From the Grassroots Up: Students Active in Politics
With the upcoming elections less than two months away, political campaigns are running at full force, and the news seems to cover little else besides Paul Ryan’s budget, super PACs, and Michelle Obama’s attire at the Democratic National Convention. Even Hollywood is capitalizing on the campaign trend with blockbuster comedies such as “The Campaign,” which features Will Ferrell as a congressman from North Carolina, and the Hulu series “Battleground,” a documentary-style dramedy that depicts the lives of young campaign strategists.
Given the University’s reputation for political activism, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that students are getting involved in the 2012 campaigns. From spending entire summers doing unpaid political canvassing to knocking on every residence hall door to register voters, there’s no lack of election and campaign enthusiasm at Wesleyan.
Michael Linden ’15, current president of WesDems, the student group that supports Democratic candidates, said that he was initially hesitant to engage in campus politics but was pleasantly surprised by what he found.
“I figured it would be a lot of liberals complaining, but it turned out to be more action-oriented than I expected,” he said.
Last spring, Linden campaigned for Middletown’s current mayor Dan Drew and went door to door to register voters. It was an opportunity for students to make a difference in Middletown politics and engage with the community, he said.
“The club [WesDems] was doing something to effect change, especially on a local level,” Linden said. “Compared to a Senate race, the mayor of Middletown was actually decided by a couple hundred votes, so we definitely contributed to the victory.”
It may also seem that Wesleyan has a decidedly one-sided political atmosphere, but a strong component of political activism on campus is the debate over the fiscal and social issues surrounding the 2012 election.
“People have strong opinions but I’ve had plenty of good discussions that are never hostile or aggressive,” said Monica Sheridan ’15, a member of the College Republicans.
Although Wesleyan’s student body tends to lean to the left, Sheridan holds that it’s still a political spectrum.
“There are a lot of people who don’t identify with either party and some who are fiscally more moderate or conservative than they think,” Sheridan said.
Last year, the College Republicans also campaigned in Middletown’s mayoral contest by canvassing and volunteering for then-incumbent Republican Sebastian Giuliano. They also brought in several Republican speakers.
Many of the students involved in campus political activism extend their work after leaving Wesleyan at the end of the school year. Linden continued his political work this summer as a field manager in his native Michigan. He campaigned for state representative Gary Peters in Michigan’s ninth congressional district, worked six to seven days a week from 12-8 p.m., and made countless phone calls canvassing door to door.
Many agree with Linden’s belief that students working in grassroots campaigns can make a big difference in voter turnout. Sometimes all it takes to bring people to the polls is a little extra push.
“People care but are intensely lazy,” Linden said. “If you remove all barriers, it’s much more likely that they’ll vote.”
In addition to informing residents about the political views of Peters, Linden heard some interesting and divergent points of view from people he met while canvassing.
“One man told me that Obama’s policies reminded him of the rise of Hitler,” he said.
Whit Chiles ’13 spent his summer working as an organizing fellow for Barack Obama’s campaign in swing-state Ohio. Representing the grassroots side of the campaign, Chiles made phone calls and met with potential volunteers during the workweek, and canvassed on the weekends; he averaged about one hundred doors each Saturday.
Chiles said his commitment to Obama’s reelection came from Obama’s 2008 victory, and the impact it made on him personally.
“Election night 2008 was just such a powerful moment,” he said. “It signified a big change in the course of American politics. Some people were disillusioned by Obama’s first term in office, and it would have been easy to become apathetic, but Romney is out of touch. It’s worth spending my summer in Ohio for something I believe in.”
While confident about Obama’s chances, Chiles sees money as the biggest obstacle to the President’s reelection. As billionaires like Sheldon Adelson donate millions to pro-Romney super PACs, the President has struggled to out-fund his opponent. Chiles sees superPACs and voter suppression as key factors in the election.
“The rich drown out the voices of average citizens,” Chiles said. “It’s a huge problem in American politics.”
Evidently for Chiles, it’s a problem worth fighting against.
While most students are too busy to dedicate as much of their time to campaigns this fall, the summer was a crucial season for canvassing and other election work.
“The summer was laying groundwork—getting back supporters from two years ago, applying for endorsements, planning out the mail campaign, designing literature,” explained Ben Florsheim ’14, who worked on state representative Geoff Luxenberg’s campaign for reelection in Manchester, Conn.
Florsheim has interned with other politicians and is especially familiar with election strategy.
“I’ve interned with big campaigns before, but working on a more concentrated, smaller campaign gave me more insider knowledge,” Florsheim said.
The most important factor for Luxenberg’s reelection, according to Florsheim, is maintaining the support from two years ago.
“You need grassroots support before you can start making inroads with other voters,” Florsheim explained.
Without the support and engagement of average citizens, politicians couldn’t effect change. It’s easy for people working in politics to feel unrecognized and insignificant within the greater campaign, but many students argue for staying involved because they know their efforts will contribute to their candidate’s success.
With November approaching quickly, it can be the small efforts made by students and other volunteers that end up tipping the scales. Although big changes aren’t always apparent after a long day of canvassing, volunteers like Linden are aware that their efforts can pay off.
“There were at least one or two conversations each day that made me feel like I’d made a meaningful difference,” he said.