For all the uncertainties of a presidential campaign, one thing is clear after a morning following Madeline McGill as she rings doorbells in Nashua, N.H., for Hillary Clinton: the animals in this neighborhood are more sociable than the people.
A cat crosses the street to be petted, and a preternaturally massive Rottweiler on a wire joyfully bounds across its yard to lick McGill (CAS’16) and play. By contrast, the hard-to-miss student—she’s six-foot-three—goes largely unseen by fellow Homo sapiens. Out of almost 30 addresses on her list, most people aren’t home this sunny late-fall Saturday. One who clearly is (music blares from the house) doesn’t answer, turning off the tunes after McGill knocks, two others who do answer aren’t interested in hearing about Clinton, and the only other person who comes to the door says the person on McGill’s list doesn’t live here.
McGill, who has canvassed in past campaigns—it’s how she met her boyfriend—takes it all cheerfully in stride. She leaves Clinton brochures at each unanswered door, finding not-always-obvious spots to stick them. “You have to get kind of creative. See, New Hampshire people lock their storm doors,” this old pro says.
Elections interest McGill more than they do most people; she’s a political science major and vice president of BU’s College Democrats, and the canvas marked her fourth trip to New Hampshire for Clinton. She’s also far from alone in plunging into this unorthodox presidential campaign. With raucous contests for both parties’ nominations and the real-life laboratory of next-door New Hampshire, home to the nation’s first primary February 9, Terriers Democratic and Republican are getting a hands-on seminar in American politics.
Corey Pray (CAS’17), College Republicans vice president, has ferried groups of students north via Zipcar for various events, while he himself volunteered for the campaign of former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as a community captain, handling duties from door greeter to distributor of candidate stickers to on-campus advocate for Fiorina.
“There is a lot of excitement around this election, and there are a lot of very active students on campus,” says Morgan Frost (CAS’16), president of College Democrats and a supporter of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has excited campus followings nationally with his focus on economic inequality.
While no one has polled BU students on their presidential picks (until now—see accompanying poll above), party leaders say the campus dynamic is the flip side of what’s playing out nationally in both parties. Among Republicans nationwide, Donald Trump nurses a long-standing lead, but on campus, “I would say Florida Senator Marco Rubio has become the front-runner among BU College Republicans,” says Ava Mack (CAS’17), the group’s president.
“We held a debate viewing party for the club for the October 28 GOP debate…and the consensus was almost always that Carly and Marco were doing the best,” says Rubio supporter Michael Holtz (CAS’18).
On the Democratic side, editorialists are hitting the thesaurus to find new adjectives for Clinton’s formidable lead nationally (although polls show her either trailing or neck and neck with Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire). But while she boasts ample support among University students, “I think many would conclude that Bernie is the more popular candidate at BU,” McGill acknowledges. (Support for the third Democrat in the race, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, is so scant that an effort to start a BU group for him fizzled, she says.)
What fuels student passion for these pols? Frost, a Sanderista, prizes sincerity, and Sanders throughout his career has advocated for “minorities, women, veterans, and LGBTQ+ community,” she says. His shunning big donors and his support for causes like affordable college and health care also drew her.
McGill leaned towards Sanders until attending a New Hampshire candidates forum in September. Clinton awed her with detailed comments on how problems like opioid addiction played out in the Granite State; Sanders offered a speech she found on-target, but boilerplate. “I felt that Hillary understood the needs of the individual very specifically,” while “his speech didn’t ring true to me. There are a lot of things in the United States in my opinion that don’t need reform.”
Among Republicans, Holtz likes Rubio for his stand on a litany of issues, from cutting corporate taxes to supporting the Black Lives Matter movement to opposing a higher minimum wage and creating a stronger military presence.
Pray, by contrast, likes Fiorina more for her personal biography and average-folks experience: starting her career as a receptionist, losing a stepdaughter to substance abuse and bulimia, surviving breast cancer. “She’s not a professional politician. She’s a citizen leader who, just from what I know, is a very authentic person.…She’s running for the right reasons,” he says.
Ohio Governor John Kasich, who polling suggests is gaining in New Hampshire, appeals to Caroline Giovannucci (CAS’18) as the moderate in the race, supporting tax cuts and gun rights while attending a gay friend’s wedding despite opposing same-sex marriage. “The party is labeled as very extreme, and yet here is a man…who could work with both Democrats and Republicans due to his more moderate stances and ability to compromise,” she says.
Burning rubber to New Hampshire while burning the midnight oil studying is a balancing act; McGill says her fall independent study project had been “terribly neglected.” But those disinclined to peel away from their academics can still participate in the election. Besides both campus groups’ debate-viewing gatherings, “BU for Bernie has been focusing more of their efforts on campus and around Boston,” with canvassing and phone banks, says Frost.
The downside of intrusions on study time is balanced for political junkies by the payoff from working on a campaign for the highest office in the land. McGill recalls that during her first canvas, in a Boston neighborhood for a gubernatorial candidate in 2014, “the first conversation I had changed the way I see politics forever. The feeling of talking to someone, especially a student, and getting the sense that you might have convinced them to participate in a way they might not have…is an incredible feeling.”
If a student canvasses or participates in a phone bank just once, she says, “they’ll vote for the rest of their life.”
Campuses are famously liberal places, but officers in both the Democratic and the Republican groups put their active student membership in the same range (35 for the Democrats, 40 for Republicans). Generalizing about ideology is trickier, Frost says: “I do think that socially, our student body leans left, in terms of things like marriage and gender equality and climate justice.” But “the economic issues are a bit more difficult to gauge.”59 Comments