Local Politics: A view of the ’08 election from BRCC

Story by Riley Murray
blueridgedata.blogspot.com

In the swing state of Virginia, the deadline of Oct. 6 for voter registration is fast approaching. Across Virginia, voter registration efforts are breaking records. With the race for the White House entering its last full month, the focus is on the Shenandoah Valley region. This rural region, in the western part of the state, has been a traditional Republican stronghold. The Sixth Congressional District covers the bulk of this region. In 2002, Bush beat Gore 58.4 percent to 38.6 percent, and in 2004 Bush won again, 63.1 percent to 35.8 percent over Kerry, in the Sixth District.

What a difference four years make! On Sept. 15th, a Survey USA poll showed that Obama leading McCain statewide, 50 percent to 46 percent.

By region, Obama leads McCain:

Northeast (DC suburbs) 51 percent to 43 percent

Southeast 56 percent to 40 percent

Central 50 percent to 46 percent

Which brings us to the Shenandoah region, where McCain has an advantage. He leads 53 percent to 44 percent, but with a notably smaller Republican advantage compared to 2000 or 2004. The fundamental challenge: Can Team Obama move the needle enough in the Shenandoah, to take advantage of statistical leads in other parts of the state?

In an early strategic move, intended to shift the historic patterns in this rural region, the Obama national campaign staff, based locally, has been aggressively working on voter registration, since July 4th. Voter registration activities have been very effective in this region.

Here in Augusta County, the heart of the Shenadoah Valley, through the end August voter rolls have increased 4 percent.

From article in the Staunton News Leader (9/25):

Staunton Voter Registrar, Amanda DiMeo, says she is “swamped”… “More and more young people are getting interested in the whole political process.” Across the county in Waynesboro, registrar Mary Alice Downs observes, “I’m seeing lots of voters who are saying they have never registered to vote before, both young and elderly.” Augusta County Registrar Brandi Lilly states, ” Everyone is showing their right to vote. It’s a lot of people that want their opinion to count for this election, so of course they’re coming in with candidates on their mind and they’re excited about who they’re voting for and casting their ballot.”

  

It’s All About Youth

Like all areas of the nation, the turnout of young voters, who strongly favor Obama, may be a key to victory in Virginia. At a voter-registration event last Thursday, I tried to gauge the level of interest and success in registering young voters in the Shenandoah region. This was the second day of a voter-registration effort, at Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave. At BRCC, 80 percent of the 4,000 students are from the local communities, including Augusta, Rockingham and Highland counties, plus the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro. The average age of student body is about 23 years old, representing a mix of recent high-school graduates, and older, “non-traditional” students, attending college to develop new career skills. The students attending here also call this area “home.” Out-of-town residency issues are not a concern here.

In the Houff Student Center lobby, just outside a busy cafeteria, representatives of the Student Government Association were conducting a voter-registration event. As students wander by, Darryl ” Bear” Willis shouts out to friends and classmates, trying to engage them in the registration process. I talked with several of these students, about the registration process and the progress they had achieved.

They had registered 35 new voters on Wednesday (9/24), by mid-day Thursday (9/25); they had snagged another 12 voters. Not big numbers – but they were delighted with student interest. They said many students were asking about absentee ballots. Their general consensus was that most students had already registered to vote. Also, students were very aware that they can get voter-registration applications online.

Kaneil Zadrozny explained that the effort to increase student voter turnout is process-oriented; this is only the first phase, to get students registered by Oct. 6. More candidate-focused activities will be organized, and offered to students in October. Debra Fitzgerald, faculty advisor and economics instructor, said that there was much stronger interest this year, compared to the midterm election, in 2006.

The registration table workers all agreed that most students have made their decision, and there was only a small number of “undecided,” which are typically political “moderates”. They felt that these are people, “who need more information”, likely waiting on the debates, to help finalize their decisions. Only one student working the registration table, Maribel Castanede, was actively working for a candidate (Obama).

Few registration problems have been encountered. A small number of students attempting to register didn’t know their Social Security Number, or had no photo ID, or simply were not 18 years old yet.

 

Issues for Young Voters

On the issues, these student-government reps had strong opinions that will inform their decision between Obama and McCain. Carrie Roberts, a childhood development major, listed: gas prices, the war in Iraq and health insurance as her top three issues. For Tom Coleman (mechanical design technology), it’s Social Security, the economy and alternative energy policy.

Kaneil Zadrozny (urban planning), an older, “non-traditional” student, with work experience, agreed on the economy issues; but placed emphasis on health care, specifically affordability, and more accountability for insurance companies, based on her unpleasant experience working in a medical office. She also listed: environmental policy, stem-cell research, and the need for programs that those in the middle class and people trying to reach the middle class.

Faculty member Fitzgerald reinforced her concerns about the economy, and timely resolution of war in Iraq. She felt we need to get out as quickly and safely, as possible, and refocus our military on terrorists still based in Afghanistan.

Michelle Chase (business management) ticked off the economy (inflation, wages), and more pointedly Immigration policy as her top issues. She felt that the federal government was doing a “good job,” but need to work more effectively at managing the balance of allowing new immigrants, against the unfavorable impacts that unchecked growth in immigration. She was concerned about the impacts of providing additional public services and the additional competition for jobs.

 

Perceptions of Negative Campaigning

On the subject of negative campaign ads and dirty-tricks politics, Chase was very unhappy with all the negative TV advertising. There was general agreement that these negatives ads work for some people. Chase suggested the national campaigns are targeting the “working class,” people who have time to watch prime time TV, and voters that already have a general negative attitude towards other people.

Only a few students have had any direct contact with smears tactics. Zadrozny had received a smear e-mail about Obama, stating he was not a Christian. Another off-the-wall e-mail suggested that, people should “… leave your car lights on for during day, if you support McCain; but turn your lights off at night, if you support Obama.”

There have been no heated political arguments observed on campus. A few had seen some campaign sign vandalism, off-campus. Not a big concerns for this group.

 

One Month To Go …

Kaneil Zadrozny summed up the sense of this enthusiastic group student politicos: “I am looking forward to debates. We’ll continue to encourage students to be involved.”





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