Presidential politics now: ND students invisibly engaged

Author: Mary Kate Malone '08


Curious about the interest of Notre Dame students in the presidential primaries, political science Professor David Campbell decided to broach the subject over lunch with a few of his students in South Dining Hall.

“Are students talking about the elections when they’re not in class? Do they care?” he asked them.

Their answer, he says, was “unequivocally yes.”

“I pressed the students to double-check that it wasn’t just political science students. They said, no, no, we mean our friends in general, including those in engineering and the sciences.”

In terms of political interest, enthusiasm and education, students at Notre Dame are no different from their peers around the country, who, according to news sources from The Christian Science Monitor to Time magazine, are paying attention to the race in significantly larger numbers than in years past. Democratic candidate Barack Obama has swept up young voters, and participation among the under-30 crowd has been up in almost every primary contest and caucus so far. Though student organizations for primary candidates don’t exist at Notre Dame, professors and young activists report a rising level of political interest at the University.

“Notre Dame students in 2008 are more interested, more engaged, and more willing to participate that at any other time since I’ve been at Notre Dame,” says senior Bob Costa, who spent two weeks of his winter break in New Hampshire campaigning for former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani. “You can feel it in the classrooms of DeBartolo, in O’Shag. . . . People are bringing up the campaign in almost every class.”

Campbell points to the highly competitive races on both the Republican and Democratic sides to explain why students seem more engaged than in previous elections.

Historic time
“That we have an African American and a woman both contending for the Democratic nomination is historic, and I think that students are responding to that,” he says.

“I have heard it said that Notre Dame is a politically apathetic campus, but I am not convinced. . . . You can always find campuses that are going to be more or less engaged, but I think, on average, Notre Dame is a lot like its peers,” Campbell adds.

But political interest is different from political activism. At Notre Dame, evidence of the latter is difficult to detect. Walk around campus any day of the week, and it’s rare to see a group of students actively supporting a primary candidate through a poster, a table at LaFortune or a rally.

One reason for this, suspects political science Professor John Roos ‘65, is Notre Dame’s location.

“Indiana is a participation-suppressor,” he says, noting the state’s typically insignificant May 6 primary. But he predicts students “will be very involved” if the Democrats still do not have a clear frontrunner before May 6.

The national base of the student body may also muffle student activism, Roos says, because many students are further removed from primary election activity than are peers at schools with higher concentrations of in-state students or a stronger regional identity.

Moreover, campus political junkies who want to organize “Students for Candidate X” must go through the same approval process as other clubs—a process that discourages frivolous club ideas and spares Student Activities wasted man-hours and grief. It also has a wet-blanket effect on grassroots organizing during presidential primary season. Applications for new clubs are due in November for official recognition usually not awarded until the following February or March, by which time most candidates are out of the running. In past presidential cycles, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but students anticipating the electoral excitement of 2008 would have had to file their paperwork in November ’06.

Without recognition, student organizations may not post flyers or meet in University space, so the process frustrated a few student activists. “It ought to be quick and easy and inviting rather than difficult,” says Professor Roos, who has observed political activity at Notre Dame for nearly four decades.

After Giuliani withdrew, Costa planned to publicly support Republican frontrunner John McCain on campus. In February, he met with leaders of the College Republicans, who will eventually support McCain once he becomes the party’s nominee. Off campus, Costa met with officials from the 2nd Congressional District GOP about involving Notre Dame students in the McCain campaign. Political involvement that stretches beyond classroom and casual discussion is “crucial” for the University, he reasons.

Visual evidence that 2008 is a presidential election year is likelier to surface in the fall. College Republicans and College Democrats will support their party’s nominee after the conventions, opening avenues for students to get directly involved.

Campaign for voters
Meanwhile, NDVotes’08, a nonpartisan educational campaign of the Center for Social Concerns (CSC), has been working for a year to register student voters and help them gain a better understanding of the election.

The group is modeled after similar groups at other universities and has assembled a task force of students from groups such as College Republicans, College Democrats, College Libertarians and Women in Politics.

“We’re just trying to get as many students as possible to vote. We are targeting especially our undergraduate population, many of whom are first-time voters,” says the CSC’s Rachel Tomas Morgan ’98M.A.

On February 6, the group hosted a post-Super Tuesday analysis led by faculty panelists from the political science and American studies departments. About 60 students braved bitter temperatures to show up for the event in the Coleman-Morse Lounge, including freshman Julie Zorb, who came because, she says, she is “concerned about the future of the country.”

“Voting is one thing,” Tomas Morgan says. “In the end, it’s the tangible goal. But in the process, the hope is to cultivate in students a sense of responsibility to be civically involved.”

Students have also turned to the Internet. Senior Michael Redding believes can be an effective tool in drumming up support for a candidate.

“There’s really been a spark on campus,” says Redding, a precinct captain for Barack Obama in his hometown of San Jose, California.

Politics, Redding says, is not often the subject of casual conversation at Notre Dame. But he thinks the close primary races and a general dissatisfaction with the Bush administration have changed that.

“I don’t think I remember walking by people and overhearing a lot of conversation about the election to the same degree [as I do] now,” he says.

Mary Kate Malone is a spring 2008 intern at this magazine.