Ever since the first presidential candidates announced their runs earlier this year, a slow but steady buzz has been building at Elon University around the direction the country could take, depending on who wins the White House.
As debate season swings into high-gear, a storm of media coverage has propelled campus conversation, with groups of liberals and conservatives divided down party lines opponents each call radical.
Increased interest around election year
Many students attribute the increasing number of active political voices at Elon to the upcoming presidential elections.
“I feel like the political attitudes at Elon are more energized in election times,” said senior Maggie Bailey. “There’s a lot more activity with getting people registered to vote and more opportunity for students to engage in political discourse.”
The uptake is obvious through numbers.
Elon College Democrats saw an increase in active members from about 10 to more than 40 from the 2014-2015 school year to the fall 2015 semester, according to treasurer Sophia Kane.
Interest in Elon College Republicans also increased, though not as dramatically. According to Vice President Georgios Tarasidis, the number of active members has “steadily increased” in recent years, growing from about 20 to more than 30 active members in one academic year.
Support for Sanders builds
Elon students’ interest showed Sunday evening when they piled into cars and caravanned to Greensboro for a rally in support of presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Kane said more than 40 Elon students went with Elon College Democrats, a number that doesn’t include students who went on their own.
“To see that more than 40 people signed up to drive to Greensboro on a Sunday night shows a lot,” she said. “We had about five people who went to Hillary Clinton in Charlotte [in 2014].”
Young peoples’ admiration of Sanders and his attention to their needs isn’t confined to North Carolina.
During the rally, Sanders called his candidacy a “political revolution,” specifically for its ability to capture the attention and votes of a group some say has lost interest in the political system because of dysfunction: millennials and other young people.
“Sanders sends a clear message that people, especially youth, want to back up,” Kane said.
One of Sanders’ major messages resonates with college students who wonder what lies beyond graduation.
The senator said that, for college graduates, job prospects have improved from 2008 lows, but there’s still a long way to go.
“If you are a college graduate, you are desperately trying to find a job commensurate with your education,” Sanders said. “And that is often very hard to do.”
The disparity can be especially clear when it comes to the cost of college.
Jax Preyer, a high school senior from Chapel Hill who attended the speech, recently applied to Elon to potentially join next year’s freshman class. She called the cost of college in the United States “completely absurd.”
Elon’s total cost of attendance this academic year comes to $46,670, an increase of 3 percent from the year prior and a 27-year low in terms of percentage increase.
“We’ve kind of been conditioned to feel like it’s normal, but, really, we’ve been duped,” said Preyer, 17, of the cost of college.
Preyer said Sanders’ policy line to her is not radical, though she admitted she saw how others could see the self-described socialist in a different light. The senator reinforced his claim that few of his ideas haven’t already been done in another country, despite attacks from Republicans who call his agenda radical to the point of ridiculous.
Ideology aside, some say just voting is important — no matter the candidate. Elon, like many college campuses, can at times be apathetic when it comes to elections, said junior June Shuler, a representative of Elon Votes, an organization dedicated to civic engagement.
“Voting — no matter the party line — matters,” Shuler said.
Tarasidis said that many students in Elon College Republicans align themselves with Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, with others also supporting John Kasich and Donald Trump, who has received more support than expected.
Kane isn’t surprised by the rise of oddball candidates such as Trump and Sanders, though. She said the uncharacteristic backgrounds and ideals of current front-runners grab people’s attention.
The larger pool of candidates for voters to choose from draws interest from a wider range of people.
“It’s an exciting time because no matter what your views are, you have an array of candidates who any student can relate to,” Kane said. “That’s creating more of a discussion on campus.”
While political discussions on campus are prominent right now as the country is at the peak of watching for the next presidential nominees, in non-election years, discussions dip with the lack of attention.
“Elon’s political climate is similar to the country in that the political climate increases around election year,” Bailey said. “I think Elon does a good job of trying to engage students in politics and trying to keep discussions open with panels on current events.”