COLLEGE PARK-Standing before a room of about 70 college students recently, Baltimore Mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O’Malley looked at his audience and asked for help.
“Help me in this important race,” he said to the students gathered at the Nyumburu Cultural Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Although students are neither the most reliable nor the most numerous voting bloc in elections, candidates like O’Malley are stepping up efforts to involve them in their campaigns. What they are after is students’ energy and political enthusiasm.
“It’s a really dynamic and turbulent time nationwide,” said Grace Snodgrass, a senior majoring in government and politics and journalism at the University of Maryland. “Students are getting interested in all levels of politics.”
Nicolee Ambrose, national president of the political youth organization the Young Republicans, said college students are an important part of campaigns because of the enthusiasm they bring.
“(College Students) are young and energetic,” she said. “While older volunteers prefer to work the telephones, younger volunteers like to get out and go door-to-door.”
Voters between the ages of 18 and 24 make up about 13 percent of total voters in Maryland, according to information from the Maryland State Board of Elections. In the 2004 election, 47 percent of 18-24 years old voters nationwide turned out to vote, an 11 percent increase from the last presidential election, according to a July 2005 report from The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
Experts and students alike say they have noticed an increase in students’ political involvement.
Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., an independent and non-partisan company that does political polling in Maryland, said the 2004 election was a turning point.
“The 2004 presidential election was like Armageddon for young people,” Haller said. “Across the country there was an incredible amount of volunteerism.”
He said in the past 18 months, “there has been a dramatic increase in activism on the part of students. Before that for probably a decade campuses were extremely quiet, students were uninterested.”
Herb Smith, a professor of government and poltics at McDaniel College in Westminster, agreed. He said the 2006 election has already gotten an unprecedented amount of attention among students.
“There is more interest in this gubernatorial and senatorial race than I’ve ever seen in 33 years of teaching,” he said.
Students and political experts point to many reasons for the upturn in activism: the war in Iraq, concern over higher college tuitions and the possibility that students who participate in campaigns might even earn credits toward their college degrees.
Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at John Hopkins University, said that some Hopkins students have already approached him about getting credit for working in congressional and gubernatorial campaigns, though he said the war in Iraq is the uppermost issue in their minds.
“More than any other issue, (the war) captures the attention of students,” Crenson said, though he noted that the “intense activism” of students during the Vietnam War is not present.
In an interview after his appearance in College Park on Nov. 10, O’Malley recalled that as a student at Catholic University, he had worked in the 1982 presidential campaign of Gary Hart and the experience “opened my mind to the possibility one person can make a difference.”
He said he hoped students involved in his campaign would also learn about public service and its opportunities.
Students who have worked in past campaigns said their experience gave them first hand experience with the government.
“Our government is so accessible; it is easy to have an impact if you get involved and put in a little work,” Ambrose said. “Americans of every age take for granted the impact they can have on every level of government.”
Brian Shuy, a 2005 graduate of the University of Maryland and former chairman of the State Federation of College Republicans, said volunteering for Ehrlich’s 2002 campaign helped him learn about politics first hand.
“You get to know the politicians before they are elected,” Shuy said. “You see the political process in action.”
Both O’Malley and his chief opponent in the Democratic primary, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, have already established student organizations on the College Park campus – Terps for O’Malley and Terps for Duncan – and have statewide college coordinators trying to branch out to other universities in Maryland.
“The goal is to have a good base of support,” said Jahantab Siddiqui, a University of Maryland sophomore who is the statewide college coordinator for the O’Malley campaign. “College students are the most active campaigners.”
Warren Hansen, a junior majoring in history and government and politics and Siddiqui’s counterpart in the Duncan campaign, agrees that college students can be an important factor in a campaign.
“I want college chapters to be an augmentation of campaign plans for that county,” Hansen said. “I don’t want the clubs to be just a social thing … It’s imperative -with the energy and dedication of college students, who have the time to phone bank and go door-to-door – to utilize them.”
So far, student groups have formed to support only Democrats, but the election is still a year away, and already established groups of the College Republicans and Young Republicans are trying to get students involved in the election.
Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, said both groups are “engaged and active and really working on informing their peers.”
The gubernatorial race is not the only campaign starting on campus. Terps for Cardin, an organization supporting the Senate campaign of Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, is also starting to get the word out on campus.
“Politics are on the forefront of what college students are talking about,” said Steven Appelbaum, chairman of Terps for Cardin and a senior at College Park. “As college students we pay tuition, live in the community, and the decisions (elected officials) make have a direct impact on our lives.”
A campaign adviser for Democratic Senate contender Kweisi Mfume, Dan Walter, said he hopes to recruit students to help with grassroots efforts such as working at phone banks, going door-to-door and distributing campaign literature. “Because (students) are enthusiastic, they like to get involved and are a good source of volunteers,” Walter said.