ST. MARY'S CITY, Md. (Dec. 13, 2007) - Five students from St. Mary's College of Maryland (SMCM) got a firsthand look at the presidential field after attending New Hampshire's College Convention 2008. The trip was arranged by the college's Center for the Study of Democracy, and the students later shared their insights with fellow students at a Dec. 6 open forum on campus.
"Immigration is the new wedge issue," said Sam Birnbaum, a junior from Sharpsburg, Maryland, who spoke at the forum. "There was a lot of anger about this issue on both sides." Birnbaum was one of the five that attended the convention from Nov. 28 through Dec. 1 in New Hampshire, the traditional location for the first national primary elections.
Birnbaum was impressed. "Seeing firsthand the charisma and star power you need to be up there." Birnbaum is majoring in political science and Chinese.
An issue the students wanted to hear more about was foreign policy. Elizabeth LeBlanc, a senior from Lynnfield, Maryland, with majors in political science and Asian studies, said that she didn't hear anything groundbreaking, and the candidates glossed over concrete details. Birnbaum added, "They didn't handle it in a nuanced way, they threw out platitudes that sounded good."
Molly McKee, a sophomore from Hyattsville, Maryland said, "At the convention, people have the unique opportunity to see the candidates and talk to them personally." The group of students all remarked that Biden stayed for hours after the formal program to talk to everyone. McKee is pursing majors in political science, sociology and anthropology.
Jacqueline Caminiti, a junior from Ijamsville, Maryland, called Biden "genuine and straightforward." Caminiti is majoring in psychology with a political science minor.
The SMCM students interacted with presidential candidates and rubbed shoulders with media representatives covering the conferences. Todd Eberly, assistant professor of political science and faculty adviser for the trip, reported that the students got a "firsthand look at the workings of democracy." The students won the trip after entering an essay contest sponsored by the political science department and the Center for the Study of Democracy. Of the winning students, two are Republicans, two are Democrats and one is an Independent.
The students reported that some of the myths surrounding the presidential candidates were dispelled when they got to look at them up close and personal. They found out about "the grinding reality of the length of time a presidential campaign takes," said Michael Cain, the director of the Center and assistant professor of political science at SMCM.
Cain said, "The glare of the spotlight and the cameras on the candidates caused emotional reactions in the students. They realized that it takes a special kind of person to be able to campaign. They got a chance to directly experience the difficulty of campaigning. Despite that, when asked if they would be interested in running for president, four out of five answered yes."
The students also reported that many of the attendees were disappointed that the frontrunners—Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney—didn't attend.
"The campaigns were notably marketed at certain age groups," said Birnbaum. He thought that since politicians know that many young people don't vote, a lot of them focused their attentions on the demographically older crowd. "This perpetuates a vicious cycle in politics," he said.
The students also said that issues such as health care and Latin American relations weren't properly addressed. Austin Lyman, a sophomore, from Birmingham, Alabama, said, "The opportunity to listen to political and social leaders discuss their broad spectrum of perceptions on important political issues permitted me to become a better informed voter, not just on the issues but on the candidates as well." Lyman is majoring in pre-dental and Latin American studies.
College Convention is a recent addition to the primary election process and is timed to coincide with New Hampshire's presidential primaries. College and high school students from across the country are brought together to interact with presidential candidates, media personalities, issue experts and activists. The delegates gather at the Radisson Center of New Hampshire to hear from and ask questions to the presidential candidates. Independent and third-party candidates also take part in sessions dealing with important agendas alongside elected officials and renowned experts.
New Hampshire is the first of a number of statewide political party primary elections. It is an initial process for the Democratic and Republican parties to choose their candidate for the presidential elections. Originally held in March, its date has been repeatedly moved back to maintain New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation status. The New Hampshire 2008 primary will be held on January 8. Super Tuesday, the day when many of the other states hold their primary elections, will fall on February 5.