Grassroots Road Trip
February 21, 2008
Last November, more than 50 Columbia University students headed south to Kentucky for the five days leading up to the state's gubernatorial election. Nobody missed a day of class. In fact, they were doing exactly what their school has wanted its students to do since1968, when the university made the weekend before Election Day a five-day break. For a student body so loath to miss class, the calendar allowed the group to muster a sizeable volunteer force enlisted in get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts for Kentucky's Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Steve Beshear. Next fall, they'll do the same for whichever candidates come out alive of the presidential primaries--although this time, they want to take busloads instead of vans.
Columbia's Election Day break has a peculiar history. History professor Eric Foner told the Columbia Daily Spectator in 2004 that the university granted students the holiday so they "wouldn't riot" as they had, lead by the Students for a Democratic Society, earlier in 1968. They took over academic and administrative buildings to protest the university's expansion into a neighborhood park. Princeton University may be the only other institution that gives students time off before Election Day, having instituted the holiday under similar circumstances in 1971.
The timing uniquely positions the schools to make an impact in key states, since more students are more willing to spend a week traveling when they don't have to skip class. Other schools should take Columbia's cue and give students the opportunity to work on the ground in an election. Moreover, it's a campaign manager's dream. Busloads of college students are the best kind of labor a campaign or grassroots-lobbying group could want. They cost next to nothing, besides large pizza deliveries and gas money.
According to former Iowa College Democrats president Ben Jacobs, who has worked in electoral politics since graduating from Grinnell College in 2006, large numbers of college students are most important in the few days leading up to the election itself. Young volunteers care passionately about the results of the election, making them both more trustworthy and better at talking to voters than paid canvassers. Unlike labor unions and other organized sources of volunteer hours, they don't have their own issue agenda or slate of endorsed candidates that may differ from the campaigns' messages--by and large, they do what the campaign asks. "Harassment equals turnout," Jacobs said. "If you only have people for three to four days...Election Day is when you have the biggest and most dramatic need for bodies."
Conservative college groups are also getting into the act in a big way. The College Republican National Committee is launching its "STORM" operation, the "most audacious social mobilization technology ever attempted by a political organization" which promises to muster an "army of volunteers" for GOTV operations in key states. They'll also have full-time field staff on the ground in key races. CRNC political director Blake Harris thinks giving students time off before Election Day would help their efforts. "I think that's a great idea," he said. Several students have done remote phone banking, using nighttime cell phone minutes from the East coast to hit potential voters during prime calling hours in Western states.
For other schools, local politics are national politics. Progressive Harvard University students took a bus once every three weeks to campaign in New Hampshire this fall and carried two busloads of students to campaign for the major progressive candidates before the primary election. In Novembers past, according to campaigns manager Garrett Dash Nelson, they have independently managed GOTV efforts for a small town in the state. Regardless of the intent, young organizers now have the opportunity to participate in the democratic process.
Despite these efforts, Harvard students don't get the break that Columbia and Princeton students do for their volunteer efforts. Cambridge schoolchildren may get Election Day off, but Harvard students are still stuck in class. "It's tricky to convince people to skip a seminar," says Nelson, a Harvard junior. Some schools get around the constraints of the academic calendar by focusing on local elections: The Yale Dems, for example, are able to fire people up about New Haven's ward races (especially since students can and do become political leaders themselves). Yale plans to take canvassing trips to help congressional campaigns in Connecticut this November. They've made a real impact in the past, including one 2006 race in which the progressive candidate won by only 82 votes.
Vans, hotels, and food may not cost much, but they're not free, either. Columbia has managed to cobble together enough money from student council funding and help from the Kentucky campaign to make the trip free for students, but not all schools have such liberal policies and not all campaigns have as much money to throw around. In an off year with few competitive races, the Beshear campaign got lots of support from the Democratic National Committee. But this fall with so many competitive races, including the presidential election, there may not be as much money to throw around. Princeton, even with its pre-Election Day break, won't provide money for campaign trips due to a school policy that prohibits the school from funding political activities. To get around that, progressive campus political groups can seek donations from groups like Students for a New American Politics, a progressive political action committee that funds stipends for grassroots organizers and helps send volunteers to help their endorsed candidates. Conservative students get support from groups like the College Republicans and other conservative organizations.
Not everyone at Columbia likes the Election Day break. The low rate of participation--the Dems are essentially the only ones who send canvassers--has prompted calls for a longer Thanksgiving break if no one uses the election break for its original purpose anyway. Plus, after Election Day had come and gone, the Columbia Dems probably didn't make much of a difference in Kentucky: Beshear was already beating his opponent by double digits. Why wouldn't a group from a school like Columbia, Democrat or Republican, use the resources it has to target smaller races where 50 people for five days could really swing an election? And why would people who aren't hardcore activists go on such a trip at all?
A few reasons: Road trips are fun, and they build group unity. Talking to voters in places far away from school--like Kentucky--is a cultural experience that many students may not otherwise get. And for the CU Democrats, it's about more than just making a difference anyway. "Part of the reason people join college Dems is because they follow national politics and they want to be a part of it," explained Kentucky trip organizer Sarah Leonard, a sophomore. Young people are paying more attention to the 2008 election than they have in recent memory. With a little time off, they could do more than just vote.
Lydia DePillis is a junior at Columbia University.