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Students Rally to '04 Campaigns

Presidential race brought pain, joy to undergraduates

By Michael M. Grynbaum, Crimson Staff Writer

Claiming pamphlets, phones, and feet as the tools of their trade, hundreds of Harvard students hopped on the campaign trail last year, dispersing across the Eastern seaboard to snag support for their presidential candidates of choice.

Republicans and Democrats alike canvassed neighborhoods, registered voters, and distributed campaign literature on street corners and in shopping centers. Observers say the closely contested election sparked the highest level of youth participation the nation had seen in decades.

“You know you’re doing something that could decide the election. It could definitely come down to us,” Christopher J. Crisman-Cox ’08, a first-time campaigner, said in October. “There are plenty of free weekends after November 2. Until then, you only have so much time. You have to make the most of it.”

ASCETIC AND PERIPATETIC

Expeditions organized by the Harvard Republican Club (HRC) and the Harvard College Democrats carried students to New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and South Carolina. There, they often slept on cold floors, subsisted on diets of caffeine and candy, and helped coordinate local operations—sometimes even compromising GPA’s in the process.

“It’s one of those things that pulls you right in,” says Anne M. Lewis ’07, an HRC member who worked at the Republican convention in New York last summer. “You don’t mind what you’re doing and you don’t mind that your friends are working half the time you are and getting paid.”

The groups coordinated their efforts with umbrella organizations such as America Coming Together and the national staffs of the John F. Kerry and George W. Bush campaigns. Together, they arranged rides for volunteers—usually involving a borrowed minivan—and provided neighborhood maps and voters’ phone numbers.

Most of the efforts centered on New Hampshire, which, with its border only half an hour north of the Yard, is the closest swing state to Boston. Students who had begun their volunteer work in the Granite State’s primary elections last year returned for another round of canvassing and phonebanking.

“It was the grass-roots side of politics,” says HRC President Matthew P. Downer ’07. “If all politics are local, then New Hampshire is quintessential political campaigning.”

Although the trips cast Harvard’s students far and wide, participants found the canvassing trips an opportunity to strengthen undergraduate organizations back on campus.

“It’s a great way to build your club and bond with your club,” says Mark T. Silvestri ’05, who served as HRC president during the campaign.

He says some Harvard Republicans were paid for their services.

According to Lewis, students were paid about $65 a day for their work on the Bush-Cheney campaign. Non-Harvard workers were also compensated, she says.

Although students flocked to support both major candidates, Harvard remains a blue-state school—73 percent of voting undergraduates supported Kerry, while less than a fifth voiced support for Bush, according to an Institute of Politics (IOP) poll taken four days before the election. Independent candidate Ralph Nader earned three percent of College support.

But the same poll showed Harvardians to be out of line with the political views of average American college students. Bush enjoyed support from nearly 40 percent of students nationally, with just less than 60 percent supporting Kerry.

JUDGMENT DAY

By the time Nov. 2 arrived, students had long anticipated the few brief hours that could either vindicate or void their sacrifices on the campaign trail. The results came quickly—and painfully for some.

Undergraduates headed out to the Kerry rally in Boston’s Copley Square, where drizzling skies and a chilly wind reflected an increasingly cloudy mood in the Democratic camp. Performances by the Black Eyed Peas and others briefly buoyed the crowd, but spirits dwindled as the night wore on. By midnight, a defeat was all but certain.

Kerry-supporter Michael A. Codini ’08 placed politics ahead of academics for the night.

“I have an Ec 10 midterm tomorrow I haven’t studied for one bit, but I consider the election more important,” he said at the rally.

Back at the IOP in Cambridge, the climate was considerably warmer as Harvard College Republicans gathered to watch poll returns roll in.

“There were about two dozen pizzas and we had Fox News turned on and we pretty much celebrated together,” Silvestri says.

In Washington, D.C., several recent Harvard graduates were celebrating Bush’s victory in style at the Republican National Committee’s election-night party in the Ronald Reagan Building.

“At Harvard it seems like being a Republican is evil,” Elizabeth A. Sykes ’04, a Bush-Cheney campaign staffer, said at the event. Behind her, an enormous projection screen flashed the latest numbers from Fox News. “To come here, to be surrounded by so many people who believe in the president like I do—it’s refreshing. It’s so inspirational.”

For those betting on the donkeys, however, the disappointment was palpable.

“People started getting more and more depressed. Those who could drink were drinking heavily,” says Andy J. Frank ’05, who gathered with fellow Kerry supporters at the Cambridge Common bar on election night. Frank, the former president of the Harvard College Democrats, estimates he spent up to 20 hours a week on the campaign in the fall.

“It was just the worst feeling. I just wanted to sleep for the next five days,” he says. “It was one of the most depressing moments of my life.”

A fellow campaign worker, Gregory M. Schmidt ’06, has since succeeded Frank in the College Dems’ top spot. Schmidt insists the election didn’t sour him on politics.

“I came out feeling we’ve got a tough fight ahead of us. I think we came really close. I think the lesson is we have to work harder,” Schmidt says.

AFTER THE STORM

Schmidt says the College Dems are now focused on carrying the policy goals of the election beyond the Kerry defeat.

“We’ve done a lot with the marriage equality issue in Massachusetts,” he says, referring to the struggle over same-sex marriage. The Dems organized regional canvasses this spring, urging residents to lobby their local lawmakers on the issue.

College Republicans say they’re now lining up behind the president, promoting his policy on the ground as best they can.

“We’re all something of foot soldiers, working to advance the president’s agenda,” Downer says. “We’re trying to really hammer home the way it impacts our generation.”

While campus leaders say they have a passion for politics, some won’t be headed to Washington immediately after graduation. Silvestri will attend medical school in the fall, though he says he may return to politics in the future.

Frank, an environmental science and public policy concentrator, starts work this summer at an environmental business firm.

“I was lucky to be involved when it was very exciting,” Frank says, reflecting on the campaign. “Maybe I got a little spoiled. But it’s going to be tough for a couple years, especially Democratic politics.”

He pauses a moment. “I love politics but I don’t necessarily love the campaign process because it can be very frustrating and stressful at times,” he says.

What was his favorite part of the campaign?

“When I thought that we’d won,” he says with a laugh.

—Jessica R. Rubin-Wills and Faryl Ury contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at grynbaum@fas.harvard.edu.

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