College kids may be focus in 2008 race

“We want Jack! We want Jack!”

More than 50,000 voices — students, city residents, professors — chant together on the New Haven Green. Posters are everywhere: “Yale Professors 76% for Kennedy,” declares one. Bursts of applause fill New Haven’s cool autumn air.

No one can move. The Green is even more crowded than when Richard Nixon visited the campus earlier that year, holding up New Haven traffic for hours and attracting 30,000 students and residents. The News would describe the crowd awaiting Kennedy as “mammoth” in its breadth and enthusiasm.

Less than 48 hours remain before the hyped presidential election of 1960. And John F. Kennedy’s campaign motorcade is coming down Elm Street.

Nearly half a century later — in an election season that may well match the excitement of the 1960 contest — will John McCain be sitting in that motorcade? Will the promise of Barack Obama’s presence pack the New Haven Green?

Don’t rule it out. Yale, like many other college campuses in the coming 500 days, may become an epicenter of the mania that already is the 2008 race to the White House.

In interviews with representatives of the major presidential campaigns currently up and running, it was already clear that candidates in 2008 will refocus on wooing college campuses — perhaps even Yale — for the first time in decades. While the student vote increased in 2004 and 2006, campaigning at the colleges themselves was an afterthought, strategists and seasoned politicians say. But this time around, it may be a key to victory.

When Michael Dukakis, who ran unsuccessfully for president against George H. W. Bush ’48 in the 1988 election, picks up his office phone, he sounds excited, almost hyper. Count no more than 10 seconds and he is already spouting an avalanche of numbers — “185,000 precincts … six block captains … There’s no reason under the sun why students on campuses can’t be part of that network” — to support his belief that 2008 will be all about college students.

“Campuses around the country are going to be deeply and actively involved in what is going to be the largest grassroots effort in a presidential campaign,” Dukakis said.

Dukakis said he hoped that Howard Dean ’71, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, would create a college outreach program before a presidential candidate is picked.

Yale may soon receive a visit from a presidential candidate — if leaders of the Yale Political Union have their way. YPU president Daniel Thies ’07 and outgoing YPU president Roger Low ’07 have already “sent out feelers” to the McCain, Obama and Clinton campaigns, Low said. But there may be something even bigger in store for Yale next year: Several professors and students said that because Dean attended Yale — and is now in the position to exert great influence on the Democratic Party — a major primary debate may be scheduled on campus in the coming months. Dean himself spoke in 2004 at Yale as he was running for president.

“A debate was held at Harvard’s Institute of Politics,” Low said smiling, his eyes opening wider. “So I said, ‘Why not Yale?’”

While Low said he realized that some candidates may want to avoid association with Yale’s elitist image — both Bush presidents shied away from campaigning at the university despite their status as alumni — the Yale administration may not be adverse to the idea. Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said he would be interested in a candidate’s campus visit.

“I think an interesting thing to explore would be whether Yale could be the site of a candidates’ debate in which a full array of political candidates would participate and students could ask questions,” Salovey said.

And Gaddis Smith, an emeritus professor of history who remembers presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 campus visit, said such visits might come sooner rather than later. Though the bulk of campaigning used to be done after primaries, the months leading up to the primary have become much more important, Smith said.

Obama, for one, is already in the college spirit. Today he will speak at George Mason University. But the rally was not initially organized by the campaign — it came together through Facebook.

“Students are going to be arguably more important to this campaign than any other, because Senator Obama, should he decide to run, would enter his campaign on changing Washington and changing politics in this country, and the way to do that is … through students,” Obama’s national press secretary Bill Burton said, adding that a visit to Yale “is in the mix” of possibilities.

Then Burton started talking Facebook: one of the several indicators of strong Internet support for Obama and lack of support for other candidates among students. Within a period of one hour Thursday night, the Obama Facebook group grew by more than 1,000 students.

“This is enormous!” Burton said. “When I last looked at Students for Obama, it had 152,000 members. The next closest of any candidate I’ve seen is Students for Sam Brownback.”

As for student support for Clinton — Obama’s main competitor — “the biggest one I saw for her was 68,” Burton said.

The Clinton campaign did not return requests for comment.

Regardless of whom they support, students will be passionate about the election, analysts said, and consequently, candidates will need to channel student support aggressively. Political science lecturer Sean Smith, who managed Joe Lieberman’s ’64 LAW ’67 primary campaign in last year’s senate race, had some advice for candidates, based on both historical and recent evidence.

“It’s a smart move for campaigns to go out for [student] voters,” Smith said. “They voted in 2004 in numbers that they had not voted in a generation, and so if that energy is still there on college campuses, then campaigns would be wise to mind the votes there.”

Organizations set up to “rock the vote” among college students are also excited.

“We saw a kind of nascent interest in young voters in 2006, but essentially the conventional wisdom in political campaigns for some time has been, ‘Oh, young people don’t vote, don’t bother talking to them or reaching out to them,’” said Kathleen Barr, spokeswoman for Young Voter Strategies in Washington, D.C. “We started to see a little bit of that change in 2004 … but the turnout in ’08 will very much depend on whether or not the campaigns wake up.”

A recent poll by the Institute of Politics found that turnout among voters of ages 18-24 in the 2006 election approached record levels.

“Younger voters could make the difference in campaigns across the country,” Institute of Politics director and former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen said in a press release. “Political parties and candidates can’t afford to ignore them.”

Although lesser-known candidates may not yet have much University following, campaign spokespeople said rallies on college campuses could turn out to be essential in getting out their message in the coming months. And at Yale, some less mainstream candidates, such as New Mexican Governor Bill Richardson, have already hired Yalies for their campaign staffs.

Kat Swift, a frontrunner for the Green Party’s presidential nomination, said she would come if she could afford it — that is, if “Yalies can raise enough money to get me there, give me a place to sleep and some food.” In 2000, after all, more Ward 1 voters chose Green Party candidate Ralph Nader instead of George W. Bush ’68.

“If students vote, Swift said, “they could take over the country.”

But if students decline her offer — and if other candidates point their funds elsewhere — at least Connecticut Senator and recently announced presidential candidate Chris Dodd will likely appear on campus. His education policies will appeal to college students everywhere, Dodd spokesman Reid Wilson said. Dodd is one of the most experienced candidates when it comes to diplomacy, he said.

Tom Vilsack spokesman Josh Earnest predicted that the message of his candidate, who is the former governor of Iowa, would resonate with students more than that of any other White House hopeful.

“It’s become a cliche in politics for people like myself to say that young voters have a large stake in the upcoming election,” Earnest said. “In this case, that cliche has never been more true.”

And then, the inevitable plug: “And Governor Vilsack realizes that.”

The question that remains is whether the other two dozen-plus candidates realize it, too. If so, perhaps one or two will bring New Haven traffic to a stop.

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