Word on the street is that 20-somethings, a segment of the population that is traditionally apathetic when it comes to voting, could decide the 2004 election. But in the battleground state of Ohio, the GOP seems to have left much-needed College Republicans behind.
By Christopher White / Columbus and Oxford, Ohio
Sunday, October 31, 2004
The OSU College Republicans registration tent.
In a 200 seat classroom at The Ohio State University, before an American flag tacked to the chalkboard, the College Republicans overflow into the aisles. Their meeting opens with a recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, during which one member yells “under GOD!” emphasizing the controversial phrase on which the Supreme Court avoided passing judgment this past June.
A screen drops down from the ceiling and the room goes dark. A trailer begins for the new anti-Michael Moore documentary “FahrenHYPE 9/11.” There are cheers and laughs. The Republicans plan on filling a 600 seat room for a screening of the film five days before the election.
Most of the meeting, though, is dedicated to plans to counter and ridicule the Democrats’ efforts. For vice-presidential candidate John Edward’s visit, the College Republicans plan on attending the rally with a pair of giant flip-flops in tow. And in response to a question posed by an audience member about the legality of driving people to the polls on Election Day, one officer replies, “I’m sure [driving people to the polls] is [legal]. I’ve heard of Democrats paying homeless people with liquor to vote. I’m pretty sure that’s not legal.”
No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio and its 20 electoral votes. While the two candidates’ numerous visits since March of this year, (15 for Bush, 25 for Kerry) show they are paying attention to the battleground state that has lost many manufacturing jobs over the past several years, neither seems to be courting the most passionate and politically impressionable demographic in the electorate: students.
Perhaps this neglect is reasonable. The large numbers and ideological fervor that students bring to the table are weakened by poor voter turnout. 25 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 25 turned out in 2000, compared with 66 percent of voters between the ages of 65 and 74. Yet Democratic-aligned groups like Vote Mob, ACT Now, Hip Hop Teen Vote, MoveOn.org, and Howard Dean’s grassroots group Democracy for America have poured unprecedented time and money into organizing the nation’s students for the 2004 vote, while, on the other side, College Republicans seem to be bearing the largest part of the burden. Visits to The Ohio State University in Columbus, and Miami University, 35 miles north of Cincinnati, reveal campus conservatives feeling underappreciated in the state that, according to conventional wisdom, Bush must win to get re-elected.
Students crowd the Republican Voter registration tent.
Outnumbered by Hollywood
Smack in the middle of Columbus, the large Ohio State University, with an undergraduate population of some 37,000, is anything but picturesque. Located near a litany of tattoo parlors and coffee houses, fast-food restaurants and second-hand music shops, there are large areas of grass where students lounge in the sun studying, reading, and talking politics. Copies of OSU’s student paper The Lantern blow in the wind. The front page reads: “Political Parties, Voter registration groups reach out to voting students.”
Nearby, on the corner of Neil and 17th Avenue, the OSU College Republicans are working a voter registration tent to help take back Franklin County, which narrowly went to Gore in 2000. A quick and unscientific poll of 20 random people on the quad suggests that John Kerry appeals to 55 percent of the voters, Bush only 35 percent, and 10 percent remain undecided. While anyone can register, many of those who sign up to vote at this tent take a Bush/Cheney “04 placard with them and tuck it under an arm or roll it up into a tube on their way to class. Several shift workers comment on the lack of animosity.
Zack Blau, tall, fair-haired, and wearing glasses, explains that his efforts to register voters have been met with some hostility, but not as much as he expected. “One or two people walk by saying ‘fuck Bush, or go Kerry.’ Not too bad. Every once in a while, you get a guy who wants to start an argument, but that’s about it.” The College Democrats’ table, usually set up nearby, has been absent in the last few days.
Eric Little, however, does not share Blau’s optimism. He wears a red-striped Polo shirt and jeans and has a Bush/Cheney sticker secured to his left breast-pocket. He is thin and obviously tired. Having worked for the campaign for almost a year, the labor has taken its toll. He is grateful for the opportunity but expresses confusion over what seems like a lack of involvement from the rest of the campaign. The Franklin County Republicans charged OSU Republicans with the responsibility of registering 2000 new voters before the October 4 deadline, and following up with them in the final days before the election.
“We are given a huge task and not much money to do it,” he says. “If it were more important to get people turning out to vote than just registering them, then you think they would give us a bigger chunk of the budget.”
For Little, the task of competing with the numerous democratic groups is tough. “The Dems have Vote Mob and Hip Hop Summit. We aren’t given much money and we don’t have any celebrities. We are outnumbered and outspent by people and groups that are not students and who aren’t affiliated with the university.”
The huge task is made even bigger, Little says, by the harassment he receives from anti-Bush groups. Chairman of Buckeyes for Bush and a member of the College Republicans, Eric often takes the lion’s share of the labor, working the voter registration tables when others are unable or unwilling. “There’s no greater frustration than working [a voter registration table], doing something we think is a public service and somebody runs by and swears at you.”
His frustration is compounded by a rumor he’s heard from several people that Vote Mob is discarding the registrations of declared Republicans. “These kinds of rumors breed apathy toward the election,“ says Little. “People end up thinking that politics is this corrupt animal and that we’re going to end up throwing away their forms as a result.”
Little’s feeling that the Democrats are outgunning the Republicans on campus by using “Hollywood” influence is supported by the visible presence of celebrities at student-led events. The OSU College Democrats recently held a rally attended by Kerry“s stepson Andre Heinz, actress Claire Danes, and Boston Public star Rashida Jones. That same week John Edwards visited Columbus to attend a debate-watching event, which was also promoted by the OSU College Democrats.
More recently, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., spoke to a crowd of roughly 300 in OSU’s Campbell Hall. He received applause when he said that the Bush administration’s assault on the Clean Air Act has caused 10 times as many deaths every year as the September 11 attacks attacks, and got laughs when he described the scientists that the administration depends on as “biostitutes.”
And on October 28, just five days before the election, Bruce Springsteen accompanied Kerry on one last swing through the swing state. The Lantern reported that 40,000 people attended the campus concert.
One of many posters for anti-Bush concerts and rallies.
When Buchanan isn’t enough
Over at Miami University, 35 miles north of Cincinnati in Butler County, which went to Bush in 2000, the political atmosphere is more subdued. Some 15,000 undergrads at what is considered a “public Ivy“ don’t see the large public rallies and visible recruiting effort on the part of Democrats and Republicans at places like OSU. Rather, Miami students seem almost closeted about politics. Anyone wanting to join a political discussion or club must actively hunt for one.
Despite the generally reserved and conservative bent of the school, College Republicans don’t feel that their views are always respected.
For example, several students have complained that Dr. Laura Neack, a professor in the political science department, has a pro-Kerry approach that stifles criticism. “Dr. Neack has said in class that if Bush is re-elected, she is almost certain there will be a draft,” says student Matt Nolan.
According to Nolan, there was no mention of the fact that the bill to reinstate the draft, House Resolution 163, was written in 2003 by Democratic Congressman Charles Wrangle of New York, and that the bill was defeated in the house by a vote of 402-2. Nolan also says that when anyone who supports the President attempts to divulge such information in class, they are told to sit down and be quiet.
When contacted, Dr. Neack refused to comment.
Miami College Republicans Steve Szaranos and Nathan Colvin, (president of the group), say they are frustrated by the way material is presented by liberal professors. “It’s like [professors think] “I’m your elder and I’m going to bestow this knowledge on you. You conservatives don’t know what you’re talking about,”” says Szaranos.
But what really irritates them is the way, in their estimation, they were shut out of the selection of guests for a debate on October 4. Pat Buchanan, who has publicly opposed the Iraq War, was chosen to debate Andrew Cuomo, a decision that Colvin feels was unfair. “With the Iraq war as the hot button of this campaign, to have a ‘conservative’ that is against the war is an injustice to the students,” Colvin says.
Colvin was able to lobby successfully to have the Bush twins visit campus on October 20. But then Howard Dean spoke on campus the following day. To even the score, Colvin and the College Republicans booked Ann Coulter, conservative provocateur for October 28. Although Coulter is a heavyweight in the conservative circles, she’s no match for the Boss in drawing crowds.
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