Despite the efforts of Stanford’s political groups, the student body appears to be remarkably politically apathetic as the latest round of midterm elections rapidly approaches.
The Editorial Board of the Stanford Daily noticed the trend as early as April of this year when it reported that “many members of the Stanford community may find the campus suspiciously quiet on the issues and candidates of this election.”
‘Suspicious’ is perhaps the best word to describe the relative dispassion. The stakes of these elections are undeniably high: if passed, Proposition 19 would legalize marijuana in California, while Prop 23 would freeze the state’s landmark green energy bill.
Jimmy Ruck ’11, one of the leaders of Students for Meg, a student organization supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, believes that these elections find California at a crossroads. He told the *Review, *“Just 14 percent of voters there say that California is on the right track, while 80 percent say the state is moving in the wrong direction, according to recent polls.”
In a state with a floundering economy, a 12.4 percent unemployment rate, and an education system that was ranked 49th in the country as of 2009, the right governor might make all the difference.
Yet such issues appear not to have registered significantly with many students. For example, according to the Review’s pre-election poll, more than half of likely California voters on campus have not “seen, read or heard anything about Proposition 23.”
College campus apathy is certainly not a hard and fast rule. It’s hard to forget the campaign fervor that gripped the student body during the 2008 elections. At the time, being a Stanford student meant navigating through a crowd of Obama T-shirts, reading political endorsements in Facebook statuses, and receiving a wave of e-mails about Proposition 8 rallies.
However, in spite of the importance of these elections, 2010 looks nothing like 2008.
Tommy Schultz ’11, president of the Stanford Conservative Society, estimates that only 40% of Stanford students will vote.
One explanation for the decreased student interest is obvious: Obama is not on the ticket this year. “Turnout’s always lower in off-year elections,” Schultz said. “Students groups aren’t as active because there’s not a president running.”
However, some also wonder whether campus apathy is due to disillusionment with Obama himself.
“The excitement for Obama among students seems to have waned,” said Ruck. “It may have some effect on the willingness for students to participate in elections this November.”
New polls released by the Huffington Post suggest that the majority of college students are, in fact, disappointed with Obama. Only 47% of students nationwide approve of the president, down 16% in the last year.****It’s an unsettling thought for many Democrats, who banked upon the 18-24 year-old population as an Obama stronghold.
“I think that the part that upsets people the most around campus is that he came in talking about this new nonpartisan era of politics, and he’s one of the most hyper-partisan presidents we’ve ever had,” said Schultz.
However, while Schultz believes that this attitude will result in a higher GOP turnout across the country, he does not think it will impact voter turnout at Stanford or in California.
“California is a very unique kind of place,” he says. “CA, DC, Vermont – they are the bastions of liberalism. It’s a very different dynamic.” As such, Republican candidates in California, aware of Obama’s popularity, are not running on anti-Obama platforms.
Andy Parker ‘11, president of the Stanford Democrats, rejects the notion that students are less enthusiastic about President Obama. “Students overwhelmingly support Obama and his priorities, and they understand that electing Democrats will give him the best chance of achieving these objectives,” he said. Campus apathy is “just a different situation because Obama isn’t on the ballot.”
Parker is working with the Stanford Democrats to communicate the message. The Dems have organized events such as “Pizza and Politics,” which seek to educate students about the issues, and campaign trips.
The Conservative Society has been doing its own work, conducting volunteer calling, rallies and protests, and voter registration.
Even the ASSU is trying to do its part. John Haskell, the ASSU Executive’s chief of staff, is helping run a non-partisan voter registration drive on campus.
“I consider voting an important civic action and everyone should be aware of their deadlines and have an opportunity to register, if applicable,” said Haskell. “We are simply making this possible and easy for students to do here on campus.”
In the end, the success of student groups and voter registration depend upon the commitment of the students they target. And as Schultz suggests, students are the wild card.
“That’s kind of the underlying theme – the unpredictability and generally apathetic nature of a college student,” he said.