CMU proves student campaigning matters
Thanks to the dumpster fire that the 2016 election turned out to be, it can be hard to find anything positive to write about. Here in Pennsylvania, the Democratic Party dropped the ball big time, squandering a comfortable lead over Donald Trump in a state that turned out to be pivotal to his electoral victory, and losing a winnable and key Senate race and several vulnerable Republican Congressional seats in the Philadelphia suburbs. This, in a state that has one million more registered Democrats than Republicans and hasn’t voted for a Republican nominee for President since Ronald Reagan. Yikes.
But if I had to point to a bright spot in my own campaign experience this cycle, I might point to Carnegie Mellon University. Here, our beloved student body, harried and beleaguered by constant overtures from several campaign organizations on campus, turned out to vote in record numbers. According to Democratic campaign officials that I spoke with, voter turnout in the Cohon Center increased by over 50 percent from 2012 to 2016. In 2012, just 40 percent of Carnegie Mellon’s registered voters voted. In 2016, 62.5 percent of voters, virtually all of them college students, showed up to the polls. Not only does this smash the national turnout rate among college-aged voters (40 percent) but it also exceeds the national turnout rate overall, which was 55 percent in 2016.
David Linden, who was one of the of the Democratic Party organizers working at Carnegie Mellon this election, commented that Carnegie Mellon students were instrumental in helping to secure healthy returns for the campaign in Pittsburgh, where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by a wider margin than Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012. In Allegheny County overall, Linden also noted that Clinton earned 106,000 more votes than Trump, exceeding their goal by 6,000. Not only did our unexpectedly strong turnout help the campaign exceed their goals, but Linden also pointed out that students at the university completed hundreds of volunteer shifts in the weeks before the campaign, bolstering voter turnout here on campus and in the surrounding community.
Carnegie Mellon has often earned a reputation among its students for a culture of political apathy and disengagement. But students I spoke to think that that is changing, noting the visible presence of the campaign on campus throughout the fall semester, including major events featuring Bernie Sanders and Senator Tim Kaine. They also pointed to examples of engagement after the election, such as protests, walk-outs, and a general buzz of consciousness surrounding the presidential transition and early days of the Trump administration. Last week, more than twice the number of people expected attended a College Democrats event featuring U.S. Congressman Mike Doyle about resisting Donald Trump.
Iris Stegman, a senior studying decision sciences said, “People say [Carnegie Mellon] students are apathetic, but that’s just not true. Students want to be involved and engaged, but they’re not always aware of the opportunities available to them.” To help address this problem, Stegman has founded a new Social Justice Coalition of student organizations, so that socially-conscious student groups can collaborate, reach more students, and support each other’s programs.
One thing that all the students agreed upon: the campaign organizing on campus was visible and effective, if annoying. Two main outside groups worked with students and organizations on campus to spearhead organizing at the university during the election. The first was the Democratic Party’s Victory Campaign, which represented Hillary Clinton, Senate Candidate Katie McGinty, and numerous Democratic candidates for state and local office. The other was NextGen Climate, a climate change-oriented super PAC funded by California Businessman Thomas Steyer.
Both progressive organizations held massive voter registration drives on campus and voter engagement events throughout the fall semester. Students joked that they couldn’t walk from the Cohon Center to the library without being asked several times if they were registered to vote, every day, for weeks. It paid off. Organizers from both organizations estimated that, in total, between 2,000 and 3,000 students were registered to vote on campus. Nick Voustinos, the organizer for NextGen Climate, a climate change-oriented super PAC funded by California Businessman Thomas Steyer.
Both progressive organizations held massive voter registration drives on campus and voter engagement events throughout the fall semester. Students joked that they couldn’t walk from the Cohon Center to the library without being asked several times if they were registered to vote, every day, for weeks. It paid off. Organizers from both organizations estimated that, in total, between 2,000 and 3,000 students were registered to vote on campus. Nick Voustinos, the organizer for NextGen Climate, added that students who register to vote on campus are significantly more likely to vote than if they plan to vote absentee in their home jurisdiction. And since many Carnegie Mellon students come from Democratic strongholds like California, New York, and New Jersey, their votes matter a lot more in Pennsylvania.
Still, despite the success on campus, students reported feeling discouraged by the result of the election and by the behavior of the Democratic Party. Victor Vega-Gonzales, a senior studying international relations and politics and statistics, said, “The Democratic Party stands for the right values at its core, but so often it gets its priorities mixed up and uses harmful tactics.” Vega-Gonzales pointed to the DNC, who actively worked during the primaries to support Hillary Clinton and undermine Bernie Sanders,as a prime example of how Democratic Party leaders get in their own way, putting connections and their own pursuit of power over what’s best for the party and the country. “And when politicians give into the pressure from donors from Wall Street and Corporate America,” Vega-Gonzales continued, “it is the energetic, progressive base of the party and the most vulnerable people in society who pay the price.”
His point? If the Democratic Party fails to connect to students, it will struggle to tap into their energy to work on campaigns, and might struggle even to get them to come to the polls. Nationally, students’ concerns about the Democratic Party are reflected in voting statistics. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won voters aged 18-29 by 18 points, a sizable margin, but much smaller than Barack Obama’s 24 point margin over Mitt Romney in 2012. Democrats need to alter course to shore up this crucial advantage. Meanwhile, though the number of young people who identify as “Liberal” increased from 32 percent in 2012 to 37 percent today,the percentage of young Americans registered as Democrats has actually declined. Though young people side with Democrats on policy, they’re hesitant to actually vote for Democrats.
So, those are the lessons that Carnegie Mellon has to offer to the Democratic Party on its path moving forward. First of all, organizing is key, and voter turnout must be an essential piece of the party’s strategy. The party’s success at Carnegie Mellon shows that if you devote the resources and manpower to getting students to vote, they will show up, perhaps even surpassing the national turnout rate. And since students across the country overwhelmingly support Democrats, turning out young voters is a major key to longterm Democratic success, especially in swing states. Second, the Democratic Party must not take young voters for granted, and the party must listen to our frustrations and observations to achieve success moving forward.
To harness our energy and turn out our votes, Democrats need to embrace the grassroots, reclaim the mantel of economic justice, stand unapologetically for social justice, and shed the ties to Wall Street and other corporate interests that make them difficult to trust.