knocking on his door.

What are the important issues for him in this presidential campaign, they asked.

Is he registered to vote? Does he want to register? For whom will he vote?

Springer, a Colerain Township 19-year-old, put them off. He's not set on a major yet, much less a president, he said.

"I'm not a political person," he says. "I'm not a person who sits around and debates politics.... Once I see the proper stance, then I'll take it."

Springer's not alone in his reluctance.

As the presidential campaign continues to be close, and both major candidates target swing states and undecided voters, college students have become an attractive demographic.

In recent weeks, college-based outposts of the major parties and a host of unaffiliated groups have turned up their political pitches on campus.

Groups such as Vote Mob, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Networkand Punk Voterare operating on campuses in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

College students have been manning sign-up booths, knocking on doors, phoning students, pushing voter registration papers, even sending election emails and text messages.

The College Republicans at Northern Kentucky University, for instance, signed up 350 members this year, compared to about 50 last year, while the College Democrats grew from 20 to 200 members, leaders of both groups said Friday. Counterpart groups at Xavier, UC and Miami University also report membership growth.

Web sites promote young-adult voting

• CIRCLE (Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning) researches civic and political participation of young Americans. Based at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy.
• Rock the Vote incorporates entertainment and youth culture to make voting cool.
• Black Youth Vote targets African Americans ages 18-35 and has a presence on historically black college campuses.
• Freedom's Answer is a campaign by youth, many in high school, to get out the vote.
The Youth Vote Coalition is nonpartisan group of organizations trying to increase youth voting.
• The New Voters Project is a nonprofit group targeting get-out-the-vote efforts to those age 18-24.
• Declare Yourself is a one-year national campaign using spoken word and music tours of college campuses and initiatives for high school seniors. It is linked with the three-year, 50-city tour of the Declaration of Independence.
• Hip-Hop Summit Action Network is a nonpartisan coalition of hip-hop artists, entertainment leaders, civil rights proponents and youth leaders.
• Smackdown Your Vote! World Wrestling Entertainment encourages young people to vote.

Organizers say the campuses are saturated with voter groups.

"It's crazy. It's almost like a mini-industry, " Mark Mussman, a doctoral student in education, said as people from at least half a dozen groups canvassed students outside the Tangeman Center, UC's newly opened student union.

At Miami University Thursday night, more than 200 students packed a room before the presidential debate and watched on a big screen as Bush and Kerry sparred for 90 minutes.

Afterward, about 50 students stayed until midnight, rehashing it with teachers and each other.

"I've done a hundred debates on campus like this and it's hard to get an audience this size," said Ben Voth, an associate professor in communications, who helped organize the debate watch party.

"If you're willing to come out and publicly discuss these things, that puts you in the category of a likely voter," he said.

But Kiana Williams a speech communications senior who'd helped organize the forum, complained that dozens of seats went unfilled, and the audience seemed to be mostly Kerry supporters.

Miami is a conservative school in a conservative town, she said. Its College Republicans group is among the largest in the Midwest; only Campus Crusade for Christ is bigger on Miami's campus, she said.

"For the majority of the campus, they're really missing out on things like this," she said.

"I don't care who you vote for, just as long as you have a reason, other than that your mom and dad voted for them.... The sororities and fraternities weren't here. Many of the people who came ... are non-traditional Miami students."

Students haven't been this politically aware since the 1970s, said Gene Beaupre, political science instructor at Xavier University.

"As I walk around the mall between classes, I'm struck by how many students I hear talking about the presidential campaign," he said.

Students may debate, but will they vote?

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement, 42 percent of 18-24 year olds voted in the last presidential election, compared to 70 percent for adults 25 and older. Experts attributed the lower voting rate to apathy and a reluctance by politicians to tailor messages to students.

That changed with Howard Dean, whose rapid but ultimately unsuccessful rise as a Democratic primary challenger came from young and disenfranchised voters, Beaupre said.

"You're still going to get a majority of students who are probably not going to vote," Beaupre said. "But even if they only talk about it this time, it begins to get them engaged in the process."


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