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Students report registering more than 6,000 WNC voters
On a sunny morning in September, Tagg Romney, son of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, stood before a few dozen college students and other supporters in the dining room of the Dan’l Boone Inn in Watauga County.
He told the students, mostly members of the Appalachian State University College Republicans, that though it might have been “cool” to vote for President Barack Obama in 2008, “Today, it’s not as cool.”
The plea could have been a paradigm for Tagg Romney’s entire visit – a calculated move to influence 18- to 29-year-old voters who, through their historically high turnout in 2008, carried Obama to victory in North Carolina.
It also made sense, too, that he chose to make this plea in Watauga County. The swing county is both one of the few Democratic strongholds in Western North Carolina and has a large population of young voters. It was one of three counties in Western North Carolina to vote for Obama in 2008. The others were Buncombe and Jackson counties, home to UNC-Asheville and Western Carolina University, respectively.
But the visit wasn’t a product of his political volition alone. It was the result of one college student’s campaigning efforts.
Kelsey Crum, the president of the ASU College Republicans and a member of the group Young Americans for Romney, contacted the Romney campaign and secured Tagg’s appearance.
The next month, Vice President Joe Biden made an appearance at UNCA. There, it was UNCA College Democrats President Caitie Gibbs who secured his visit.
The efforts of Crum and Gibbs are part of a growing trend of activism on WNC’s college campuses, which seems to be happening largely outside of the state’s political establishment. Since 2008, new student political groups have popped up across the region – and, most recently, these groups have reported registering thousands of voters in a state that, most pundits believe, is still undecided in the presidential election.
Building campus-based political activism
The N.C. College Democrats established a new chapter on Western Carolina University’s campus just a year and a half ago. The N.C. Federation of College Republicans federated five new chapters since 2008, including one at UNCA.
It’s a phenomenon that both sides have attributed to Obama’s first term, and, more specifically, his influence on higher education and the post-graduation job outlook in North Carolina.
Walton Robinson, communications director for the N.C. Democratic Party, said the voter turnout among young people in 2008 opened the gate for a new generation of political activists. Rather than mobilizing as the result of statewide parties’ efforts, students have begun to realize the stakes they hold in national and state politics.
“It’s not a one-way equation,” Robinson said. “Young people have to be engaged and want to be part of the process, and since 2008, we’ve seen an increase.”
It’s something that, at least among Democrats, Robinson attributed to Obama’s support of financial aid programs and affordable education – both big issues among college students.
But in the same way some have rallied around access to higher education, students on the other end of the political spectrum have focused on what comes after.
Greg Steele, the president of the NCFCR and a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, has said dwindling job prospects after college have driven many students to actively support Romney, saying the Obama administration hasn’t done enough to secure student’s futures.
“No matter how much someone liked President Obama in 2008 or even today, young people can’t ignore not having a job,” he said in an email.
Republican candidates have capitalized on the fear of joblessness among college students to draw from the historically Democratic voter base.
“I think that their eyes are now open that we’ve got to build the private sector in this country in order for them to get jobs,” gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory said at the ASU College Republican’s football tailgate on Saturday.
Student political groups rally without state party funding
But regardless of party views, student activism in WNC has been self-sustaining, with no monetary support from state parties, and groups have focused primarily on informing and motivating people to vote, no matter their affiliation.
At ASU, College Democrats President Lia Poteet said her organization, alongside the Watauga County Democratic party and Boone’s Obama For America team, have registered more than 5,000 voters this year.
Corey Duvall, WCU’s College Democrats president, said his organization, along with the Honors College, have registered more than 1,000 voters in Jackson County.
These groups have focused on students, whom both sides said have a huge stake in the 2012 elections.
“We’re trying to really emphasize how important it is for students to get involved, to use their voice, because we’re the ones who’re going to be living with these decisions,” Poteet said.
Crum echoed that idea.
“I think the first and foremost (priority) is to inform and to educate and to get students involved,” she said.
At ASU, the College Democrats and College Republicans have jointly held events ranging from candidate forums to debate watch parties.
That’s not to say they haven’t promoted their candidates. But the tenor of activism on WNC’s college campuses has been tame – not because of a lack of dedication, but because many college activists said they share a common goal of facilitating political discourse rather than muddling it with accusations.
Nate Wright, executive vice chair for the NCFCR, said his organization has distanced itself from attacks that some see as routine in elections.
“We’ve positively promoted our candidates because a lot of people have not been happy with negative campaigning from both sides,” Wright said.
Another difference between students and state parties has been the focus on local elections, which both College Democrats and College Republicans have emphasized as their top priority.
“We stay focused mostly on local campaigns, for instance on county commissioners, because we want to make change were students will see it,” Gibbs said.
Still, WNC’s colleges haven’t gone unnoticed by the Obama or Romney campaigns. Romney has campaign offices minutes from WCU and UNCA, while Obama has set up campaign offices near UNCA and ASU.
But the accessibility and proximity of grassroots campaigning appeals to students who see it as their backyard entry to national politics.
“It starts with local candidates,” Crum said.
Visit ELECTION 2012 for Carolina Public Press’ election coverage.