Field Notes: Democratic Organizing At Yale

10/07/2007 03:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.

Back in 2004, Yale was on top of the political world. Both George Bush and John Kerry were Yale graduates and members of the exclusive Skull and Bones society. But four years later, things stand very differently. Of the major candidates of either party, only Hillary Clinton, a Law School graduate, studied in New Haven.

Even so, Yale students are making sure the presidential campaign remains a presence on campus. The early shape-up of presidential organizing on the Democratic side suggests Yale is hardly different from the rest of the country: The Obama supporters have a head start, and the political discourse lacks a certain je ne sais quoi in radicalism.

Yale Students for Obama formed last spring, and was followed in quick succession by Yale Students for Clinton. But despite their best effort, Hillary supporters seem unable to match the enthusiasm awakened by the Illinois Senator. In the all-important measure of college support, the Yale Hillary committee's Facebook group only has 53 members, versus 498 for Obama's. This disparity is reflected in the size of the groups' mailing lists.

Brendan Gants, communications director of Students for Obama, confirmed that his group was very successful in attracting students and building up a grassroots movement on campus. "It is encouraging that so many of those who are coming out have not been involved in previous political efforts," Gants said. "It is an indication of the appeal Obama has, bringing new people in the process."

Even Ben Zweifach, the devoted founder of the Clinton group, did not dispute that claim. "Obama awakens the most excitement among students, certainly more than Clinton," Zweifach said. "There is a lot of progress to be made."

Both camps have mapped out a similar game plan: some door-to-door on campus, canvassing trips to New Hampshire and for the first time, due to Connecticut's new-found place on Tsunami Tuesday, work on the streets of New Haven. The Obama students have already started their effort and held their first New Hampshire trip in late September.

While much smaller in scale, the John Edwards group is also ready to go. Its founder Adam Goodrum said he felt lonely a few months ago, but that many Obama supporters were having second-thoughts and coming around to support Edwards. In what seems representative of Edwards's overall strategy, the group's focus is on the early states rather than on February 5th: Goodrum mentioned plans to phone bank and canvass in New Hampshire, but the group is not planning a New Haven push for now.

Despite this early organizing, the Democratic candidates have not caught Yale students' imagination just yet. One rarely comes across displays of support, only the occasional sticker on a computer or poster above a mantelpiece. In fact, the most noticeable campaign signs around campus are surprisingly those of Republican Ron Paul.

To start building up excitement, the Yale College Democrats organized a presidential forum on October 1st. In a room packed with eighty students, representatives from the six major Democratic campaigns went head to head with varied level of preparedness, as some campaigns were represented by a student, while others - like Dodd and Obama's - had delegated campaign operatives.

The discussion was bound to disappoint those expecting a more lively and progressive discussion than that of the presidential debates. The representatives, who were all white men, were acting as campaign surrogates. None adapted their message to the student audience - a crowd that in theory is receptive to a less mainstream discourse. The evening's strangest discussion took place when several speakers, led by Biden's representative Matthew Ellison, contested that their candidates were advocating a total withdrawal of troops. The moment gave fodder to the oft-heard complaint that activism and radicalism among students of this generation has faded.

Zweifach attributes this to student lethargy. "Compared to the end of our parents generation and its crazy amount of activism, our generation is extremely lax," he said. "People think they can't make a difference anymore." Travis Marchman, involved with the Obama group, voiced a similar argument, saying that "the reason why the political landscape is as it is today is that voters are apathetic."

Many Yale students would take offense at this characterization. There are plenty of groups on campus actively working on various progressive issues and anti-war platforms, and its members would surely flock towards more progressive presidential organizing. On the Yale campus even more than on the national stage, the Democratic Party does not cater to those interested in more radical politics.

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