Campaigns pitch to college-age set

by Beacon Staff • October 29, 2008

We're used to P. Diddy and other MTV regulars urging 18- to 24-year-olds to vote. But as this historic election approaches, which presidential candidate is putting more effort into getting young voters to cast their ballots for them? The Obama campaign has outpaced McCain in spending on college campuses, and it's paying dividends in the polls, according to recent statistics and interviews with students.

In a recent poll, 15 percent of undergraduate students reported they had been contacted personally by the Obama campaign, while just five percent could say the same of McCain's camp, according to Politico.com, a nonpartisan political news Web site. An additional five percent said they were contacted by both parties, suggesting Obama has put more manpower into reaching this year's young voters.

However, the McCain-Palin campaign, which established an office next to the Tremont St. McDonalds on Aug. 28 is confident in their push to reach Massachusetts's booming college population. "We have college students trying to get the word out across the state," said Barney Keller, a spokesman for Massachusetts' Republican party. "We have tons of people walking in and volunteering to do phone banking," he said, but was unable to give a specific number of participants.

Massachusetts' Obama office was unavailable for comment, but representatives from Obama's New Hampshire headquarters said they are hard at work promoting Obama on the big campuses across the state.

"We have student organizers on every single campus, and we hold events on campuses to get students excited and aware about voting," said Colin Milligan, a member of Obama's press staff. "We're focusing on University of New Hampshire, Dartmouth College, and Keene State University right now, but the smaller campuses are definitely aware."

College students voted in droves during Democratic primaries in New Hampshire and Iowa.

"I think Barack Obama has been making a much bigger effort [to reach college students]," said Jen Flaxman, a junior theater studies major. "I think because he's a lot younger, he's instantly more appealing to college kids. Also, I feel like he's gone out of his way to speak at locations close to colleges."

Last year Obama gave a joint speech with Gov. Deval Patrick on Boston Common Oct. 23, 2007.

Both campaigns acknowledged the economy is a decisive issue for student voters. Keller mentioned the particular stress on college seniors graduating this year, those who will soon be looking for jobs in a troubled economic climate.

"We need policies that will make finding those jobs possible," Keller said in an interview. "John McCain understands that. By taking money from small businesses and 'spreading the wealth around,' ... Obama wants to inhibit that growth."

The economy is 10 times more important to young voters today than it was a year ago, according to a poll conducted by Harvard University's Institute of Politics. In the fall of 2007, five percent of young voters considered the economy a main priority, whereas 37 percent said the Iraq war was their biggest concern. Today, Iraq is a major concern for only nine percent of young voters.

Emerson does have its share of students who have verged off the beaten two-party path, such as Sam Wachs, a senior who is proud to be voting Nader.

"I know that most people are frustrated that I'm 'wasting' my vote," said Wachs in an e-mail. "The thing that's really frustrating to me, though, is [that] the only reason Nader's not a serious candidate is that nobody takes him seriously. The only reason we're not supposed to vote for him is because nobody votes for him. Isn't that a little ridiculous? It doesn't make any sense. Why should I have to vote for someone just because they're a Democrat or Republican?"

Milligan said Obama is the more popular choice amongst young adults because of the Illinois senator's positivism and forward thinking. "A lot of college students are turned off by the negativity in McCain's campaign. It makes them cynical," Milligan said. "Obama isn't running that kind of a campaign."

However, both camps emphasize MTV's 'vote or die' mantra.

"All votes are important," said Keller. "Every vote counts, and everyone should get out and vote."