One campus divided

They don’t agree on the issues, they don’t even agree on how best to work with their respective parties’ campaigns. But they do have common ground: the USF campus.

With the 2004 presidential election less than a week away, both the USF College Democrats and the USF College Republicans are gearing up for a frantic conclusion to the campaign.

While the College Republicans are largely taking their cue from the Republican Party of Florida, their Democratic counterparts prefer to devise their own campaign strategy.

“We have a cooperative effort, not a coordinated effort,” said College Democrats president John Duddy. “We’re not registered with the College Democrats of America, so we have more flexibility with whom we can deal with and whom we can’t.”

By contrast, the College Republicans’ campaign activities are more likely to be coordinated with the Republican Party of Florida, a factor that College Republicans chairman Matt Strength said makes their efforts more effective.

The 19 year old said he is in contact with Jason Rodriguez, a field representative for the Republican Party of Florida, at least once a week. Field reps from the Washington-based College Republican National Committee have also helped the groups when they set up tables on campus to recruit members and hand out pamphlets.

“We are independent of them and we can do what we want, more or less,” Strenth said. “We take cues from them because they have strategies they see from Washington; you don’t want to be counterproductive.”

During this campaign members of the College Republicans have volunteered to work phonebanks at the local Republican office in Carrollwood, hand out absentee voting info sheets and promotional material and check admission tickets at recent visits to Florida by both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Some College Republicans have also made time to protest during rallies featuring Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, Strenth said.

Duddy said he prefers College Democrats to use the Democratic Party campaign as a support network for events the group organizes on campus. The College Democrats have worked with the national Democratic campaign to bring Leonardo DiCaprio and the children of Kerry and running mate John Edwards to campus. While Duddy organizes venues and coordinates the events, the national campaign publicizes the events through phonebanks.

USF’s College Republicans have not staged similar events but have instead focused on recruiting volunteers and likely Republican voters.

“I’m not sure how effective (events) are,” Strenth said. “We’re more interested in getting votes and volunteers than having a sideshow. The Kerry visit was good for them, but the others I don’t think do much.”

With only 36 percent of people 18-24 voting in the 2000 presidential election and voter turnout among young people declining over the past 30 years, political parties are reluctant to devote too many resources to college campuses, often assigning first-time political interns to oversee them. Duddy said he refuses to work under people he characterizes as more interested in their resumes than political issues.

“They can be somewhat condescending,” he said. “They don’t have a real appreciation for regional politics and how different things are down here compared to the Northeast. They’re not used to this divisiveness, they don’t know how to deal with it.”

Instead, Duddy said he has occasional contact with Florida Democratic Party Chairman Scott Maddox and some Democratic youth coordinators.

But the relationship is not a perfect fit. The 31-year-old grad student said the more progressive-minded perspective found on campuses is not necessarily conducive to the moderate perspective of the national party.

“If it were up to the Democratic Party we never would have sponsored the Michael Moore event,” he said. “They’re scared to death of Michael Moore. But we’re an independent group; we like what he says, we like what he thinks.”

Likewise, literature provided by the Democratic Party campaign is closely scrutinized before the College Democrats will agree to distribute it, Duddy said.

For both groups, Election Day promises to be frenetic.

The College Republicans will have 50 to 75 members walking door to door to encourage Republican voters to visit the polls, Strenth said, while other members will assist in a variety of ways.

“On Election Day we’ll be making phone calls, driving people to the polls and whatever (the Republican campaign) tell us to do,” Strenth said. “I don’t even know what I’ll be doing.”

Across the campus’ political divide the activity will be no less hectic. Duddy said members of the College Democrats will conduct phonebanking, cell phone banking and sending e-mails to reach potential voters.

Despite an Oct. 12 campus straw poll that gave Bush a 1-point advantage over Kerry, Duddy said the College Democrats’ plan is to get as many people as possible to go and vote, believing it will boost the Democratic vote.

“If we can just get them to the polls, we know, contrary to that straw poll, that two or three to one they’re going to vote for Kerry,” Duddy said.

Only once the polls close at 7 p.m. can both groups find out if they have made a difference. Duddy said he has not set specific targets, but will measure success by the voter turnout on campus and the poll numbers that come out of the on-campus precinct.

With the College Republicans attracting more than 500 interested students since it was formed in January, Strenth said 2004 can only be viewed as a success, whatever the result on election night.

“We will have been successful in so much that we’ve built our club for future elections, but, that said, winning is crucial.”

For those who have invested so much effort into the election, watching the results can be nerve wracking. Strenth said he will watch the results come in at a Republican Party bash in downtown Tampa.

For Duddy, the long night is best endured alone.

“I will go to some reclusive bar by myself and be a nervous wreck and just wait for the counting.”