Without exaggeration, of all the races I’ve followed closely, I have never seen an upset as unexpected as the victory scored here by Nick Shalek over Rebecca Livengood in the Ward 1 aldermanic contest last week.
I can hear the groans. “Why is Low writing about the Ward 1 race?” you mutter over your cereal. “After a month and a half of fliers, articles and eager canvassers flooding the school, can’t we Yalies finally get this political chew toy out of our teeth?” But regardless of whether you think this seat on the Board of Aldermen has been worth the sound and fury it has kicked up on our campus, it is certainly worth paying careful attention to the race’s outcome, because it speaks volumes about the underlying attitudes and organizational structure of the general student body. And it should leave none of us any doubt that liberal activists and Democratic organizations at Yale are doing something wrong.
Lest anyone doubt the sheer slimness of Shalek’s chances when he entered the race at the beginning of the semester, let’s review the odds stacked against him. He was a complete outsider to Yale and New Haven politics who only registered to vote in New Haven in the last six months, with virtually no contacts or toeholds inside the incestuous hothouse inhabited by Yale politicos. He faced an incumbent who had been running for the position since January, and who had secured the Democratic nomination in a heavily Democratic ward. She had a hefty core group of devoted, energetic and highly motivated supporters, who in the final days of the campaign would don the now-infamous green Livengood shirts and swarm the dorms in search of votes. She had the firm backing of the UOC, and would soon have the support of the College Democrats as well — by far the two biggest pools of activists and campaign volunteers at Yale. She would eventually be endorsed by the Yale Daily News. Anyone who knew anything knew Shalek didn’t have a prayer.
So, how in the world did Nick Shalek go from hopeless to 50 votes over the top? In part, his campaign was much, much smarter. Perhaps the best decision Shalek made was to recruit Brett Edkins ’06, the sometime vice president of the College Democrats, to be his campaign manager. Edkins’ tactics were undeniably more canny than those employed by his former organization. The College Democrats and the other cadre of Livengood supporters adhered to a conventional canvassing strategy, going door-to-door night after night for weeks leading up to the election. Edkins and Shalek, on the other hand, both understood that the most effective way to reach students is through the organizations in which Yalies are involved. This explains Shalek’s impressive — and now infamous — success at registering and mobilizing fraternities and varsity athletic teams.
Of course, this did not make many of the strident liberals on campus particularly happy. In particular, the Livengood supporters have tended to latch onto the Shalek campaign’s paid busing of athletes from Payne Whitney Gym to the polls as a symbol of what was wrong with his campaign. One volunteer complained to the Yale Herald that the election was “a high school popularity contest where the jocks won.”
I have a news flash for those grumbling that Shalek’s supporters were somehow less qualified to vote: We don’t get to quiz voters on policy problems before they pull a voting booth lever. And as long as that’s the case, the politicos and activists on this campus have to do a better job in the future of reaching out to the rest of the student body, Shalek-style, if they want to start mobilizing broad support for the causes they champion. To call all of Shalek’s supporters jocks is breathtakingly dismissive of the winning coalition of supporters he managed to assemble in a few months from a broad swath of different campus organizations. I agree that there were many weaknesses and problems with Shalek’s candidacy, but his remarkable success at reaching out to uninvolved students was one of his great strengths, and was ultimately the cause of his victory.
Livengood’s campaign would doubtless object to this by pointing out that they did quite a bit of reaching out to students of their own, in the form of canvassing and door-knocking. But as Shalek’s campaign figured out, just about the only thing students do in their rooms at this school is work, sleep and occasionally other activities inherently ill-suited to outside visitation. When Yalies — indeed, college students — want to engage with the rest of the world, they tend to leave their rooms and go join their team, fraternity, debating society or singing group. That’s when they’re ready to be reached. Try to knock on their doors nine times, and they just get annoyed — as the Livengood team discovered.
In short, this election made crystal clear that liberal activists are doomed to permanent ineffectiveness if they spend all their time in a cocoon of other activists, emerging only at certain moments to knock on doors and hang posters, telling Yale students to register to vote or attend a rally or go to the polls or march to save the whales. Politics, and indeed successful activism, is about engaging others and listening to them, and not writing people out of the political process just because they’re fraternity members or jocks. Nick Shalek succeeded because he turned out to be a better politician. Successful campus Democrats will need to follow his example.
Roger Low is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.