College students get into politics

As state races gear up, so does enthusiasm


Standing before a room of about 70 college students last month, 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 are stepping up efforts to involve them in their campaigns. "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 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."

People ages 18 to 24 make up about 13 percent of the voters in Maryland, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections.

In the 2004 election, 47 percent of 18- to-24-year-old voters nationwide turned out to vote, an 11 percent increase from the previous presidential election, according to a report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Experts and students say they have noticed an increase in students' political involvement. Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., an independent and nonpartisan 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 politics 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 increase in activism: the war in Iraq, concern over higher college tuition and the possibility that students who participate in campaigns might earn credits toward their college degrees.

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the John Hopkins University, said that some Hopkins students have 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 in Washington, he had worked in the 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 campaigns said it gave them firsthand 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. Bryan Shuy, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland and former chairman of the State Federation of College Republicans, said volunteering for Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s 2002 campaign helped him learn about politics.

"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 Douglas M. 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."

Beth Ward writes for the Capital News Service.

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