The (Battle) Ground Game

This election season, the conventional wisdom no longer seems to apply, especially with regard to the perennial “battleground states.” Traditionally thought to include Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, recent polling indicates that traditionally-red states, like North Carolina and Virginia, could come into play, possibly contributing the deciding electoral votes to Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

Harvard students as a whole have overwhelmingly made up their mind: nearly 80 percent of those polled in the Crimson’s Election Survey said that they will be voting for Obama, compared to just 10 percent who will cast their ballots for Republican John McCain.

But despite that fact, activists from both sides have remained energetic in the days leading up to the election—particularly those from battleground states who feel that their efforts might have an outsized influence on the outcome of the election.

THE 8TH DISTRICT

Meaghan M. Riether ’12 joined the Harvard College Democrats’ efforts before she even arrived on campus in September—seeing the energy at a meeting during Prefrosh Weekend last spring was all it took.

“It was one of the only meetings I went to over the weekend, and I knew immediately that I had to be a part of this election now on campus,” she says. “I wanted to be involved no matter what because this is such an important election, but to he here, to have the resources that are available to us, it was just right.”

The Pennsylvania native has spent her first few months on campus convincing friends—at Harvard and especially those back home—to register to vote.

She hails from the Keystone State’s 8th district, generally considered to be a bellwether district for the country, as does Allison L. Sikora ’11, another member of the Harvard Dems.

Sikora, who worked in her congressman’s office in Washington this past summer, started a Facebook group to give her friends from high school information on how to register to vote in Pennsylvania.

Though initial interest was not as high as she hoped, she says the media hype accompanying both presidential candidates’ frequent visits to her home state has convinced more young people to register.

“To some degree a lot of my friends are more interested in the election because the media has built it up so much,” she said. “But I think it’s exciting in general for college students voting for the first time.”

Though she agreed with Riether that Pennsylvania’s position as a battleground state adds to the excitement because her vote “has a lot of weight to it,” she says she thinks interest may have peaked during the Democratic primary.

“With all the media attention to Pennsylvania as a key state,” Sikora said, “when it didn’t really decide much, I think some of my friends back home felt a little cheated.”

Though she convinced the Dems to travel to Pennsylvania’s 8th district for one of their weekly canvassing trips, Sikora has resigned herself to just hearing about the battleground state excitement from the deeply-blue Massachusetts.

“I could have heard Obama speak and gone to a Bruce Springsteen concert for free back home,” she jokes. “What am I doing in Boston?”

BEHIND ENEMY LINES

After it went to the Democratic candidate in both 2000 and 2004, Michigan was slated to be the site of another tough battle in this election cycle.

So when McCain announced that he would cease campaigning in the Great Lakes State, Harvard Republican Club President and Michigander Colin J. Motley ’10 was more than a little disappointed.

Although he is still trying to help out the McCain effort back home, he has focused his energy most recently on supporting fellow Republicans at Harvard.

“We want to foster a welcoming environment for Republicans who feel under siege because of the overwhelming liberal environment here,“ Motley said.

Though they lack some of the resources of the Harvard Dems, Motley thinks his group of conservatives can play an important role come election day (see story, p. C16).

“We haven’t been funded by financiers from overseas to go to other states,” Motley said, referring to the American expatriates in Italy who had offered to pay for a Harvard Dems trip to Pennsylvania that was ultimately canceled. “But we’re making sure that members on campus are registered to vote with absentee ballots. One vote may not be the difference, but you never know.”

Motley has been joined by a number of eager conservatives among the student body, including Florida native Hunter S. Gaylor, a student at the Harvard Extension School.

Gaylor, who joined the Harvard Republicans upon arriving on campus, said that he was confident that McCain would win the Sunshine State, though by a close margin.

“Florida is a vital state to the Republican cause,” Gaylor said. “There’s a strong conservative population there, and many of the independent voters don’t want to see a Democrat elected to the White House when they already control Congress.”

During his senior year of high school, Gaylor campaigned for local candidates as well as for McCain, who he supported in the primaries, by going door to door, distributing yard signs, attending fundraising events, and handing out brochures. The Floridian has kept up his efforts at Harvard, campaigning door to door in New Hampshire for McCain and phonebanking at the Massachusetts GOP headquarters in Boston.

Despite many polls showing a consistent Obama lead in recent days, Gaylor was quick to criticize anyone trying to prematurely declare the race over.

“This election is very close, but the media is blowing Obama’s small lead out of proportion,” Gaylor said. “Obama’s got a small lead for sure, but it’s too close to call.”

—Staff writer Prateek Kumar can be reached at kumar@fas.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer Nathan C. Strauss can be reached at nstrauss@fas.harvard.edu.