Rob Ullman

Sarah Buckley, a third-year student and president of the University Democrats, thinks nothing of putting in 20 unpaid hours per week during a political campaign. During winter break, she and other like-minded students pulled 16-hour days during a campaign trip to New Hampshire for the first primary of the season. They put up signs and answered phones at the Democratic headquarters alongside other volunteers, including Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David.

While the brushes with celebrity that national events bring are fun, these loyal crusaders don’t leave the state and local candidates behind: Student Democrats can be found gathering signatures and knocking on doors for Charlottesville city council candidates and gubernatorial races as well.

College students have historically been dismissed as unreliable by pundits and political advisers. At the polls, their numbers tend to be disappointingly low. But these students are clearly not the fickle supporters that political strategists have assumed.

UVA politics professor Larry Sabato has remarked that, in his four decades of teaching, he’s rarely seen this level of political engagement among students. Experts on voting trends say it’s because of hot-button issues like the war in Iraq and the economy, the open field of candidates in both parties, and successful get-out-the-vote efforts among students.

That drive to get out the vote takes many forms. Rallies held through Facebook and MySpace and text-messaging tactics supplement the more traditional forms of campaigning like phone calls and literature drops.

Students like Buckley, who began campaigning in high school and hopes to work on Capitol Hill someday, know the potential of online networking tools like Facebook. During a recent UDems meeting, she urged students to hit the Facebook site “at home—or in class,” to much laughter. “Facebook is a great networking tool because it allows us to communicate with our members and increases our visibility,” she explains.

On the other side of the political divide, the College Republicans have their own game plan. Says its chairman, Rob Martin (Col ’08): “We want to focus on increasing our influence on campus until the national election really heats up in the fall.” The club has been able to draw ever bigger names to campus to speak, such as political pundit Bay Buchanan (sister of former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan). Plans are in the works for a field day and presidential debate between the College Republicans and University Democrats. Martin hopes that the emphasis on speakers, social activities and diversity of opinion will help the group grow.

According to UVA’s Office of Institutional Research, 28 percent of UVA students describe themselves as conservative; 35 percent as liberal; and 37 percent as “middle of the road,” leaving a fair amount of undecided voters to cajole. By Martin’s account, College Republicans are more diverse than ever, split equally between men and women, with a broad range of viewpoints. He hopes it’s a place where moderates, libertarians and independents can feel comfortable.

While the College Republicans have more than 100 dues-paying members, their meetings have the intimate feel of a small group of like-minded friends in a liberal-leaning university environment. Martin jokes that he is often the “token conservative” in class and at parties. At meetings, the group stands out from the usual college crowd with suits and ties in addition to the more typical college uniform of sweatshirts and tees.

Liberal or conservative, the clubs are about equal when it comes to that crucial constituent: the dues-paying member.

“Finding Democrats and getting the message out isn’t as much of an issue as keeping people active once they’ve joined,” says Buckley. Gesturing around to what looks like a relatively full auditorium, she says, “Weeks like this, when there are mid-terms, maybe only 60 people will come out. At the beginning of the semester, we had over 300.”

Students’ reasons for joining these political organizations run the gamut from professional to social. As such, their gatherings oscillate between levity and purpose. Amidst good-natured jokes about the upcoming presidential debate with the University Democrats, a recent College Republicans’ meeting is devoted to discussion about amending the group’s constitution, plus officer nominations. Martin officiates so smoothly that he could pass for a young executive, then jokingly adds, “I’m impressed—you all have been running for office for 20 minutes and no one has bashed anyone over the head.”

Across the Lawn, UDem research coordinator John Gregory (Col ’10) gears up for a segment called “Did You Know?” featuring Bush’s meeting with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and the most recent Democratic political sex scandals. The segment is meant to keep students abreast of what is happening in a lighthearted way. Gregory concludes the segment by encouraging everyone to “feel the love—in a nonadulterous way.”