Daniels energizes Yale conservatives

Indiana governor Mitch Daniels has received support from Elis like Courtney Pannell ’11.
Indiana governor Mitch Daniels has received support from Elis like Courtney Pannell ’11. Photo by Danny Serna.

Courtney Pannell ’11 says she has been duped.

She thought President Barack Obama was perfect — he bought her a car and paid for her medical insurance — until she realized he’d been spending all her tax dollars. Now she and a group of conservative Yalies are back with a new man, one who advocates “fiscal responsibility,” not fancy speeches: Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican from Indiana.

In a political advertisement posted to YouTube last week, Pannell and the rest of the Student Initative to Draft Daniels expressed their discontent with what they see as reckless spending on Obama’s part. The ad is the first of the 2012 presidential election, the students said, and aired in Iowa during Sunday’s NFL Pro Bowl. After it was posted to the Internet, the video took off, receiving over 15,000 views in just a few days.

In an interview with the News, Daniels voiced his approval.

“I thought the ad was very clever,” he said, adding that he watched it Thursday on an iPhone. “It raises the issue of our time, and it comes from the most appropriate source: from young people.”

But Daniels stopped short of saying he planned to run for president. Until he makes that announcement, the conservatives will fight on with the Student Initiative to Draft Daniels, a cause which they say they can finally rally around, instead of feeling like an “oppressed minority” on a liberal college campus.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Max Eden ’11, a former Obama supporter who now serves as the movement’s national director, kicked off the student movement last fall after registering it as a Political Action Committee over the summer. At first a small group, it grew to include many Yale conservatives, including Pannell, Trevor Wagener ’11 and Michael Knowles ’12. A website went up in October. Membership growth began in earnest in November, Wagener said, and now the group includes 40 smaller university chapters across the country, including Harvard and Princeton.

Last summer, while Knowles was working for New York Republican Nan Hayworth in her successful campaign for Congress, he had the idea for an ad expressing similar disillusionment with Obama. Knowles pitched the ad to Hayworth, but she said it wasn’t quite what she was looking for, so he sat on it. Then, a week before Winter Break, Knowles pitched the ad to Eden; they knew it would be a hit. With help from the rest of the group and producer Caleb Smith ’11, the students drafted a script in a week and shot and produced the ad in a few hours just after break.

“Literally the foil to Barack Obama is Mitch Daniels,” Knowles said. “Barack Obama relies on rhetoric, some of which is misleading. Mitch Daniels says what he means and means what he says.”

Once Students for Daniels posted the ad to Facebook last week, the group received national attention almost instantly. Before the advertisement hit Facebook late last Wednesday evening, the web site received around a dozen hits a day, Wagener said. Once Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal and dozens of other news outlets picked up the YouTube clip, the site began receiving thousands of page views daily. The ad even ended up on the homepage of conservative magazine National Review, which Knowles described as “very cool.”

In addition to the Pro Bowl ad buy in Iowa, the first state of the 2012 primary season,it will run this week during morning news hours in Indianapolis and Jimmy Kimmel Live in New Hampshire. Wagener said he’s trying to get a Super Bowl buy in Iowa; he’s managed to get the price down to about $5,000, but hopes it can drop further. The group has raised around $10,000, most of which comes from students and their families, Knowles said.

Reaction to the ad was mixed. Though Daniels was a fan, liberal bloggers rolled their eyes at what they saw as college students who got their parents to buy a political ad.

“The girl who looks like Cindy McCain and stars in this video as a whip-smart college student frugally collecting rainwater in a cup to drink later is apparently a Yale undergrad herself, despite appearing to be slightly older than Cindy McCain,” wrote Jack Stuef on Wonkette, a liberal blog that pokes fun at politics.

Pannell, a former multimedia editor for the News, had a similar brush with internet celebrity last February when a Pi Phi recruitment video ended up on the gossip site Gawker. She said she is used to dealing with the criticism.

“Between ‘Pi Phi Girl’ and running for YCC president, I’ve got pretty thick skin,” Pannell said. “The ‘Ditzes for Daniels’ comments don’t hit me too hard.”

WHY MITCH?

Students for Daniels leaders have one clear goal: get Mitch Daniels to run for president. And they’re confident they’ll succeed.

“He’s gonna run,” Knowles said, pointing to comments Daniels has made in recent weeks that suggest he is planning a run. “There is no second choice.”

If Mitch Daniels chooses not to run, that’s it for the movement — they don’t have concrete plans yet, but they will not throw their weight behind another candidate, Knowles said.

Despite the excitement for Daniels at Yale, nationwide, he remains a little-known governor of a medium-sized state. His name sometimes misses lists of likely contenders for the Republican nomination — those are more likely to include the likes of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. In a straw poll in New Hampshire last week, Daniels failed to finish in the top five.

But he’s a favorite of the pundits. Charles Krauthammer, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, told Bill O’Reilly in December he thinks Daniels should run for president because he’s “very smart.” Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for former President George Bush ’68, said he’s keeping his eye on Daniels and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.

Daniels has gained attention and the support of Yalies for his alleged ability to trim budgets and turn deficits into surpluses; in an election where the national debt could be a central issue, Daniels’ no-nonsense approach to budgeting will be appealing, Knowles said. Wagener likes that he’s not a career politician; before entering the political arena, he worked as an executive in the pharmaceutical industry.

“True leaders have leadership thrust upon them, and we’re trying to thrust it upon Mitch Daniels,” Wagener said.

More importantly, though, he’s the only candidate on the right who has a viable shot at knocking out Obama, Knowles added. The other candidates, he said, have too much baggage to win a national election. For that reason, the pundits and many of Yale’s top conservatives have rallied behind Daniels, even if the general public has yet to follow suit.

At the same time, some have raised questions about whether Daniels could compete on a national scale. He is not known for the sort of rhetoric that wins national elections; blogger Russ Smith described him as having a “zero charisma meter.” In a September article about the 2012 election, Newsweek’s Andrew Romano called Daniels a “very slight, very balding, very unimposing” governor.

Still, Daniels’ student supporters maintain that his emphasis on content over rhetorical flourish will resonate with a public that just wants results.

RALLYING THE TROOPS

On a liberal campus in one of the most liberal cities in America, it can be hard for conservatism to thrive. Last fall, the Yale College Democrats registered hundreds of new voters, and the Republicans refused to participate. Often, Wagener said, conservatives at Yale feel like an “oppressed minority.”

But with the Daniels movement, conservatives on campus have an opportunity to build an Obama-like youth movement that hasn’t been seen since Goldwater or Reagan, Pannell said.

“It’s very exciting that there’s a youth movement on the right,” she said. “We finally feel like we have something to do instead of sitting around and complaining.”

This weekend, 28 members of the Yale chapter of Students for Daniels will travel to Washington, D.C., for the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservative activists. There, they’ll meet with members of their movement from across the nation to discuss a plan of action moving forward. Daniels is confirmed to speak at the event.

He said he will announce whether he is running soon because there are “people waiting for an answer.”

During the Friday interview, Daniels jokingly mentioned the “irony” that a student movement on his behalf would come out of Yale; he is a Princeton Tiger, after all. He said he once planned on heading to Yale, but the “natural beauty” of Princeton’s country campus won him over.

The rivalry is a non-issue for his Eli supporters.

“President Obama went to Harvard,” said Knowles. “I’ll take what I can get.”

Six of 14 members of the PAC’s leadership are Yalies.

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