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The Obama/McCain battle finds unlikely field generals on New Orleans college campuses

In a particularly prescient January issue the week before Super Tuesday, Time magazine declared 2008 "The Year of the Youth Vote." Standing behind a "Barack Obama for President" table on the Tulane University quad less than one month before Election Day, Lauren Anderson is putting that theory into practice.

'Right now, Louisiana's 50 percent (John) McCain, 43 percent Obama, and there's 7 percent undecided," says Anderson, a Tulane senior and the deputy field coordinator of New Orleans universities for the political action group Students for Barack Obama. "But that's not taking into account the youth vote. [The campaign is] thinking once we put the youth vote in there, the people who they're not [polling], that we really have a good potential to change it."

At the other end of the quad, a hundred or so yards away from the group gathering at Anderson's table, another line of Tulane students is entering and exiting a charter bus in single file. It's the Bush Legacy Bus — a mobile, biodiesel-fueled museum of sorts, currently on a national tour geared toward getting younger voters to make a break from the policies of the current administration.

A host of multimedia exhibits inside the narrow vehicle speaks the universal language of the collegiate age: snark. Under the words "The Grand Oil Party," an old-timer's gas pump at the rear of the bus has a touchscreen display comparing fuel prices and corporate profits over the last eight years. "The Bush-conservative prescription for health care: Take two insurance lobbyists and call me in the morning," a second headline reads. One wall is devoted entirely to the war in Iraq, while parts of others address 9/11 and the botched governmental response to the levee failures in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

The Bush bus stop and Obama information table are just two of Anderson's tools for motivating college students to get involved in the political process in the final weeks leading up to the election. "All of the registration drives have been huge," she says. "Xavier had this Battle for the Vote rally right before a basketball game, and they had so many people come out. Dillard is huge right now. For Tulane, I really think it's going to be that rally on [Tuesday, Oct. 21]. We're inviting all the other schools."

Rally for Change, a quad party organized by Anderson on behalf of Students for Barack Obama, is the only event to incorporate multiple schools in the New Orleans area. She says most functions, such as debate watch parties and voter-registration rallies, have been inter-campus only. "Statewide, we're trying to get 40 percent of each college identified as Obama supporters," she explains. "We have 18 schools identified, so we have a Students for Barack Obama person at each one."

Of those schools, Anderson says seven are in greater New Orleans. "There are two of us that are working together for all of the New Orleans universities," she says.

Just how influential the local college vote will be is still in question. Brian Brox, a professor in Tulane's political science department, encourages the increased participation and confirms that students are widely absent in polling numbers. "So many of them are on cell phones now," he says. "Even if they have a landline in the dorm, they're not using that as their traditional form of communication."

But Brox, who advises the Tulane College Republicans, cautions against wild optimism. "I don't know what other campuses are like — particularly a place like LSU would be dominated by Louisiana residents — but a school like Tulane, we have a lot of strategic voters here," he says. "Yeah, they might be missed by polling, but they also might not be Louisiana voters. I know a number of students at Tulane are registering absentee in home states that are more of a battleground."

Ashley Coleman, a junior from Georgia who is double-majoring in political science and Latin American studies, remains undeterred. She is registered in Louisiana, and as the president of the Tulane College Democrats, she says the opposed student groups are teaming up to drive young-voter turnout in November.

'We've tried to do some coordinating events — we had [an unofficial] "keg kill' with them a couple weeks ago," she says. "It's our biggest fundraiser; we do it every semester. We're trying to do a student-led debate with them and the Roosevelt Institution as the moderator. It's coming together."

The across-the-aisle collaboration is a new effort this year, according to Cody Dickerson, a sophomore studying international relations and president of the Tulane College Republicans. "We've worked together on a number of things — that partnership hasn't been there in recent years," he admits.

Still, Coleman can't resist a small partisan jab, given her party's recent surge in the polls. "I know that they're having a really difficult time this semester, just with the way that Obama's message is really hitting home with young people," she says. "They have a lot of obstacles that they're trying to overcome. So, while I feel for them, I'm not really too upset."

The ramped-up enthusiasm on New Orleans campuses is a microcosm of what is shaping up to be a nationwide youth movement. David Burstein, a 19-year-old student filmmaker at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, embarked on a two-year tour following the 2004 election season, interviewing politicians and celebrities on the potential impact in 2008 of the 29 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 24. It resulted in 18 in "08, a documentary that has since grown into a Rock the Vote-style registration drive. As of early October, the effort had resulted in 23,000 new registrants.

'There is a tendency to categorize our generation as obsessed with Angelina, Britney and Xboxes," Burstein wrote in a 2007 essay for Politico.com. "But more than ever, our generation wants to make a difference; we just have no reason to believe politics is a way of doing that."

They may be starting to believe. A September poll of Americans ages 18-29, conducted by USA Today and MTV, found that 75 percent were registered to vote. Of the 903 participants, 61 percent said they would vote for Barack Obama.

Robert Cade Cypriano, a senior studying political science, is president of the Student Government Association at Loyola University New Orleans and the conservative co-chair of the school's nonpartisan Society for Civic Engagement. He believes Obama has managed to circumvent the cynicism Burstein cited by connecting with younger voters on their terms — namely, via text messages and online social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.

'Obama has had one of the best-run campaigns with respect to the pitch toward young voters and first-time voters," Cypriano says. "His multimedia interface is just far superior to other candidates. He uses a medium that is easily accessed and understood or digested by younger voters."

It's a notion that is reaffirmed by Obama's local collegiate supporters. "He's reaching out," Tulane's Anderson says. "He takes [us] seriously, and he makes [us] feel like [we] can do something about the problems that we're having. He makes issues that are important to us important to him."

Both Cypriano and Brox also see a high level of engagement on the conservative side, though it's less fervent by comparison.

'There's a smaller contingent of students who support John McCain; they're doing it through Campus Conservatives of Loyola University," Cypriano says. "It's much smaller (than the Loyola Students for Barack Obama), but well organized."

'As is the case with the country in general, there's a little less intensity among the Republicans," Brox observes. "There's some very active ones, but the amount of overall intensity among the Republicans is a little bit less. Also, there's just fewer Republicans. The demographic Tulane tends to draw, we tend to be more of a liberal than a conservative campus."

But Dickerson, who also acts as the secretary of the Louisiana Federation of College Republicans and the Southeast Louisiana chair of Students for John McCain, refutes the notion that Obama has already won the war for the young vote. "We've had a surprising amount of independents that are coming to us instead of the Democrats," he says, "because they're starting to realize that yes, [Obama's ideals] are terrific, but we have to work towards those goals and be realistic about it at the same time."

The contest extends to the congressional races as well. Brox says the Tulane College Republicans have met with Joseph Cao, who will run against either Bill Jefferson or Helena Moreno for the Second Congressional District seat. "But you can tell by talking with them that they're not as enthusiastic about that race," he says. "They're trying to get as involved as they can with the (John) Kennedy/(Mary) Landrieu race, but because Kennedy's base of support is so far away from the New Orleans region, and Landrieu is strong down here, it's kind of hard to get involved with that."

Coleman says Tulane College Democrats are similarly working to secure a school visit by Landrieu. "Most of the students are not from Louisiana, so they don't really know a lot of the local elected officials," she adds. "A lot of people haven't grasped how important that Senate race is. We're really trying to get people out and interested in that."

Healthy attendance at a Kennedy/Landrieu debate on Oct. 15 is one sign that the tide may be turning for the student G.O.P., Dickerson argues. He also points to off-campus activities such as neighborhood canvassing and intra-school participation as a strength of the Tulane College Republicans.

'I've been working a lot with UNO and Loyola and Southeastern Louisiana University to get as many people out and interested as we can," Dickerson says. "At all these other institutions, people — young Republicans, young students — are getting involved. It's really amazing. Even if they're at a school where there might not be political clubs on campus, people are actively seeking — we don't even need to recruit, which I think is terrific."

With Oct. 6 — the deadline for Louisiana voter registration — having come and gone, efforts at Tulane have pivoted from signing up students to turning them out.

'We're really trying to get out the vote," Anderson says. "We're getting all of these supporter sheets signed at each school, and then we're gonna call people: "Hey, do you want to go vote early? Do you need help getting to the polls?'"

Dickerson hopes that, above all, the increased enthusiasm leads to a sustained level of interest. "I've noticed that a lot of people aren't just excited for this election season, but they're really planning to get more involved in other issues," he says. "Getting involved in politics and grass-roots (organizing), you don't do it just because you want a future in politics, but because it is in fact a form of community service. It's the best way to really start making a difference in our country."

At Loyola, Cypriano says that nonpartisan policy education is a central focus. "[LSCE] had a voter information fair," he says. "They allowed different school constituencies to give their pitch for different issues; it wasn't endorsing a specific candidate. That's how most of the political stuff is done on campus, for funding reasons."

Only 25 percent of respondents in the USA Today/MTV poll listed the economic crisis as a chief concern. But Cypriano recalls a series of popular forums held by the Loyola business school to discuss the economic policies of both candidates.

'They had a highly attended forum with Dr. (William) Barnett, who is a well-respected economist in New Orleans," he says, "and Walter Block, the world-famous Austrian (School) economist that Ron Paul always talks about."

Neither candidate is positing Louisiana as a battleground, and it's unlikely the state's nine votes will be a factor in deciding the next president of the United States. But, Brox warns, never count out the potential for surprise when it comes to Electoral College math.

'I think it's within the realm of possibility," he says. "But it's beyond just the reach of the students in the state. What we would have to be seeing is some unbelievable motivation as well as some pretty significant increases in turnout in the African-American community in Louisiana. So I don't think the students could do it alone."

Activists at actual colleges, however, continue to take that jigger of realism with a chaser of blind hope. "I'm really optimistic," Coleman says. "If you had talked to me two days after the RNC, I would have been singing a completely different tune. But the debates and the economy have been huge. I'm very confident."

click to enlarge Ashley Coleman, president of Tulane College Democrats, stands in front of the Bush Legacy Bus. She and other college students are working to get young voters to turn out for the November presidential election. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Ashley Coleman, president of Tulane College Democrats, stands in front of the Bush Legacy Bus. She and other college students are working to get young voters to turn out for the November presidential election.
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