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'Working on the ground': How Duke students are getting involved in political campaigns

<p>Duke for Hillary, a subgroup of Duke Democrats, will hold campaign events from students on campus, while Duke College Republicans is supporting McCrory and Burr.</p>

Duke for Hillary, a subgroup of Duke Democrats, will hold campaign events from students on campus, while Duke College Republicans is supporting McCrory and Burr.

With the presidential election only two months away, political activity on campus is heating up.

Duke for Hillary, a subgroup of Duke Democrats, has big plans for campaigning on campus, including photo events, social media campaigns and a blog for students to write about their support for Hillary, said co-founder Amy Wang, a junior. Meanwhile, Duke College Republicans has been laying low in the presidential election, after “abstaining” from supporting Trump a few weeks ago. Senior Adam Lemon, former chair of DCR and current member of its board, noted that the organization has still been active in supporting Governor Pat McCrory and Senator Richard Burr by going door-to-door and volunteering at phone banks. Still, both organizations are focusing on voter registration, given the large number of potential voters at Duke that can be harnessed. 

“The group that has the most power to win over whatever they want is going to be the millennials—the group that isn’t as vocal,” Wang said.

In a poll last month, FiveThirtyEight reported that among 18 to 29-year-olds, Clinton led Trump 38 percent to 27 percent. 

John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt University professor of political science, noted that many attributes characterizing students are valuable when it comes to political campaigns. 

“They’re overqualified, they have more free time than most people and they’re usually socially engaged and usually engaging. So they’re a perfect set of people if you can mobilize them,” he said. 

Campaign work to campus activism

Some students have used their knowledge from working on previous campaigns to benefit the organizations they are a part of on campus.

Many students on the DCR executive board were involved in the 2014 midterm elections, Lemon said. 

“A lot of us more or less know what the election volunteering entails,” he said. “I would say half of the executive board has done door knocking for campaigns before and phone banking. It’s not like you’re doing anything particularly sophisticated.”

Lemon explained that because there are fewer Republican students on campus, they are more consolidated into one group. 

“[Liberal-leaning students] are a lot more divided,” he said. “They don’t have the cohesion we do, although I’m sure they probably have a much larger email list.”

Wang said she feels political campaigns are very different on college campuses because they take the mentality of engaging voters further than they do with the general public.

“It gives a microcosm of the real world where people are connected by such intertwined webs, that hopefully we’ll be able to engage more people on a more direct basis,” she added.

Sophomore Steve Hassey—a vice president for Duke Democrats—has worked for several campaigns before, but noted that in contrast to his previous experiences, Duke Democrats is more focused on phone banking and volunteer opportunities.

He explained that while those activities could feel slightly more mundane than working at a campaign office, the grassroots efforts on campus still have their benefits.

“Working on the ground, you get to meet a lot of people, and every day you see the effects of your work,” he said. “For example, we table at Marketplace. Say we sit there for two hours—you’ll probably register 60-plus people to vote and so you see this tangible result of your work.”

Working in the field 

One Duke graduate has even transitioned from organizing campus efforts to working in a presidential campaign. 

Brendan McCartney, Trinity ’16, is currently a field organizer for Hillary Clinton in Palm Beach County, Florida, and said he has used his experience with campus activism as a student in his fieldwork.

In an email, McCartney wrote that his time at Duke was invaluable in making him realize that he wanted to become involved in campaigning. McCartney gained experience in political activism as part of a Research-Service Learning project at Duke. When he was not working at a phone bank, he researched North Carolina’s new electoral laws made by the Voter Information Verification Act.

“The law eliminated same-day registration, cut early voting by a week and prevented out-of-precinct voting throughout the state,” McCartney wrote. “Complicating matters—Duke was split into two distinct precincts, with off-campus polling sites.”

McCartney found that a number of Duke students, including himself, were disenfranchised as a result of the law. His vote was ultimately not counted after he had registered to vote with a P.O. Box on West Campus while living on East Campus.

“This was a moment when I really stepped back for a second to think about the effects of voter laws throughout the country,” he wrote. “If Duke students, who had every resource and opportunity—and a disproportionate interest in politics compared to the general electorate—were left unable to vote because of a new law, how in the world were low-income citizens with full-time jobs expected to be on top of nuanced changes in electoral law?”

McCartney added that he decided to work for Clinton’s campaign in order to make sure voters’ voices were heard. 

“Weak” Trump appeal 

The Chronicle previously reported that DCR abstained from formally endorsing Republican candidate Donald Trump. Lemon estimated that around two thirds of the organization will volunteer for Governor Pat McCrory and Senator Richard Burr and will not have anything to do with Trump.

He noted that one of the difficulties for DCR members is that “you cannot more or less formally renounce him without just losing your position as an organization as a whole.”

The Chronicle was not able to contact a student involved in Trump’s campaign in time for publication. 

Aldrich was not surprised by the apparent lack of students campaigning for Trump on campus.

“The Trump appeal is very weak among college educated people of any age—and that includes college students, of course,” he said. “Everything that pushes against supporting Trump sort of comes together in college students.”

Although the DCR did not endorse a presidential candidate, Lemon still has a positive outlook on campus activism.

“Personally, I’ve always been a conservative, and being interested in politics, being an energetic college student and wanting to get personal and get conservatives elected [has] been one of the fun things I’ve been a part of,” he said. “There’s just something really exciting about being a part of seeing that go into practice.”

McCartney also noted the importance of students taking active roles in this year’s election.

“This year offers a unique opportunity to get substantive campaign experience in a presidential cycle—and, for Duke students, in an incredibly important state,” he wrote. “We are fewer than two months out, and every phone call, door knock or new registration carries with it a ripple effect.”


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