White, Perry take different approaches on college campuses

 Corrie MacLaggan


10:57 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010 

"Get involved! Sign up to support Bill White!"

University of Texas senior Jeremy Yager, using the performance voice he honed in high school theater class, is trying to get his classmates' attention during lunch on the West Mall.

A few weeks later, in the same part of campus, UT students Charity McDonald and Kasey Golden stand at a Young Conservatives of Texas table holding posters that say "Texans for Perry" and "Texas succeeds."


Rodolfo Gonzalez

UT freshman Huey Fischer, a member of University Democrats, tries to encourage pedestrians near the University Co-op on Guadalupe Street to register to vote during a 'Hook the Vote' registration drive on Saturday. Bill White supporters at UT are planning a rally for Oct. 19.

To combat the tradition of voter apathy on college campuses, students supporting the campaigns of GOP Gov. Rick Perry and Democratic challenger Bill White are actively reaching out to classmates, and they're recruiting fellow students to make campaign phone calls and knock on doors. But behind the scenes, the White and Perry campaigns are taking different approaches.

The White campaign has set up a statewide network of more than 40 campus chapters of student-run Bill White groups. Perry campaign officials, rather than starting college organizations of their own, have tapped into established groups such as Young Conservatives of Texas and College Republicans, as well as anti-abortion organizations.

During the 2006 state governor's race, just 17 percent of eligible 18-to-29-year-olds voted, compared with 45 percent of those 30 and older, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement.


Rodolfo Gonzalez

Young Conservatives of Texas' Nick Carona, left, Charity McDonald and Andrew Kelling speak with Emily Stieben and hand out literature about Gov. Rick Perry on UT's West Mall on Wednesday. The group plans to tout Perry and other GOP candidates at football tailgating events.

Engaging college students "is tricky, because they tend not to care whatsoever," said Tyler Norris, a UT senior and chairman of the school's chapter of Young Conservatives of Texas.

So Norris' primary goal when he sets up a Young Conservatives table at least once a week on the West Mall is to find volunteers — not voters. On weekends, his volunteers block-walk for local state House candidates, and spread Perry's message, too; they're planning to tout Perry and other candidates at tailgating events at home football games.

On Wednesday at the Young Conservatives table, students could pick up Perry stickers, sign up to be a Perry volunteer, pick up information about paid internships with Perry or get a free copy of the U.S. Constitution.

David White, political director of the Perry campaign, said it makes sense to work through groups like Young Conservatives.

"You just can't install that kind of networking overnight," he said. "It's a better use of our resources."

Statewide, Perry's outreach to students centers around the same grass-roots program the campaign is using for other voters. Known as Perry Home Headquarters, it involves participants committing to vote early and finding 11 pro-Perry friends to vote early, too.

"It's pretty simple," the Perry campaign's Central Texas field director, Jonathon McClellan, said at a recent meeting of the UT chapter of Young Conservatives of Texas. "If you guys each don't know 11 Republicans, then you're in the wrong club."

Perry-friendly campus clubs across the state are competing to gather the most Perry Home Headquarters members by Oct. 15; the winning club gets a visit from the governor before the election.

The White campaign is also gathering pledges from students.

At the Bill White table last month, Yager and other students asked passers-by to fill out a card saying they'll support the Democrat. Student leaders use the contact information they gather to recruit White volunteers and remind students to vote for him, via text messages and calls.

Meanwhile, Longhorns for Bill White is teaming up with University Democrats for Thursday-night phone banking on campus. Yager estimates that UT students earning free pizza have made thousands of calls for Bill White in the past few weeks.

And the Democrat's supporters at UT are gearing up for a Bill White rally on the West Mall on Oct. 19.

Across the state, students supporting Bill White are working on battle plans that include "dorm storming," the campus version of block walking.

White's daughter, Elena, 21, who is taking time off from Rice University to work for her father's campaign, has been crisscrossing the state, speaking to students about her father.

In the presidential race two years ago, when Republican John McCain carried the state, Texas voters ages 18 to 29 joined young people nationwide in supporting Democrat Barack Obama, according to CNN exit polls.

White's team hopes to tap into students who got their first taste of politics in 2008.

"It's very important to make sure that the students that were first-time voters will still be there for us in 2010," said Rich Ramirez, a Brown University student from New Braunfels who took last semester off to serve as statewide director of Students for Bill White.

Meanwhile, Perry — who won the 18-29 age group in 2006, according to CNN exit polls — is looking to capitalize on national frustration with the Obama administration.

"This season, it's 2010; it's not 2008," said David White of the Perry campaign. "People are fed up, in terms of all ages. They're not happy with the way things are going."