The road to 2020: Campus groups start gearing up for election season

With primaries approaching, campus political organizations are already trying to engage voters and refine platforms

Since the polarizing results of the 2016 election, voters on both ends of the political spectrum have been eagerly waiting for 2020. Now, with Election Day roughly a year and a half away, political organizations have already begun fine-tuning their strategies for the primaries.

Campus groups at ASU are no different. After a record turnout for young voters in the 2018 midterms, many organizations are feeling hopeful that this number will only grow by 2020. Voter registration among minorities and young people rose significantly since 2014, which may have made all the difference in the outcome of the midterm elections.

According to a report from TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, voter registration among people aged 18-29 raised by 7.6 percent in Arizona between the 2014 and 2018 midterms. 

Organizations like the Arizona Democratic Party, the Arizona Republican Party and NextGen America have made nationwide efforts in the past few years to encourage both voter registration and voter turnout. These attempts also continue on university campuses, both through campus chapters of these organizations and independent groups.

Jeremiah Willett, a junior majoring in economics and the newly-elected president of the ASU chapter of College Republicans, said that one common tactic for political organizations is to table around campus and promote engagement with other students.

The groups can often be seen behind folding tables around the Memorial Union and by Hayden Library, especially during an election cycle. 

On the other side of the aisle, the sentiment is much of the same. 

Emma Galligan, a freshman majoring in political science and the director of communications for the Young Democrats at ASU, said that the club tables every Thursday.

Third-party groups on campus, such as the Young Democratic Socialists of America at ASU and College Libertarians, table as well, despite having to take a slightly different approach to outreach and education, as not as many students are familiar with their platforms.

"We're at a disadvantage because not too many people know what the Libertarian party is," said David Howman, president of the College Libertarians and a graduate student studying justice studies. "Still not a lot of people know what we stand for." 

Howman added that though tabling has its limits — for example, people may not be comfortable approaching organizations they're not already familiar with — the group will become more involved in outreach as the primaries approach, including by hosting meetings with candidates and attending convention. 

"Once the nominee is chosen, we'll likely be doing a lot of work to promote the ticket, which means tabling, canvassing, phone banking and things like that," Howman said.

These campus groups play a vital role in convincing young people to turnout to the polls, according to DJ Quinlan, a Democratic political consultant with Radar Strategies.

"It’s important for these student organizations to really do the hard work that other folks aren’t going to," he said. "Which is having face-to-face conversations with your friends and your neighbors about why it is so important to vote."

As the candidate pool continues to grow before the primary season starts, campus groups are taking different approaches to endorsing candidates. 

YDSA at ASU, for example, is already publicly supporting Bernie Sanders, despite disagreeing with a number of his policies, according to a statement from Benjamin Cooper, a junior majoring in history and the group's agitprop director, and the YDSA Central Committee. 

"We do have reservations about his refusal to support key policies championed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) nationally and our chapter, such as abolishing borders, support for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, and reparations for colonialism and slavery," the statement said.

Despite this, Sanders’ liberal policies, such as a Green New Deal, Medicare for All and College for All drove the group to announce their endorsement. 

"By endorsing such a candidate we send a strong message about what our values are to students and prospective voters," the group said.

Meanwhile, Young Democrats at ASU is not going to endorse any candidate, choosing instead to act as a bridge between students who want to get involved and various organizations and campaigns who are looking for volunteers.

"As a group, we will never endorse one specific candidate, but we provide a lot of different ways for people to get involved in the election cycle," Galligan said. "We have a lot of connections with Mark Kelly and stuff. So, we’re the in-between people — we can connect them to the campaigns they want to get involved in and help to educate them on issues."

Read more: From NASA astronaut to 2020 U.S. Senate candidate: Mark Kelly visits ASU's Tempe campus

The College Libertarians at ASU land somewhere in the middle, having only five possible Libertarian candidates on the ballot. Rather than endorsing these candidates, they are hoping to send some of their members to the Libertarian convention, where the nominee will be chosen, in Austin, Texas, in May. 

Willett said that the College Republicans' focus for the near future, including the upcoming election season, is to encourage a civil dialogue on campus. 

This comes soon after College Republicans United engaged in, and eventually apologized for, racist and sexist comments in private chats. The apology was issued after public outcry, and Willett said that he wants to make sure his own organization is not confused with CRU by students on campus. 

Read more: College Republicans United apologizes for racism amid outcry

"I don’t want to give them too much more attention," he said, "but I want to emphasize that we do not approve of, and are no way affiliated with that group."

Willett says that the way to start these discussions is to "show them that we don’t tolerate racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic comments." He explained that once that happens, it is easier for the group to discuss topics that are important to students.

All of these groups will face an increasingly polarized political field in 2020. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 60% of voters viewed their vote as "either a vote for or against President Donald Trump."

But in spite of this, voters can still consider a wide variety of principles during election season, especially young ones.

"You’re going to see a lot of activity on campus heading into the fall and spring next year with the presidential primaries and the big U.S. Senate race," Quinlan said. "I think that the last few elections in Arizona, with how close the two parties are here, youth turnout has been and will continue to be the single biggest factor in determining these races."

Galligan said that groups like the Young Democrats at ASU have "a really wide umbrella of beliefs," which can help them combat polarization within the group and with other political ideologies.

"This next semester is going to be so crucial for everyone to get involved, and so if they have any questions, they should reach out to any organization that they think aligns with their political beliefs," Galligan said.

Editor's note: Benjamin Cooper is a former columnist for State Press Magazine.


Reach the reporter at cfusillo@asu.edu or follow @KatieFusillo on Twitter. 

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