Sen. Barack Obama packed an audience of 15,000 into Buchanan Park, adjacent to F&Ms campus, on Sept. 4. Five days later, Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin overflowed the Alumni Sports and Fitness Center with more than 7,000, including 900 F&M students, faculty and staff.
It was Obamas third trip to Lancaster County this year. In August, McCain visited nearby Manheim Central High School in an event that was closed to the public.
The candidates returned to Lancaster just days after their parties national conventions and only eight weeks before Election Day, as they vie for Pennsylvanias 21 electoral votes. From the end of the Civil War until the New Deal, Pennsylvania voted Republican in election after election. But the Republicans havent taken Pennsylvania in a presidential election since 1988.
Still, many experts say Obama cant win the White House without winning Pennsylvania. In Lancaster Countyone of the most reliably Republican counties in the nationroughly two-thirds of voters chose President George W. Bush over Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
The September 2008 Franklin & Marshall College Poll shows McCain leading Obama 45 percent to 43 percent nationwide. McCain has an advantage among men, those over 55 years of age, non-Hispanic whites, fundamentalist Christians, Southerners and military veterans. Obama leads among women, those under 35, non-Hispanic blacks, and residents of the Northeast.
Were fortunate to be giving our students unparalleled access to the candidates, College President John Fry said. Its an important time, and Franklin & Marshall students are eager to hear and learn about the candidates and the issues. What better place to stage these kinds of events than a college campus?
A number of students attending the events seemed to have already made up their minds about the candidates. But they agreed that hearing the candidates speak contributed to the ongoing political dialogue on campus and will help voters make more informed choices.
Eliza Hannon 10, of Westerly, R.I., plans to vote for Obama and came to hear him speak. But she also attended the McCain event. Its important to hear what both candidates have to say, she believes. One of them will be the president, and we need to know what they stand for.
Anthony Palmieri 10, of Allentown, Pa., agreed that its important to be informed. He said the campus is abuzz with political conversation and debate in classrooms and College Houses. I prefer the conversations were having outside class, he said. Its more informal. Palmieri plans to vote for McCain.
Such a small school getting access to both candidates this late in the race: Its impressive, said Dennis Gunderson 09, of Duxbury, Mass. He reports that his government professors are telling students to get out of class and go listen.
Gunderson, who volunteered at the McCain rally, is with F&M College Republicans. He hopes to arrange a forum with F&M College Democrats to debate campaign issues and keep this discussion going.
Students are also engaging by registering to vote, thanks in no small part to the F&M Votes Coalition, a program of the F&M Center for Liberal Arts and Society. Established in 2004, the F&M Votes Coalition organizes non-partisan voter education, registration and get out the vote drives, and lectures designed to emphasize the importance of active citizenship. It is a place where the College community can connect liberal education to social and civic engagement. Since its inception, the program has registered more than 2,000 voters, about 400 since the beginning of the fall term.
Response to our voter-registration efforts this semester has ranged from caution to enthusiasm, noted Lisa Stillwell, deputy college librarian and co-chair of F&M Votes. Once we carefully explain the process and the benefits of being registered locally, students appreciate the opportunity to register and take advantage of it.
F&M Votes also held its annual In-Class Voter Registration project, which uses a few minutes of class time to encourage students to register. Thanks to the support of the faculty, F&M Votes representatives visited close to 70 classes and enjoyed its most successful in-class voter registration drive, according to Maria Mitchell, associate professor of history.
Earlier this year, F&M Votes invited Sens. Obama, McCain and Hillary Clinton to campus. Chelsea Clinton made a campaign stop at F&M on her mothers behalf in April.
Van Gosse, associate professor of history and co-chair of F&M Votes, believes candidate visits help students make a more informed decision about which party theyll support on Election Day. It is the real, not virtual, representation we have seen, Gosse pointed out. Students get to experience in a very vivid sense the grass roots of both parties and what they believe in. And from there they can decide, Where am I and which group will I choose?
College Houses are also getting involved. Some of the many election events included the Ware College Houses Presidential Debate Watch Parties and Brooks College Houses Weekly Review of Politics. On Nov. 4, Brooks House also plans an Election Return Night, with food and conversation from 8 p.m. until the election results are announced. These House activities are supported by groups such as F&M Votes, F&M College Democrats and F&M College Republicans.
In 1777, the Continental Congress spent only a day in Lancaster before moving on to York, where it adopted the Articles of Confederation. Likewise, while the candidates time at F&M was brief, the impact may well be as lasting as the next presidential election.