Tipping the Ballots

by Samantha Cooper | 2/18/16 7:44pm

As the multitude of posters, signs and passionate political debates between students in the library suggest, Dartmouth’s campus was overtaken by excitement during last week’s presidential primary.

While it would be hard for anyone to have missed the many canvassing students or campus emails encouraging students to vote, some students might have failed to notice one of Dartmouth’s most important contribution to election fervor: the talks given by visiting politicians.

By attending a school located in New Hampshire, we as students have a unique opportunity to see up close and personal the many politicians that come to Hanover in hopes of swaying the results of the first-in-the-nation primary. In the past couple of terms alone, Dartmouth has hosted Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Rand Paul.

Though I have personally witnessed the long lines filled with eager students, I was interested in finding out how much of an influence these speeches actually have on students’ voting behavior. Are these talks changing skeptical students’ minds as much as the politicians likely hope they do?

Though it seems doubtful that, say, a diehard Republican would decide to vote for Sanders after a particularly rousing speech, these talks may have subtle yet profound effects on how students vote and, even more importantly, how willingly and knowledgeably they engage in political affairs.

Before discussing the actual impact that talks given by political figures have on voting choices, it is important to look at the reasons why students bother to attend the speeches in the first place. After all, attending a speech can easily take up an entire evening and inevitably cuts a significant block of time out of a busy Dartmouth student’s day.

Furthermore, I wondered, is there a specific demographic that these talks attract? Are politically minded students more likely to populate these events, or do less informed students choose to attend to gain a basic understanding of each candidate’s policies?

Sarah Atac ’18 came to Dartmouth with only a vague interest in politics, she said, but these experiences of hearing politicians speak in Hanover led to her eventual summer job working on the Clinton campaign.

She noted that Hanover’s political involvement didn’t influence her decision to attend Dartmouth, but the opportunity to see presidential candidates in person seemed too good to forgo.

“I didn’t choose Dartmouth because it was in a [first-in-the-nation] primary voting state, but I decided I wanted to become more politically aware and educated once I turned 18,” Atac said. “It seemed wasteful not to take advantage of an easy way to come into contact with your future president.”

Her comments hint at one of the main reasons students might go to these speeches. Many of us reach voting age with little idea of what we want out of a president, and attending talks is a relatively exciting, and easy, way to broaden one’s political knowledge.

However, students who have previous experience with political matters may have a different reason for attending these lectures. While it was common for the less politically knowledgeable students with whom I spoke to simply attend as many politicians’ speeches that fit in with their schedule, some students only attend talks of politicians that they’re considering voting for.

Aaron Cheese ’18 , director of outreach for the Dartmouth College Democrats, shared a different kind of motivation for going to hear candidates speak. He noted that he had little interest in hearing Republican candidates talk, since he already knew that he would not be voting for them.

“I didn’t want to see any Republican candidates, because it seemed like a very long line for something that wouldn’t benefit or affect my decision too much,” Cheese said.

Cheese said he considers the purpose of these speeches to be more about energizing attendees than informing them.

“I see the value of these politicians coming to speak in their ability to raise excitement among their constituents, which is still very important,” Cheese said.

Ultimately, if one already has a clear idea of whom they’re voting for, hearing a preferred candidates speech might serve a purely affirmative purpose. For students who come into the talks with more malleable political views, however, they may come to some surprising realizations.

Atac echoed this sentiment, explaining how viewing some candidates’ personal mannerisms changed her perspective on them.

“On the one hand, I though Chris Christie was overly aggressive, it was a turn off to me. But I was very pleasantly surprised by Jeb Bush,” Atac said. “I don’t necessarily agree with his politics but he was a less bombastic speaker, and I came to a deeper appreciation for his method of communicating.”

Students also may leave these speeches surprised by a greater faith in the integrity of candidates from various political parties. Although politicians can sometimes have a reputation for being dishonest or unscrupulous, seeing them speak in person can make them seem more genuine.

Garrison Roe ’18 , who works with Dartmouth for Hillary, stated that although his general opinion of each candidate’s policies didn’t change after hearing them speak, he left the talks with a greater appreciation for each politician’s sincerity.

“Politicians get the rap of being very self-interested, but I genuinely thought they believed in what they were saying and trying to help, and I think this was generally true for all parties,” Roe said. “It was very humanizing.”

No matter what realizations students come to after attending one of these speeches, all of the students I interviewed agreed that the talks didn’t have a definitive impact on who they voted for in the primaries.

Ashley House ’18 said that although the talks did not affect who she ended up supporting, she did come to feel more comfortable with the possibility of some other candidates eventually claiming the presidency.

“I knew how I was going to vote going into it, and I’m a strong supporter that you should vote base on policy versus personality, but after hearing a variety of candidates speaks, I realized I would respect any as president,” House said.

Atac stated that she thought attending such talks could prove decisive for students who were caught between two candidates with similar platforms.

“I think switching parties won’t really happen, but between two candidates with similar policies [the talks] can be a deciding factor,” Atac said.

Ultimately, everyone I interviewed agreed that, regardless of the effect these visiting politicians had on the name students checked off on their ballots, there is indisputable value in seeing the next potential president in the flesh.