Running for Office in a College Town

This article authored exclusively for Local Victory by Zach Friend*

You moved to the town because of the wealth of coffee shops, bookstores and music clubs. You have even been known to stop by the pizza house downtown for a slice after a late night movie.  However, for all of the benefits of living in a college town it is not always the easiest place to launch a campaign.

Local community activists are often at odds with student interests and some communities have an outright divisive relationship with the student population. Yet there are great payoffs for candidates that are able to strike a balance between the two constituencies. David Wasserman, president of the University of Virginia College Democrats claims, “although it takes a lot of work to set up the infrastructure, the rewards are great and will pay off in the end.”

Understanding the unique attributes of a college town can be a noticeable advantage to a candidate. As former Charlottesville Vice Mayor Meredith Richards notes, “students often care about the same issues as the general electorate, such as transportation and affordable housing, and they also are paying taxes to keep the city functioning.” Capitalizing on these issues and reaching young voters that other candidates ignore might tip the balance in a close election.

Profile: Students On and Off Campus

It is essential for college town candidates to understand the demographic make-up of the university and more importantly, the university vote. Students generally differ from the community electorate in two key ways: differing ideological voting patterns and typically lower turnout.

Many students opt to live off campus after their first year and consequently become more involved within the community. For example, in San Luis Obispo, home to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the university houses only 17 percent of students on campus. While it can be difficult for a candidate to locate off campus students, there are some key advantages to targeting these students.

First, students that live off campus are generally interested in the same issues that face the community at-large and therefore can be targeted with the same message and materials used to reach the overall community. Candidates can focus on issues that they are most comfortable with and engage this voting bloc in similar ways to the overall electorate. Second, many of these students are first time registrants or have little voting history and consequently have not been targeted by other campaigns.

Most campaigns do not target first time registrants because of a lack of money or knowledge about this group of voters. Instead, campaigns focus on benchmarks for targeting, such as residents that voted in three of the last four elections. However, as Santa Cruz Councilmember Ryan Coonerty points out, “people that do have the money to target first time registrants will have a large advantage in reaching students.” In fact, your campaign might be the only campaign targeting these voters, which will improve your chances of obtaining their support.

University Resources

College towns offer a wealth of resources that are unavailable to candidates running in traditional communities. The following five simple suggestions delineate strategies that candidates running in a college town can use to their advantage:

1.  Utilize University Media

Seek the endorsement of school papers and request interviews on the college radio station. Local races are often relegated to weekly publications and buried in the back of the daily newspapers, especially during a presidential year. Given this climate it can be difficult for candidates to reach young voters – even high-propensity young voters. Santa Cruz City Councilmember Tim Fitzmaurice claims, “the use of student newspapers in college towns is crucial.” Councilmember Fitzmaurice suggests getting to know the names of the editors at the student newspapers and “taking out an ad on the back page of the publications is the first thing you should do when you run in a college area.”

2. Speak to College Clubs

College Democratic and Republican clubs are hotbeds for political activity. These students are more likely to vote than their collegiate counterparts and are also ready and willing to volunteer on a campaign. Some clubs will actively endorse local candidates and are useful for targeting high-propensity young voters. Vice Mayor Richards claims, “the energy and vitality that they bring to a campaign can be very refreshing – when they work for your campaign they really create a spark that can revitalize campaign staff and campaign volunteers that might be a little bit tired.”

Sachiv Mehta, Chairman of the College Republicans at the University of Texas, Austin, believes college clubs are an excellent way to reach a hard working young voting bloc. “Candidates should come to speak at our meetings and in exchange we will help set up an event on campus for them and will do most of the legwork. That is why we are here.” Speaking to these clubs can save the candidate a lot of time in the long run as well.

Karen Emmerson, president of the University of Iowa College Democrats notes, “you do not want to print up thousands of flyers or handbills only to find out that you can’t hand them out or post them without approval in certain areas of campus. Student leaders of political groups should know these regulations in and out, so they can help you do as much as possible within the confines of school regulations.”

3.  Guest Lecture

Contact the Political Science or Government department at the university and ask the professors if you can guest lecture. Many professors would love to have a local candidate make political science real for their students. You can reach politically active students and offer volunteer and internship opportunities to civically minded students. These students might not have the time to volunteer on an entire campaign, but can be great assets for an Election Day GOTV including distributing door hangers and providing visibility.

Heidi Kendall, City Councilmember from Missoula, Montana states that she “had a wonderful team of students who handled my GOTV operation. They made phone calls, marked lists and poll-watched for me on Election Day.” This is also an excellent opportunity to obtain feedback from students on the issues that they are interested in and discover what they believe should be done to address these issues.

4. Set up a Registration Table on Campus

Partnering with college political clubs, you can work to register students to vote. Many elected officials interviewed suggested setting up a presence at school orientation fairs or other large student events. Keeping in mind state and federal election laws that may require non-partisan registration, you can also provide your literature and volunteer cards at these tabling events. This is especially relevant in areas that have same-day registration. Having an active on campus registration drive during the days leading up to the election might prove decisive in a close election.

5. Take Courses

Many universities offer speech courses or classes on campaigns. Others offer courses in media targeting, message development, campaign management and polling. While you are developing your campaign abilities you will simultaneously meet students and professors interested in local campaigns and the electoral process. There may be no better way to hone your campaign skills than with your local university.

Town Vs. Gown

One unique aspect of running in a college town is the symbiotic relationship between the university and the surrounding community. Not all community members support student involvement, and some cities have gone as far as creating special university districts to lump the campus vote. Candidates often must walk a fine line between the potentially disparate interests of the two constituencies.

Complicating matters are the transitory aspects of many students and the permanence of non-student residents. Traditional voting lists will often provide disproportionately inaccurate information about student locations as most students move year-to-year. Consequently, it is often difficult to locate students that are high-propensity voters because of their transitory nature.

Dr. Larry J. Sabato, Director, Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, believes running a town versus gown campaign can have its problems. In this approach a candidate would “capitalize on resentments that build up in university locales such as noise, trash and student parking in neighborhood. While this approach can succeed, it is divisive and even the faculty, a permanent, high-voting bloc, will usually not appreciate it.”

Second, Dr. Sabato believes you can run a town and gown campaign. In this format the candidate attempts to join the disparate parts of college towns. The campaign focuses on bringing students into the campaign committee, actively recruits canvassers from the student body, may attempt a student registration effort and addresses issues of interest to students (housing costs, law enforcement and transportation). This is a more balanced and integrated campaign and under our model would likely be considered ideal.

Sachiv Mehta, Chairman of the College Republicans at the University of Texas, Austin, claims that candidates can run an integrated campaign that is advantageous to all sides. “A lot of issues that affect the community affect the university. If a candidate has a substantive message it can appeal to both sides.”

Increasing Student Involvement

Increasing student involvement in local campaigns can boost your overall turnout, especially at the margins, as well as foster long-term interest in the political process. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin benefited from an extremely high turnout in Dane County, home of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in his 1998 campaign. According to Clyde Wilcox, professor of Government at Georgetown University, turnout in Dane County was a record 55 percent, yielding Feingold a 65,000-vote margin in a state that he carried by 35,000 votes.

However, typically low student turnout, estimated at 42 percent for the 2000 presidential election, creates a predictable cycle. Students find that they are not targeted by campaigns and consequently do not vote. Campaigns in turn do not prioritize young voters because they are traditionally low propensity voters. As Vice Mayor Richards notes, “students are underrepresented in the political process in proportion to their numbers and in proportion to the impact the city council has on their lives.”

San Luis Obispo City Councilmember Christine Mulholland believes the responsibility lies with both the student and the candidates to reach out. “Whenever I am at Cal Poly I encourage involvement and encourage students to pick up a council agenda, listen to the discussion and participate in comment time.” Councilmember Mulholland also believes students should be encouraged to become more involved in city advisory bodies to have a direct voice in the political process. College Republican Chairman Mehta agrees, “it is important for the candidates to understand what our needs are, but that can only happen when the students become more involved so elected officials can better understand our needs.”

Suggestions from Elected Officials

Many of the elected officials interviewed stressed the importance of balancing the campaign’s focus on interests of the community and the students. Santa Cruz City Councilmember Coonerty suggests that candidates “make an early personal connection with students.” He believes that students need to know that “you will be there well before other elected officials show up and well after the other elected officials leave.” As one of the youngest members of the city council, at age 30, Coonerty believes he was able to “talk, in a very real way, about the issues the students face.”

College Democratic president Emmerson agrees, “candidates need to make a real effort to talk about student issues. Issues like parking, tenants rights, and fines imposed for offenses usually committed by students can be brought forward and used to get students interested.”

Missoula City Councilmember Kendall encourages candidates to set up a table at the Student Union in order to reach out to students one-on-one and learn about the issues that will bring them to the polls.

In order to maintain the balance between city and community interests, former five-term San Luis Obispo Mayor Kenneth Schwartz believes that “candidates, especially new ones, need to be very careful of promises they make to either the student or the community viewpoint.” Candidates need to ensure that they do not alienate a specific constituency or box themselves in to representing a small portion of the community’s interests.

Ultimately, those interviewed emphasized the importance of developing connections that grow over time and do not merely surround campaigns. Develop trust and communication between yourself, your party, students and permanent community members. Candidates cannot ignore the student vote and need to understand the important dynamic between the university and the city on a whole. As Councilmember Fitzmaurice notes, candidates need to “pay attention to the student vote. It is not as simply homogenous as people think it is. It is complex and requires a careful plan to make your candidacy effective.”

For more information on campus politics, read:

The Best Way to Get Politically Involved in College

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Local Victory or its staff.


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