On N.H. Campuses, Primary's Presence is Hard to Miss

Feb 8, 2016

Neither Morgan Brady nor Danielle Martin has made it to one of the dozens of political events hosted at their school, Saint Anselm College, in the last year.

“We’re nursing students,” Martin explained, somewhat apologetically. “So we spend a lot of time in the labs. We don’t see much sunlight.”

Still, that doesn’t mean they haven’t felt the primary’s near omnipresence on their campus.

(Scroll down for an interactive to hear student voices from across New Hampshire sound off on the primary.)

A few yards away in Davidson Hall Thursday night, a national news station had effectively taken over half of the dining area. A large stage and spotlights towered just on the other side of a curtain as students picked at their meals.

The campus gym, Martin said, had been shut down for the last week in preparation for the Republican debate hosted by Fox News. A few days ago, Brady passed Jeb Bush on her way to class.

Saint Anselm College has done double-duty as a campaign set for most of the last year. Here, the dining area shares space with a network stage.
Credit Casey McDermott, NHPR

  “It made me wish I was a politics major for the week,” Brady added. “Because you really don’t realize everything that goes into it until you’re sitting here seeing it.”

College campuses across New Hampshire have served as the backdrop for town halls, candidate forums, debates, roundtables, rallies and more. But the schools, in some cases, are much more than just scenery.

Students at Keene State University said it’s rare not to run into campaign representatives on the quad or in the student center, recruiting students to volunteer or to vote.

At both Dartmouth and New England College, students said that volunteers for Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, for example, had taken to canvassing door-to-door in the dorms. (Students at schools across New Hampshire, on both sides of the political spectrum, said the Sanders campaign had the strongest ground game on campus.)

The presidents of the College Republicans and College Democrats on campuses across the state are routinely courted to help arrange candidate appearances, or to allow campaign workers to make direct pitches to their members.

The Keene State Democrats set up shop at the student center to encourage students to register to vote in the primary.
Credit Casey McDermott, NHPR

 And in an election where Super PACs are increasingly taking on the trappings of traditional campaigns, even these groups are turning to campuses for student support.

“A lot of the campaigns look at college campuses sort of like the bonus area – something that, if you have everything else accounted for, you can maybe do some outreach there,” says Grant Shaffer, state director for New Day For America, a super PAC supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “With a small state, and with a very tight race, we believe that college campuses can be one of the key difference makers.”

Dartmouth’s enrollment is about 6,200. Keene State’s is just shy of 5,000. Larger campuses, like the University of New Hampshire, offer some 15,000 potential student votes up for grabs —  or student volunteers up for picking up the kind of grunt work that serves as the lifeblood of any campaign.

New Day, for its part, has been trying to build a presence at Dartmouth for months. The PAC put field offices in places like Lebanon, Keene and Durham so they’d be close enough to have an active presence on nearby campuses. Like a traditional campaign, the group recruits students to go door-knocking and has equipped its student volunteers with a smartphone app that allows them to make calls between classes or from their dorm.

From a practical standpoint, New England College political science professor Wayne Lesperance says it makes sense that campuses are prime recruiting centers for campaigns of all kinds.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship, it’s really a dependency,” Lesperance says. “You need those young folks who are willing to give up incredible time for either no wages or a slice of pizza, just to get through. And on the student side, they are true believers. I mean, the passion that they develop for their candidates and their campaigns — it’s really impressive.”

At New England College, it's not unusual for students to see several presidential candidates in one week.
Credit Casey McDermott, NHPR

Of course, Lesperance will also be the first to tell students they don’t have to work on a campaign —  or be a politics major —  to engage with the primary.

Since he arrived at NEC in 1999, he’s made it part of his mission to get students in front of as many political events as possible. Three months after he started, the school hosted then-Sen. John McCain.

This year, they’ve hosted almost all of the presidential candidates who’ve campaigned actively in New Hampshire. In the past week alone, they've hosted Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Chris Christie -- rounding out with a Saturday town hall with Hillary Clinton, billed as a chance to "Ask Hillary Anything."

“When I recruit students to NEC, I tell them you will meet the next president of the United States,” he said. “And if you stick with me, you’ll get to introduce them at an event, you’ll get to hang out with them in a room and have a conversation with them. It is really unique.”