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features

Are Skidmore students literate in politics and government? Lessons in democracy
Students rock the vote New voters, new media, new energy
Road to the White House Melissa Winter '89 staffs the First Lady
McCain-Obama: Fair fight? Reviewing the 2008 presidential race
Growing the grassroots Scott Kennedy '87 films urban citizen action



 

 

Students rock the vote

by Pamela Babcock

When you go to school in a city of thoroughbreds, you learn to appreciate a good race. But Skidmore has been as tepid as most other colleges when watch­ing political candidates coming down the stretch—until the 2008 presidential race. This time students engaged early on and erupted when the results came in.

The strong feelings weren’t limited to those who backed the winner, Barack Obama. Students supporting John McCain also invested their emotions. One was Skyler Parkhurst ’09, a government major and co-president of the Skidmore Young Republican Assembly. On November 4 he invited friends to his off-campus apartment to watch the election returns. When it was clear late in the evening that McCain had lost, the students piled into Parkhurst’s 1999 Saab for a somber ride home. “Everyone here was depressed,” Parkhurst recalls. “But when I drove them back to campus, people were screaming “Change is coming!” and “Obama!” and they were driving around the Northwoods Apartments laying on their horns and screaming out of their car windows.”

Before long an ecstatic throng of hundreds was marching down Saratoga’s Broadway, stopping briefly outside College President Philip Glotzbach’s home. Carrying flags, beating drums, and playing guitars, the group at one point began singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”

In one of the most-watched presidential elections in US history, Obama had beaten McCain by 53 to 46 percent of the popular vote. But a sea change in the political involvement of Skidmore students had come months before.

Early in the fall, members of student political clubs cast aside their political affiliations and teamed up to hold a campus­wide voter-registration drive that signed up record numbers of students, and they hosted debate screenings and fostered intellectual discussions about the elections. “We decided it would be best to not just hand out campaign literature,” Parkhurst says. “The thinking was, this is a college community, and everyone should be able to move past the rhetoric and propaganda.”

In her 33 years at Skidmore, Barb Schallehn has seen student interest in politics wax and wane. As assistant director for student leadership activities, she watched this year’s “very talented student leaders. They were so excited to be able to vote for the first time in a national election. It was definitely refreshing.” She says a “considerable number” of previously uninvolved students stepped forward to get involved, including first-year students who wanted to help with fundraising efforts or campaign committees.

What sparked their interest? Carrie Giddins ’96, who served as communications director for the Iowa Democratic Party, says that during the Iowa caucuses she definitely saw more active outreach to college cam­puses. “Part of that was the way candidates reached out through social-networking sites and talked to students about issues that matter to them. It almost became cool to get involved with politics.” She adds, “It’s great to see, because once you begin voting at a young age, you’ll always be a voter—it becomes a pattern in your life.”

Skidmore trustee and new-media expert Elliott Masie, who was Saratoga’s organizer for the “Obama for America” campaign, agrees that Obama’s hybrid new-media strategy—using everything from his Web site to Facebook to YouTube —played a key role in the campaign’s ability to muster armies of volunteers and take fundraising and involvement to new heights. “It blended online connectivity with a very easy-to-achieve face-to-face experience, starting at the very beginning of the campaign,” Masie notes. The understanding was that “a younger person was going to be engaged through new media, could be enticed or invited and successfully engaged for in-person activity, and then could be retained through a combination of face-to-face and new-media communication.”

Masie says the social media were used to encourage people to volunteer, donate, join with others, and express opinions but weren’t based on a single behavioral model for how people experience and use them. “Different people did different things, and those were tracked and managed. The approach ended up being very effective in numbers and dollars and voters.”

Still, Masie doesn’t think technology was the most profound reason for Obama’s victory. “I think it was one element of a larger phenomenon, a cultural difference—the chance to elect the first African-American president.” Also, the campaign was notably “open to this generation. I think they voted for Obama because they didn’t want another one of their parents as their president.” He adds, “It’s been a while since a presidential candidate could talk about what songs are on his iPod.”

The Obama campaign also was the first with a “significant open door” that allowed students not only to volunteer, but also to take on leadership roles. Take Skidmore student Ritika Singh ’10, a sophomore from Bangalore, India. She couldn’t vote because she’s not a US citizen, but she still played a role as a field organizer with Masie’s group. Singh was responsible for campaign fundraising and cohosting debate-watching parties for Obama supporters in Saratoga.
“The old model of volunteering is to staple things or make a few phone calls,” Masie says, “but one night I made student volunteers into media coordinators and had them deal with all the TV trucks.” He adds, “I’m in my 50s. My role was not to run the campaign but to facilitate people like Ritika, to make sure the face of the campaign included young people.”

Singh, who is majoring in international affairs and government, reflects, “What happens in America affects my family in India. My best friend’s parents at home had a stake in Lehman Brothers, and when Wall Street crashed that affected us too. I was as riled up as everyone else about the election. I wanted to shake things up and try to make things better.”

Last fall Jackie Shydlowski ’09, president of the Student Government Association, led a voter-registration drive that was a collaborative and nonpartisan effort of SGA’s Executive Committee, the Skidmore Democrats, and the Skidmore Young Republican Assembly. “In all my time at Skidmore, we never had a collaborative effort between these groups,” she says. “In the past, they typically had debates and bashed heads in a bitter rivalry.” This time, the groups collaborated to sponsor and drum up interest in debate-watching parties.

To sign up new voters, representatives went to residence halls with registration forms and provided e-mail links to voter-registration information on the SGA Web site. Parkhurst says members of his Republican group helped students “figure out the absentee ballot,” and others helped students register as Saratoga Springs residents.

Next the SGA Executive Committee launched “0.8 in ’08,” designed to get at least 80 percent of registered Skidmore students to turn out and vote. On election day the campus was decked out in red, white, and blue; Case Green sported signs for presidential and regional elections; the voting booth in the Intercultural Center buzzed, as lines snaked into the hallway of Case Center. The SGA Senate sponsored a daylong event, “Remember to Vote with a Free Root-Beer Float.” In the end, the “0.8 in ’08” effort paid off: 84 percent of registered Skidmore students voted on campus. Shydlowski says she hopes the other 16 percent voted in their hometowns or by absentee ballot.

Election-night news coverage was on from Case Center to the dining hall to the res halls to lecture rooms. (A few weeks later students, faculty, and staff crowded around televisions in the same places to watch the inauguration.) Schallehn observes, “They’re energized, and they’re so hopeful that there’s going to be significant change.” At the same time, she says, “although people truly had candidates they were supporting, it was really less about who you were voting for and more about educating students and getting them to vote. That was huge: the message to vote.”

The 2008 election marked the first time that freshman Brenda Goff ’12 could vote. She also helped with the campus voter-registration drive and made phone calls for upstate New York Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand. Volunteering in the campaign was initially a requirement for “Human Dilemmas,” her Scribner Seminar taught by English professor Sarah Goodwin. But Goff says, “The work became more of a personal act for me. It felt good to know that I was advocating for a part of history, even if it was something small like helping students vote.”

Perhaps the most exciting moment was shortly before midnight when the election was called for Obama. Goff and her roommates—some in pajamas—spilled out onto the lawn to celebrate. “Students were chanting, hugging each other, and crying tears of joy,” she recalls. “It was emotional and beautiful to see everyone come together.”