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Cal Republicans Lonely But Brave

New America Media, News Feature, Annette Fuentes Posted: Nov 04, 2008

Editor's Note: This year, UC Berkeley has been gripped with election fever like never before. But the College Republicans manning the McCain-Palin table seemed to be holding down the fort, not rallying the troops as they had hoped, reports NAM education editor Annette Fuentes.

BERKELEY, Calif. -- On Election Day morning, throngs of students mixed with sign-toting campaigners at the entrance to Sproul Plaza, the bustling hub of activities at the University of California, Berkeley campus. A dozen men who looked like firefighters carried placards urging a 'Yes' vote on Proposition GG to fund Berkeley's firehouses. Several college-age women proffered literature on Prop. 1A, which would fund high-speed rail transportation. Others waved signs opposing Prop. 8, the measure to ban same-sex marriage.

This year, Cal, as the elite university is known, had election fever.

But halfway down the rows of tables staffed by the various student-run organizations that line the wide plaza, there sat one table where the mood was anything but energized. Perhaps sober, or resigned, describe the vibes coming from the Berkeley College Republicans (BCR) table on Election Day. The literature and banners promoting McCAIN-PALIN were prominently displayed, but the young Republicans covering the table seemed to be holding down the fort not rallying the troops.

And who could blame them? Not only were they smack-dab in the beating heart of one of the nation's most liberal some would say leftist universities, an epicenter of Obamamania, they were also swimming against a powerful tide among young people all across the country who've been not only registering to vote but choosing the Democratic Party in the highest numbers of a generation, according to surveys. A survey by Editor & Publisher magazine of 64 college newspaper editorials, showed 63 were for Obama and one was for McCain.

"The political dialogue has definitely been one-sided on this campus," said Danae Condos, a BCR member who was tabling at 11 a.m. "When people do come to the table, they're more curious as to why we would vote for McCain and Palin than in finding out about their positions."

There is no question that being an active Republican student at Cal has always brought with it some outsider status because they've been significantly outnumbered by Democratic students; even at their club, which boasts the largest membership of any college Republican club in California.

But the level of interest in electoral politics this season has increased, and it is predominantly flavored Democratic. "This year, the ratio of Democratic to Republican student voters is 10 to 1," said Dionne Jirachaikitti, vice president of external affairs for the ASUC, the student government.

While that lopsided ratio isn't brand new, the number of students ASUC's voter registration drive has signed up since the summer is a record-breaker: 9,424. In 2004, for the last presidential election, ASUC registered 6,634 new voters among Cal students. So, this year, the group set a goal of 10,000and very nearly reached it. "We shattered the record of 2004," said Jirachaikitt. "We are doing phone banking today and making sure they get out to vote."

In all the electoral activity, though, the BCR members were missing, Jirachaikitt said, even though the student government and its activities are nonpartisan. "This year, the Republicans decided not to be part of our coalition. But the Democrats were."

If BCR decided to keep a low profile, it's understandable and perhaps wise for now. Their party, after eight years in power, is seeing the pendulum swing to the other side with a strong kick from young people. According to polls conducted by the New York Times and CBS News in September 2008, 35 percent of registered voters ages 18 to 29 are Democrats, compared to 23 percent Republicans and 32 percent Independents. Historically, voters over age 30 were more likely to be Democrats and younger voters trended heavily Republican during the early 1990s. No more.

The other key change is simply that those same young people are registering to vote, and more important, actually voting. The same polling data showed that the under-30 cohort was a higher sector of the electorate for the Democratic primaries this spring than in the 2004 elections. In some states, the change was significant: under-30 voters in California increased by five percent, and in Georgia, Ohio and Mississippi, they increased by seven percent. Similar data for Republican voters from 2000 and 2008 primaries (there was no 2004 primary for Republicans because Bush was the incumbent) show a smaller but consistent erosion of one, two or three percentage points among the under-30 voters.

The rumblings of public discontent with the Republican Party reached into the Cal Republicans group, too. "We have differences of opinion on the candidates and their positions," said BCR treasurer Ann Marie Jelacich. "We actually have had discussions about Palin and whether she was the right pick for vice presidential candidate." While she seemed less than enthusiastic about the former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Condors chimed in that she considered Palin "amazing."

The general consensus was that Sen. Barack Obama was the strong favorite to win, despite their loyalty to McCain and Palin. "I think Obama played the game better. He appears to be the frontrunner," said Jelacich, noting: "Unfortunately, the country would have to be very backward in order for McCain to score an upset meaning the Bradley effect would be at work. And I would hate for McCain to win that way."

She was referring to the unproven idea that white voters are likely to tell pollsters they support black candidates they would not vote for at the ballot box.

Like Republicans in general, the Berkeley College Republicans oppose big government policies, which they identify with the Democratic Party and Obama.
Kimberly Wagner, BCR vice president for external affairs, cited Obama's widely quoted comment to an Ohio plumber about "spreading the wealth."

"His redistribution of wealth comment was one indicator," she said. "A lot of students come here to Cal to get degrees and become professionals, and that kind of policy will discourage upward mobility."

When asked if big government was a hallmark of the current Bush Administration, especially after the $700 billion banking bailout, Wagner said that the bailout was an example of "trickle down economics." But she blamed the economic crisis, not on Wall Street, but more on Main Street.

"The people responsible for the economic crisis are those who would benefit under an Obama administration," Wagner said. "They are the ones who got subprime loans."

Still, in the midst of undeniable and seemingly unstoppable demographic and electoral shifts, the Cal Republicans are resolute and a bit philosophical about their role and the future of their party. "If Obama wins, we need four years of party-building. The nation needs a new vision," said Condos. "We need to revive the party with new leaders. "I think youth think that we're a party of the past. But we're not."

As for election night, well, the Cal Republicans held their celebration at a Christian fraternity house, where their president is a member. Public partying was not an appealing option, said Jelacich. "We will watch the returns," she said, "but I don't want to be somewhere in public where people can watch me cry if we lose."

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