The Student Factor: When Cambridge goes to the polls, how much do we matter?
Election Eve Extra
At Harvard's fall registration every year, the city of Cambridge sponsors a table encouraging students to resister to vote in municipal elections. In all the bustle and fan-fare, most students pass the table by. Some, though, do stop and decide to exercise their democratic muscle locally.
This year an estimated 1300 Harvard students registered. Since far fewer students are registered at other colleges in Cambridge, Harvard undergraduates form the bulk of the city's student electorate.
Their vote in the upcoming City Council elections is considered crucial by some candidates. Vice Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves '72, emphasizes the role students can play in choosing the nine city councillors.
"These are elections in which the difference between the ninth and tenth candidate can hinge on 50 votes. So the students' 500 to 600 votes can be decisive," he said.
The candidates emphasizing the Harvard vote most heavily this year are Francis H. Duehay '55 and Reeves. Both are candidates for the Cambridge Civic Association, Cambridge's liberal political alliance.
Duehay's student campaign is particularly ambitious.
"My attempt is to reach every registered student at Harvard with information about my background experience," Duehay said. He added that, because student mailing addresses change yearly, "the problem of campaign mail actually reaching [students] is considerable. Students are not getting as much information about candidates as they should."
Duehay's way around this obstacle is simple: he knocks on the door of every registered Harvard voter. Visiting one house per night, he typically starts door-knocking at around 9 p.m., an hour too late for campaigning in residential areas.
According to Duehay, actually seeing a candidate at their door impresses Harvard students who feel removed from the election.
"Most students are sort of surprised to find me at their doors. But I get a very positive feeling about having been there. I get the feeling they're going to vote, and my visit is influential in that respect," he said.
Reeves said he planned to visit personally as many students as possible before the election. He also campaigned in all the river house dining halls last week.
Candidates who court student votes emphasize a range of liberal issues. David C. Bunker '93, who is running Duehay's Harvard campaign, says these issues are especially important to the left-leaning undergraduate voting population.
"Harvard students tend to be a liberalizing influence on city politics. A lot of students who are more conservative tend not to register here because they find Cambridge too liberal," Bunker said.
As a consequence, Bunker said, Duehay is stressing issues like the environment when campaigning for students' votes. Duehay reminds students that he initiated the city's curbside recycling program last year as head of the Council's Environmental Committee.
According to Bunker, Duehay also stresses health-care and affordable housing issues.
"Although these issues aren't pressing for students now, since they rely on University Health Services and dormitories, students still feel strongly about them," Bamburger said.
Reeves takes a similarly liberal tack in student campaigning. In addition to housing, health care, and environmental concerns, Reeves discusses domestic partnership and University hiring policy.
Reeves said undergraduate voters are interested in his stance in favor of permitting city employees to name domestic partners as recipients of their city benefits. He added that he participated in last year's rallies protesting the lack of professors in Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department.
Incumbent CCA candidate Mayor Alice K. Wolf, who has also visited Harvard dining halls, is stressing women's rights and gay rights as well as rent control in her student campaign.
Voting for the CCA
The unusual party divisions in Cambridge often cause students to vote more uniformly for the CCA candidates, according to Kenneth A. Bamburger '90, Duehay's campaign manager.
"The political battle lines are drawn between patronage city politics and activist politics," Bamburger said. "Most students are progressive, and have no interest in patronage city politics."
Bamburger said it is in the CCA's best interest to encourage students to participate in the election, and less crucial to emphasize the CCA specifically. He said he is confident that most students will be drawn to the CCA candidates when they examine the issues.
Michael P. Cole '94, campus co-coordinator for Duehay's campaign, agreed. "The CCA understands that getting Harvard students to vote will profoundly increase CCA support," he said.
Cole went on to say that "the main reason to vote for an independent candidate is because he or she is from your neighborhood or has done something for you or can get something for you. Virtually nobody at Harvard is in that position."
Cole said that the Cambridge spectrum of political debate on big issues is much farther to the left than the national spectrum. "The issues are discussed within a very liberal framework," he said.
This phenomenon makes Harvard's left-leaning voting population a good target for CCA candidates, Cole said.
Independent candidates vary in their estimation of the importance of the student vote. Incumbent William H. Walsh sends campaign literature to registered students, but doesn't campaign in person on campus. According to Walsh, the student vote isn't terribly significant.
"I've not been able to identify a single candidate who relied on the student vote to get elected," he said.
In addition, Walsh said he believes it is extremely difficult to formulate an effective campaign strategy for targeting the undergraduate population.
"To campaign for students, first you have to identify who'll vote. Next you have to separate the liberals from the moderates, since the independent candidates appeal to more moderate voters."
According to Walsh, the difficulties mount when one considers that Cambridge has approximately 50,000 registered voters, about 23,000 of whom will vote. Walsh estimates that 400 to 600 students vote in city elections, and that no more than half of them would consider a more conservative candidate.
Walsh concluded that heavy student campaigning is impractical for most independent candidates. "We have to run city-wide, and students are not as accessible as other constituents," he said.
Another problem is the commonly-held view that the students vote overwhelmingly for the CCA anyway. Walsh said, "I'm under the impression that the majority of the student vote goes to the CCA. As a rule, the CCA has candidates who are graduates of Harvard, have connections there, and are able to appeal more directly to students."
Independent candidate R. Elaine Noble, however, disagrees with the idea that students are deaf to non-CCA candidates' campaigns. Noble, who stresses sexual minority issues in her campaign, tabled at Harvard and MIT to register students to vote.
"I'm specifically interested in gay students and apprising them of their ability to vote. I need their help," Noble said. According to her estimates, the registration efforts brought in about 700 new student voters.
Noble, who favors banning ROTC from University campuses, said she will do "visiblity campaigning" on campuses, but doesn't plan to visit students in person. She said she is confident she can attract student votes with her record on affirmative action, desegregation and gays' and women's rights.
Impressed with Duehay
For most student voters contacted, however, liberal views will mean a vote for the CCA candidates who have been most visibly campaigning on campus.
Zofia A. Nowakowski '93, who was visited by Duehay last week, was impressed with his defense of rent control.
"He was excellent, and resolved a lot of questions for me," she said. Nowakowski said she didn't plan at the time of the interview to vote for any non-CCA candidates.
July P. Belber '92 said she was concerned about low-cost housing and irresponsible university expansion. "The guy who strikes me as most reasonable is Ken Reeves," she said, citing Reeves's commitment to education and recycling programs.
Rhoda A. Kanaaneh '92 said she was impressed with Ken Reeves, saying he seemed a "pretty progressive liberal." Kanaaneh said she also liked Alice Wolf's support of women's rights and social programs.
It's Up to the Weather
All is speculation, however, until election day, and the weather tomorrow might have a larger impact on student turnout than any of the issues. According to Reeves, student votes are notoriously contingent on meteorological conditions.
"Rain and student votes are historically a bad combination," he said.