By Henry Burbank and Sam Colt
At a school known for its left-leaning students, the Kenyon College Republicans have taken to hiding in plain sight. Their weekly meetings are held in a small private dining room in Lower Dempsey. You wouldnt know what the meeting was unless you heard what they were talking about.
Republicans on campus, only about a dozen of whom are official members of the group, often feel uncomfortable expressing their views in public, for fear of being persecuted by their peers, according to Myra Eckenhoff 13, Co-President of the Kenyon Republicans. So they meet in private. If we speak up, normally, we have to defend ourselves immediately, Eckenhoff said.
By contrast, the Kenyon Democrats have had a regular presence in Borden Atrium in Peirce all semester, reserving a table on an almost daily basis. Sarah Marnell 13, the groups president, has headed the groups efforts to get students registered to vote. For the Democrats, this means helping over 800 students register and running bipartisan early voting shuttles to and from Mount Vernon over the past few weeks. Once you get someone registered, the chance that theyll vote will skyrocket, Marnell said.
Though the Kenyon Democrats and Republicans have opposing views on many issues, Marnell appreciates the open she sees discourse on campus. Were both working for what we think is right, equally, she said. I think its so amazing that they are so outspoken about their beliefs when there are so many people that automatically dismiss them. Its really respectable.
Likewise, the organizations often work together. Theyre going to help us on Election Day getting students to the [polling place] so we help each other, Marnell said. We both want people to vote, we both want people to think hard about their decisions. Different causes, same starting point.
Still, hundreds of students may not be registered, and Marnell said apathy has been a big problem for the Democrats this year. Theyve been approached by students who say they are not voting because the system is flawed. Not voting wont change anything, Marnell tells them. You have to vote to change something; you have to be in the system to change the system. Its frustrating because apathy changes absolutely nothing.
Andrew Gabel 15, who serves as a liaison between Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romneys campaign and the College Republicans, agreed. Its sort of convenient, especially with how polarized things are, to buy into the false dichotomy between two parties that are monoliths, he said. By Gabels characterization, Kenyon Republicans care most about economic issues. This is ironic, he explains, because Kenyon Republicans often come under attack for the GOPs social platform, not its fiscal agenda.
Normally Kenyon Republicans members come to meetings to vent. But things work a little differently in an election year. Every Saturday since we got back weve organized door-to-door, Gabel said. At the beginning, we were identifying independent voters. Since voting has begun, weve really shifted towards getting out the vote. [George W. Bushs] campaign did an incredible job of getting out the base, and that ultimately made the difference. I think Mitt Romney has embraced that philosophy.
For months, the Kenyon Republicans went door-to-door trying to sway undecided voters. But the strategy in recent weeks has been to encourage Republican supporters to hit the polls on Election Day.
I think that because so much of the electorate is hardened only five or six percent of the electorate is undecided now the belief is that those people are usually late-breakers; theyre going to make their decision right at the end no matter what happens, so better to focus energy on making sure the people who have their position hardened get to the polls, Gabel said.
The Kenyon Democrats have also relied on labor-intensive projects to get out the vote. Theyve been phone banking calling registered voters and talking to them about the candidates and canvassing to get their message across.
On Oct. 28, a particularly cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, Kenyon Democrat Liam Leonard-Sols 16 walked the roads of Knox County to do just that. My father was an immigrant, he said. He immigrated here when he was 17 years old. I just feel like under Barack Obamas administration, more respect will be had towards those who come to this country seeking work, seeking a better life.
Despite being nervous about canvassing, Leonard-Sols explained, after a while it starts becoming fun. Its definitely the most effective way of getting the message out there to the undecided voters and the independents.
Marnell agrees there are great benefits to canvassing. Its very easy to get caught up on the Hill and its a really unique opportunity to see the community, she said.
The Kenyon Republicans also try to canvass parts of Knox County every weekend. But, things dont always work out. On Family Weekend, Gabel tried to get some members together, only for all of them to pull out at the last minute.
Gabel had better luck last Saturday. Four Republicans joined him for an afternoon of cold knocking.
Pulling up in a Toyota sedan, a petite blonde woman named Ali Keane joined the Kenyon Republicans standing outside the Bookstore. She works for the College Republican National Committee, a national organization for students who support the Republican Party.
Keane spoke like a veteran organizer, using common campaign jargon like books and knocking to explain the days plans to the Kenyon Republicans. A book is the packet of information volunteers use to determine which houses they should go to. Organizers often talk about books in the plural; even a village the size of Gambier must be broken down block by block to maximize voter turnout. Knocking refers to the process of going door-to-door. Volunteers look at their books, find the right houses and use a short script to gather information.
Canvassing can be both arduous and entertaining on the same day. Keane and Gabel began going door-to-door in a middle-income area of Mount Vernon, a few miles from the town square. Keane and Gabels books had over 70 addresses in them. Gabel knocked his first door, but to no avail. He put two flyers under the door and left.
Gabel did better at the next house. A tall woman in a baby blue bathrobe cracked the door open and leaned outside. Gabel began his script. Hi, Im a member of the Kenyon College Republicans and Im wondering if youve decided who youre voting for, he said. Im voting for Romney, the woman replied. Gabel, validated by her answer, handed her the flyers anyway. Seventy-one doors to go.
The next house was around the corner. After glancing at the turn-by-turn directions also in the book Gabel walked by a small home in poor shape. Twenty yards down the road he eyed two people leaning over a car. Were not home, a large man in a black pea coat and jeans shouted at him. Gabel asked him who hes voting for anyway. Not telling you, the man abruptly shouted back.
This was marked in the book as a refusal to answer for safety reasons. As Keane and Gabel marked progress on their books, Keane explained that safety is most important to her. Often, canvassers must trust their intuition. On this day, that meant houses with dogs, as well as houses with trash or debris blocking the front door, would be marked as refusals.
By 4:00 p.m., the books were finally finished. Gabel called the other canvassers to see how they were doing. The next order of business was to encourage students to canvass on Nov. 3, the Kenyon Republicans final opportunity to get our the vote before Election Day. Okay, see you at Chipotle, Gabel said before hanging up the phone.
After weekends filled with canvassing and phone banking, its hard for both sides to believe campaigning will end in less than a week. Marnell said not to worry, though. In the four years that Ive been here, we never lacked for something to do.