Rousing the college vote

An interview with student political leaders

Twenty million voters between the ages of 18 and 29 turned out for the national election in 2004. That represents about 18 percent of all votes cast, but the potential youth vote is much greater. Some 40.7 million people are in that demographic - twice the number of 66- to 77-year-olds. This prospect is not wasted on politicians and student activists.

With this in mind, the Monitor recently interviewed the head of the College Democrats of America, Grant Woodard, and the leader of the College Republican National Committee, Paul Gourley. This summer began a new term of office for both young men.

Mr. Woodard, a senior majoring in history at Grinnell College in Stratford, Iowa, ran unopposed for his second term. The CDA has chapters in 1,267 colleges across the United States and 75,000 members.

Mr. Gourley, a 2005 graduate of the University of South Dakota, won a close election against California College Republican Chairman Michael Davidson. Gourley will lead more than 200,000 members at 1,300 colleges.

Though at opposite ends of the political spectrum, both men agree that engaging college students is key to invigorating their respective parties. They both share concrete plans to do so.

Some excerpts from telephone interviews:

When you look over the political landscape on college campuses today, what do you see?

Grant Woodard (D): The landscape is very active and very energized. Between 2000 and 2004 it was reported that college students were twice as likely to pay attention to news. At our 2005 convention, we had 700 to 800 students who traveled to D.C. This shows that we're energized, still active, and ready for the fight. There's a new long-term approach to everything, and engaging the youth is key. We are the future.

Paul Gourley (R): Issues are always evolving, and some stay the same. College Republicans work toward maintaining free markets; they want to see strong families, keep taxes low, and protect Second Amendment rights. Because the main mission of our organization is to support President Bush's agenda, judicial nominations, and Social Security reform are on the minds of College Republicans right now.

Is there a 'typical' student attitude toward politics? How has that attitude changed?

Woodard: Everyone used to say that college students were apathetic. In my own experience, college students want to talk about politics either because of a concern for the presidential election or because of an awareness of current global issues. They are realizing that the decisions in Washington are affecting us - from changes in [student] financial aid to changes in the economy. They're wondering, "Why are we spending money on education if the jobs aren't out there?" And they're making the connection to politics.

Gourley: I think College Republicans, specifically, are excited about becoming involved in the process, getting involved in the campaigns, and helping to elect Republicans. I have seen greater interest in the Republican side. The number of registered Republican students has increased greatly, and with that, the amount of involvement and activity on campuses has also increased.

What issues are students most interested in?

Woodard: The economy is important, but financial aid is key. Millions are relying on a college education to get ahead in life. Students are also concerned about foreign policy and healthcare. "College student" is such a broad term that defines a broad range of people. They want to see our elected officials doing more.

Gourley: People want to see an "ownership" society, and that is achieved through personal retirement accounts. Students want Social Security reform, and they're willing to fight for it with rallies, letters to the editor, press conferences, and on-campus debates.

There are a lot of students on campus who are excited for school to start because they want to organize around Social Security reform and other issues. In 2004, we mobilized and organized volunteers more than ever before. In my opinion, we're at our peak.

How do you plan to get more students to care about politics?

Woodard: That involves visiting college campuses. There are so many students that approach us, and we're trying to get ready for upcoming elections. We want to encourage students by putting them on the ground and getting them active in the community, not just around their dorms or at the student union.

Gourley: Every year we send field representatives to students who have taken a semester off or have just recently graduated, and we encourage them to establish branch CRNC chapters, and we mobilize them for issue advocacy to elect Republicans. It's a program that has worked in the past and something that we will continue.

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